Inspired this good question, I think posting this question will surely benefit the next generations of students, albeit this does not happen to myself.

The research students will publish several papers along the research road under someone's supervision. When it comes to the issue of the author order, the student and the advisor may not always reach an agreement. i.e. Sometimes the student thinks he or she deserves the 1st author, but the advisor doesn't.

In such cases, the students are usually very worried and upset. Having been working on that topic for such a long time, the student feels very disappointed to be listed as the non-first author. Being the weak party, the student may not even dare to argue with his advisor. After all, the advisor is kind of "in control of" his remaining PhD life.

Simply put:

How should a student defend his or her 1st authorship in front of the advisor politely and effectively?

2 Answers 2


Authorship questions inevitably end up having two threads: what should be and what happens. The "what should be" is that the amount of intellectual work (as described in the Vancouver Protocol)

1.  Conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data
2.  Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content
3.  Final approval of the version to be published.

that each author has put into the work. As with most agreements, it is best to discuss this in advance and agree on how to evaluate the work done. Usually the first author is in charge of writing and the other author(s) provide feedback and contribute to the writing. If everyone follows these rules then the argument is fairly "straightforward".

In reality, we have to also deal with different types of personalities and other situations that affect judgement. It is not uncommon for persons to want first authorship if they are up for promotion or if they see that something they did not fully think was great actually is. The list could be made long. Straightening these cases out is sometimes (if not often) really tough.

Being pragmatic, I often think about if the situation will hurt me and evaluate if the fight is worth it. In the case of a PhD student, having ones advisor as first author is not necessarily a bad thing since, hopefully, the advisor is well-known and respected. Hence some of that rubs off on the co-author. As a PhD student I think a valid argument is that you need first authorship on some of the work in your thesis. This is a particularly good argument if the "switch" occurs repeatedly.

Arguing against irratianal excuses for first authorships will be hard or near impossible to win so I am a little pessimistic when it comes to such cases. You need to evaluate the situation yourself, gather objective arguments for your claim and possibly asking other faculty for advice and support.


In addition to Peter's answer, one should also keep in mind the accepted practices in one's field of study. For instance, in some fields, such as economics and parts of mathematics, alphabetical order is the default; in other areas, such as organic chemistry, the principal investigator of the lab—not the primary author of the paper—has traditionally been given the first spot in the list.

If you are in a field where the order is somewhat preordained, it's going to be very difficult to change that tradition, for many reasons. In such cases, you should optimize your placement within the "available" options.

  • 6
    Also noteworthy is that in fields where authorship is preordained like this (especially alphabetical), people are aware of this and therefore place much less emphasis on your position within the author list.
    – David Z
    Aug 28, 2013 at 19:23
  • 1
    What does first authorship really mean?
    – Ali
    Aug 29, 2013 at 3:40

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