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In our lab (at Nankai University, in China), students often write papers where they are first author. However, we use a convention where the last author signifies the student's teacher. I feel that this is uncommon.

I have not heard of this done outside of our lab, but maybe this is more common than I would guess.

Question: How widespread is the use of "last author = teacher" on student papers?

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    By "teacher" do you mean the PhD supervisor? In such case, it's quite common in many fields. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 26 '18 at 1:59
  • Yes, but maybe undergraduate, masters, or PhD, and not necessarily as an official supervisor [e.g. if a student just visits]. (It's the word commonly used here, e.g. "Teacher Liu".) – Rebecca J. Stones Sep 26 '18 at 2:30
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    In my experience undergraduates seldom do enough work to be put as first author, but for a few master's students and PhD students it's quite common to have the supervisor last, sometimes even in cases where the supervisor has done enough work to deserve joint first authorship. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 26 '18 at 2:40
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    I automatically assume every last author is the lab head or supervisor. I know not every field does it, but I'm so used to it now. – Azor Ahai Sep 26 '18 at 2:50
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    In my field mathematics, we typically only add the supervisor if he had a substantial contribution to the paper, and we list people alphabetically... – Nick S Sep 26 '18 at 3:57
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As pointed out by others in the comments, this is very common in my field (Operations Research); at my institution this is the norm and is common in other disciplines.

A professor told me during my PhD that the marginal benefit of having their name first was small compared to having the student's name first. Moreover, papers coming from a masters or PhD usually deserve to have the student's name first anyway.

I'm sure the community will have various opinions but I find this a good practice unless there's a clear contribution level issue.


Updates:
It is common to place students first then rest of contributors in alphabetical order. Further, as @BryanKrause points out, it may be beneficial to not have your name first if it helps make the case you're capable of supervising the research process.

  • @JeffE, I'd intended to include that and forgot. Thanks for the nudge! – SecretAgentMan Sep 26 '18 at 13:32
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    This is also true for the biological sciences. For someone in a senior role, like a professor, I'd argue that having more last author papers is more important than them having any first author papers (not merely that there is marginal benefit to first authorship) - the latter sort of raises a question of "Why aren't you supporting a student to do this work?" (occasional first authorship and reviews/editorials would be exceptions) – Bryan Krause Sep 26 '18 at 14:53
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    @BryanKrause, great point. I've added this to the "Updates" with attribution. – SecretAgentMan Sep 26 '18 at 16:07
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    @BryanKrause That is assuming the supervisor did any actual supervising - or even properly read the draft and didn't just wave it through... – DetlevCM Sep 27 '18 at 7:54
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In many social sciences (Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology) last author signifies the supervisor of the student's work, including Ph.D. or Masters supervisor, postdoc adviser, sometimes undergraduate supervisor of an honors thesis, or a graduate student in that role. In Engineering and more applied social sciences (industrial-organizational psych, human factors, or applied vision science) it also often is extended to be the individual who holds the grant and funds the work.

I have seen this convention cause feelings of unfairness or even suspicions of misconduct among those who arrive in Engineering labs from fields uninitiated to the practice. I usually advise these individuals that 'when in Rome'...

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Very field dependent, and possibly even regionally dependent. In my field, the last author is the person who contributed least. First is the person who wrote the paper, then in decreasing order of how much work they put in, including supervisory work not directly related to the paper (so teacher/supervisor would probably be second or third).

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Norms differ between fields. In economics, the supervisor typically is not added as an author for a student's paper, unless the contribution of the supervisor was at the level of a coauthor's. The benefit to a student of having a solo-authored paper relative to a coauthored-with-supervisor one is usually greater than the benefit of another paper to the supervisor. In the recommendation letters for job applicants, the thesis committee members go to great lengths to emphasize that the job applicant's papers (solo or coauthored) are independent work and the supervisor or other coauthors had minimal input.

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