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I was on an internship with professor A at University B in China. We were working on a computer science project. During the internship I implemented professor A's idea and got some results. Three weeks ago I finished a paper draft and left University B for a new internship. Me and professor A were planning to submit the paper draft to a conference (deadline: May 20).

Until yesterday (May 17), the order of authors was: me, professor A, other students & collaborators in the lab... And professor A had no objection with that. However, last night I received an email from him. He said he wants to be the first author... His reason was for intellectual properties and patent issues. My understanding is that because I was merely an intern at University B, if the first author was me, it would cause IP troubles for him?

I feel deceived. But, should I feel like this? I was counting on a first-author paper because I'm planning to apply for a PhD program in the US. One paper may not mean a lot to someone who's published a lot. But for someone who hasn't published yet, it means something.

Looking on the Internet, I found something that might explain professor A's motivations: In China specifically, corresponding authors are often underappreciated by universities and research institues. This might be the case for University B. Given professor A is relatively young, he may want first authorship for promotion.

Summary of my questions:

  1. Should I go discuss with professor A and try to persuade him to let me be the first author?
  2. If I want to apply for a PhD program in the US, would being the first author be more helpful or being the second author is as well helpful?

Edit:

  1. My affiliation for the paper has always been University B. I didn't mention my current university or internship in any sense.
  2. I emailed back to professor A yesterday, saying I think I should be the first author, because I did most of the work; because the idea was originated from him he should be the corresponding author. He replied this morning, saying he agree with what I said. He explained that because I was doing an internship in his lab and not a student of University B, putting me as the first author could cause IP and patent troubles for University B... So this problem is fixed now.
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    This is why you should always talk about author order before starting to write the paper (ideally before doing the research). – StrongBad May 20 '13 at 8:22
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    Surely any IP issues can be solved by making a separate declaration, if necessary? – Max Jul 26 '13 at 12:06
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    @DanielE.Shub But as a student, it is quite difficult to claim to be the 1st author to the mentors... How should we address this before writing and meanwhile be nice? – Sibbs Gambling Aug 28 '13 at 5:10
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    @perfectionm1ng that is a great new question. Ask it and I will try and come up with an answer. – StrongBad Aug 28 '13 at 14:09
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    @DanielE.Shub Before doing research? Sometimes it later turns out that one's contribution was great (or non-existing). – Piotr Migdal Aug 28 '13 at 18:23
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I don't really understand what the motivation here for the professor is. Since you did all of the work for this paper at University B, you should not list your new affiliation (whether it's an internship or another school) as an "active" affiliation for this paper. It can be listed as a "current address," but not as an active address for this paper. In that way, the professor still gets credit for your work, with your affiliation showing as being part of his group. (I suspect that the professor's concern is that, if you are at another institution and list that as your address, he won't get credit for his work.)

Another issue is that if you are not going to present the paper at the conference, he may have felt it was in his interests to list himself as a first author. How appropriate this is I have to leave to the CS community to judge.

In general, however, the first author should be the person who has made the largest contributions to both the research and the writing of the paper. Deviations from this need to have a very good foundation.

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    I saw no mention of University A. – Faheem Mitha May 18 '13 at 20:41
  • @FaheemMitha: That was a slight misreading on my part. But the main point still stands: the new address shouldn't appear in the list of affiliations. – aeismail May 18 '13 at 21:43
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My answer to whether you should feel deceived is yes and no. Strictly speaking, if you have an agreement, it should stand. That is the easy part of the answer. Then comes different traditions and personalities, which makes the territory almost impossible to negotiate.

You could simply send a reply stating you disagree with the reordering. The point of having intellectual property involved is certainly true and merits co-authorship. The problem is of course the weight between your work and the original idea. If you have worked on this on your own without any help or assistance, first authorship seems clear. If you have had help through discussions etc. through the process it becomes less clear.

In the end the matter will be up to you, if you think you will gain much from taking the fight. You can ask to add something in the acknowledgement to make clear who contributed what. Another possibility, if the paper is mostly about your work, is to add yourself as corresponding author (which can be different from first).

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Should I go discuss with professor A and try to persuade him to let me be the first author?

I think so.

At least you would like him to explain to you why he changed his mind. He had no objection with you being the first author in the first place. Then he sent you e-mail saying he wants to be the first author a few days before the submission deadline. There must be some important reason for that.

The intellectual properties and patent issues make some sense to me since you are no longer with University B. They might cause some trouble for Prof. A.

I am not convinced the corresponding authorship in your case makes a difference. First authorship does matter in China if you are also a professor at the same level, say both of you are assistant professors. He could be looked down because you made more contribution than he did. But, you are an intern. He can explain to others that you did all these under his supervision. I think he would actually earn extra credits by helping interns/students to publish papers.

I have the same suspicion as aeismall does. Your active affiliation may be an issue for Prof. A. Which institute will you represent when the paper is presented at the conference? Who will present the paper? I think these questions are his concerns.

Edit

After talking to some researchers knowledgeable about the corresponding authorship in China, I learned more about the issue. Some authors don't want to be the corresponding author because they are busy with other research interests. Some are just shy away because English writing is hard for them. Some are interested in the role because they would be more widely known in his area. In most cases, the first author or the one who makes the most contribution to the paper is the corresponding author. So far, no one is able to explain to me why corresponding authors are underappreciated. It seems to have little to do with your issue.

End of edit

  • @CherryQu I updated my answer about the corresponding author issue. – scaaahu May 20 '13 at 6:59
  • Thanks! My affiliation on the paper has always been University B. See my recent edit to the question. – Zening Qu May 20 '13 at 7:40
  • @CherryQu Glad to know your problem is fixed. – scaaahu May 20 '13 at 8:20
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It is possible the professor is trying to take advantage of you, but it would help to clarify things if you would expand on your answer to include the following.

It is implied that the paper is based on Professor A's idea. What this a full-blown idea, or just the kernel of something. Or, putting it differently, did he just point you in the general direction of something, or was this a relatively finished idea that just needed to be worked out in detail? Was this an idea you expanded on, or significantly improved? Did he provide significant intellectual input while the project was ongoing, or did he leave you to your own devices?

Also, you talked about implementation. Does this mean code, or something else? Did Professor A participate in the implementation in any way? If not, did he look at the implementation?

What about the paper itself? Did he participate in a substantial way in the writing of it?

If the answer is that you did most or all of the work, and did much of the working out of the idea, then it sounds like you should be first author. If he contributed substantially, it is less clear.

However, the paradigm in general is that the junior person gets the first authorship, because they need it for career reasons. Most people are willing to abide by this. I know someone whose PhD adviser put himself as first author on his (the students) papers, and the person in question regrets it now. If you go along with this, you may also regret it.

If you don't work for this person, the question is whether you have to do what he says for some reason. If you are hoping for a good reference, a first authorship on a paper might be worth more than a reference. Does he have any other hold on you? Do you need his further input on the project, or are you hoping to publish further papers with him? Also (perhaps not very important but serves to indicate tone) was the email polite or not? Personally, I think a conversation would have been more appropriate than an email in the circumstances.

For the record, I find the argument about intellectual properties and patent issues less than compelling, but it would also help if you could say more about how these things work in your university.

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