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Assume one or more undergraduate students are given a topic by an academic supervsior to use for their undergraduate honors thesis. The task is designed, programmed and set-up by the supervisor, who shows the students how to use the equipment and to conduct rudimentary data analysis/summaries. The students then collect the data and report them in a written, submitted thesis. Later, the academic supervisor analyses the data (from the summaries obtained), writes a manuscript in conjunction with his/her colleagues, and wishes to submit for publication. My question is: should the undergraduates who collected the data, and who did not contribute to the writing of the manuscript at all, be listed as authors? It seems that this decision is often left to personal preference. Thanks.

  • Are those students mentioned in the paper, say in the introduction section? – scaaahu Apr 5 '12 at 11:42
  • No, they merely collected the data and reported seperate theses. – zorroesque Apr 5 '12 at 14:45
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    Why not cite the senior thesis in the same way one would cite any other work? – Boris Bukh Apr 7 '12 at 14:09
  • I really like @BorisBukh 's suggestion – Artem Kaznatcheev Apr 8 '12 at 0:24
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    @Jase I think it depends on the complexity of the program ... – StrongBad Aug 24 '14 at 10:51
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A few comments:

  1. Were they asked to contribute to the paper or was the paper written without their knowledge? If they refused to contribute, then they shouldn't be a named author. If they weren't asked, then it's not their fault they didn't contribute ;)

  2. I think the word undergraduate is a red herring. Substitute it with the word PhD student or RA or Prof from the lab next door, does this change your view? A person's title shouldn't influence their inclusion.

  3. How much work are we talking about here? When I provide statistical advice, I'm happy to give up a few hours of my time for free. But once I'm spending days on the project, then I expect (and make it clear) to be am named author.

  4. If data collection was "trivial", then I would suggest it shouldn't be used as an undergraduate project. Also, I presume that there was some skill in collecting the data?

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    +1 for all of these, especially that 'undergraduate' is a functionally irrelevant piece of information. – Fomite Apr 9 '12 at 16:13
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Reading your original question, the scenario you describe makes this situation a little more complex.

If the paper is written in such a way as to draw significantly on the work reported in the thesis—to the extent of using figures and data prepared by the student, then one could very well make the argument that the student should be cited as an author. This is especially true if the supervisor uses any of the text in the construction of his paper.

More generally, I try to use the criterion that my postdoc advisor gave me: if someone believes that their contributions to the research are significant enough to merit co-authorship, then they should contribute to the writing and revising of the manuscript. At that point, they become fully entitled to co-authorship.

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If the student (or anybody else for that matter) did not make a novel and significant intellectual contribution to the project, then they should not be included on the author list of the paper. In your question, it seems like all the intellectual contribution was by the professor (and colleagues) and the students just carried out tasks assigned to them or made very minor contributions. As such, the students should be mentioned in the acknowledgement section but not given authorship.

That being said, if your supervisor is only using you for drill work, then maybe you should seek a better supervisor. A good supervisor should encourage their students to take an active role of novel intellectual contribution. If your supervisor is not encouraging you to do this, then they are not training you to be a researcher, they are training you to be a lab-hand (although I guess in some fields you have to be a lab-hand before you are can be trained as a researcher).

Here is the flip side of this question, in particular my answer is inspired by @JeffE's answer.

  • Thanks. That's what I figured (i.e., authors need to make substantive contributions either to the intellectual development of the project or to the writing of the manuscript itself). – zorroesque Apr 5 '12 at 14:47
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    I can see a reasonable argument that collecting the data and performing the data analysis is a significant intellectual contribution. After all, the supervisor is relying on the students' summaries of the data to derive their own analysis. (Personally, I would find such an argument more convincing than "I run the lab" or "I wrote the proposal". When in doubt, I tend to err on the side of giving students more credit and faculty less.) But my opinion doesn't matter; the correct answer depends on the standard publication culture in the supervisor's field. – JeffE Apr 5 '12 at 19:57
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Given that the students did not participate in writing the paper, I agree with Artem Kaznatcheev that they should not be named as authors. It is good scientific practice to only put an author's name on a paper if she or he has at least read the complete paper before publication and can judge its correctness. After all, each author is responsible for any misrepresentations in the paper. However, they definitely should appear in the acknowledgement section.

(Our lab has the informal policy that we ask students who contributed somehow to a research project if they want to take part in the paper-writing process. In this case, they are named as authors, otherwise mentioned in the acknowledgements section.)

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The consensus (of course no such thing exists) that I have heard in the biological science goes, if your data resulted in a figure, you get your name on the paper. However, if the person wrote the paper and contributed immensely, they then get the first authorship,

I think part of the question is based on whether or not the ideas of the thesis were influential in the interpretation of the data and if the data had to be recollected. In the situation described our field would be very comfortable with having the undergrad in the middle, the least important position of authorship.

It is very important to acknowledge @JeffE's comment which is "the correct answer depends on the standard publication culture in the supervisor's field"

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