I am composing a manuscript using data collected by a PhD student over two years. She doesn't have enough statistical or analytical skill to publish her work. On top of that, language is also a huge issue for her.

I redid the analyses, created the graphs and started writing with my own flow and conclusion. I am also receiving supervision from a post-doc who got his PhD in the relevant field as the topic of the paper while I don't have much experience on the area.

I am quite confident I have the right to claim as the first author but when I allocate the second authorship to the post-doc, the student was acting up with me. Without me writing and the post-doc supervising, she will never be able to publish her work. So, who really deserves which?

Updated : Let me clear a few things here. I understand the conventionality of assigning authorship here in the US or other advanced countries. PhD student is from a country where even young faculty doesn't know what peer-review publication is. Post-doc(the supervisor) and I (research associate) are based in the US. PhD student collected the data 3 years ago and she and her adviser came up to me to collaborate on research projects and she handed the dataset to me to write. She has no interest in taking part in the writing process (no phone call, email or no showing of desire to learn anything from the process). When post-doc and I started writing, there is not even a promise of her data and research design can produce anything. We had to recraft research questions, redid analyses, graphs and everything. It was much like you download the someone esle collected data from public website, you write analyze and write a paper on it. During my Master year, my US adviser used the 10 years dataset from a peer who collected the data but didn't express interest in writing it. The guy offered us with the data, we wrote it and his name came as 3rd author. Seriously, we don't even know this paper can even be publishable and we are just making the best out of it.

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    I'm pretty sure the answer will depend on your particular (sub)field, as different fields have different conventions. I would suggest that you all agree on several senior people in your field to ask and abide by majority opinion; if you don't know anyone the editor of the journal you submit to is a good choice. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 5:53
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    I'm not sure I understand the situation correctly. Did you give her the chance to write the paper herself, but then were unsatisfied with her work? Or did she ask you to write the paper because of the language barrier?
    – PoorYorick
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 10:50
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    Lurker here. Just want to say your lack of empathy is annoying.
    – layman
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 13:11
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    In a lot of fields, especially in the sciences, authorship is assigned primarily to reflect credit for the research being reported, not for preparation of the manuscript itself. Under such a scheme, the main claim I would see for you having any authorship at all is that you redid some of the analyses. It is not at all clear to me that your work justifies first authorship. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 13:59
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    Oof. Why didn't you teach her the analyses instead of yanking this paper from her and trying to claim it as your own and slapping your buddy on before her? Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 16:12

9 Answers 9


Put yourself in the shoes of the PhD student. She spent 2 years of her life conducting a study and collecting data. She needs help with statistics and writing (this is very common). The person helping with this claims first authorship (in my field this is already questionable) and on top of this even wants to give the second authorship to their supervisor. I can't see how this is supposed to be fair to the PhD student. The post-doc at most deserves third or fourth author. Where is the advisor of this PhD student? You are doing their job (and in my field the advisor would be last author).

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    Yes, the situation described by the OP seems to me to be straight-up theft. The view from the other side is this question
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 11:13
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    It's not clear from the wording of the question that the student "spent 2 years of her life conducting a study and collecting data". There really isn't enough information in the question to give an answer with certainty (however much we may want to infer). Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 17:57
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    @Buffy, she offered up the dataset to write. So, I am clear that it wasn't a thef. We already discussed with her that I or post-doc will be the first author. I ended up doing most of the job. I am trying to decide whether she should be the second or third
    – RyanR88
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 3:35

the student was acting up with me. Without me writing and the post-doc supervising, she will never be able to publish her work.

That's a quite serious issue here: as a PhD student she's supposed to learn to write papers. Otherwise how is she even going to write her own PhD? Maybe she's acting up not only because of the order of authors but also because she wants to be more involved in it, and I'd say rightfully so: a PhD student is not a research assistant, they are researchers at the training stage. It is the duty of the supervisor to provide them with this training, and that includes writing papers.

In my opinion, ideally she should write a significant part of the paper and get at least first or second author. This might involve a lot of back and forth with the supervisor until her part reaches adequate quality standards. If time constraints make this option unrealistic, I would suggest planning a future paper where she would do most of the writing and get first authorship. It might take some time and effort, but it's the right thing to do.

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    She could also find someone else to do the writing, or at least polish her first draft, and help with the statistics. I did that for several fellow students whose first language wasn't English, and never even expected to be listed as an author.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 16:45

Generally the PhD student would be the first author, because it is her research. You would be the second author and the other postdoc the third. But typically she would also write the paper herself, and I do not understand why exactly this is not done in your case - whether she gave this job to you or whether you told her that she is not good enough herself. If she has at least tried it, but then "failed" in some way according to your assessment, she still deserves to be the first author.

If she however communicated clearly to you that you should do the writing part, then it would be okay that you are the first author and she the second author. But in this case, you should have told her that and talked to her about it. As her supervisor, you should be invested in her scientific career, and you should have told her how not being first author negatively impacts her career. In my country, it is often necessary to publish at least one paper as a first author if you want to get a PhD, and since this is a paper about two years of her work it sounds like this should be an important paper for her.

So in this second case, I think that the question shouldn't have come up for you, because you should have had a discussion about it with her. And you should have pushed her to at least try to write the paper herself. It seems weird to me that you don't mention a conversation like this at all.

Frankly it sounds like you just don't like her and don't want to give her proper credit, but I realize that I do not have enough information to make this judgment. I'm just going by the way you phrase it as her "acting up". Currently the opposite seems true to me - you are taking away her research and then you even consider to not even give her second authorship. It sounds like you are the one acting up.

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    I don't think OP is the advisor. But some excellent advice in your answer. +1
    – user9482
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 12:15
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    I edited and provided more info. We already discussed I or post-doc will be the first author. Since I haven't heard from her or any interest at all since she handed me the data, I really got to the point to make the hard decision choosing between her or post-doc for the second authorship. Would you write the entire paper for someone who just handed the data and left the rest of us to do the job?
    – RyanR88
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 4:49
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    @RyanR88 Who discussed this with whom? What was her reaction, did she consent? What were the conditions under which you were allowed to take the data and publish it? How was your institute even involved, did the student take the data there? Why are you writing the paper and not her direct supervisor? You're still leaving out crucial details.
    – PoorYorick
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:42
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    @Spectrosaurus, she took the data from another country. Her institution has no interest in that matter as far as I know. I discussed with both her advisor and her that I or the post-doc will be the first author. It was much like you download the data from public accessible website and you write a paper on it except that we know the person who collected it and she is complaining for getting the third authorship instead of the second.
    – RyanR88
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 18:58

In my opinion, I do not feel she is in the wrong. A reasonable authorship order would be Her, You, Postdoc, PI. Or perhaps with an asterisk that says the first and second author contributed equally.

She collected the data, it belongs to her. She needed help, turned to you. Now, she is having people step in on her data and publish it without a discussion on authorship. And do not be so certain that without you or the postdoc, she would never publish. That is not an attitude you want to cultivate in yourself.

Can you imagine if you did this to your PI and their grant funded data?

I will also give a word of advice about this behavior- this could have short term benefits but long term damage to your reputation. Nothing will make potential collaborators balk at working with you like being unfair with authorship. Be very careful about the reputation you cultivate. Having a reputation as a positive, fair, and reasonable collaborator opens many doors in academia.

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    Indeed. Glory is not a thermodynamically conserved quantity. Sharing credit reaps more credit long term.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:48

If, as according to the edit, the PhD student handed you the dataset to work with (with apparently poor explanation, purpose, or quality), and you recrafted questions to ask based on the data, analyzed, summarized, and drew conclusions from your data, that is your paper based on her data. Since she provided a comparatively small portion of the work (since she only collected data, not did anything with it), and you did a larger portion, at the University I am going to (University of Washington - Bothell Campus), you would be attributed first.

It's also worth noting that, if we use pre-compiled datasets, we cite where we got the dataset from, but don't include them as an author. In this case you and the post-Doc would be the only authors of the paper, and citing the PhD student as an author at all would be up to you.

Additionally, if the paper were to be presented at a conference, it is the first author who is invited to present (according to my research professor). Since you said that you were the one to come up with the questions and analyze the data, it would make more sense for you than her to present, and it also indicates the work done, so you should go as first author.

You can also look at it as the definition of author(n) a person who writes. As she did no writing, editing, proofreading, or such, she is not an author in general, and wouldn't receive any authorship credit.

You can also always ask the post-Doc, or your college's Research Board (or equivalent, whoever is in charge of releasing research papers), or put names in alphabetical order and specify who did what.

  • Of course, I will be giving her the authorship. We already discussed with her before we started taking on this. She knew that me or the post-doc will be the first author. I ended up working on majority of it since post-doc has been busy. I am right now deciding on who should be the second and third.
    – RyanR88
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 3:28
  • Not sure “only” collecting data is such a small task... Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 4:28
  • @RyanR88 Advisors tend to go last at University of Washington, anyways, but if she just handed the data over and walked off, then put her as third
    – awsirkis
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 21:08
  • @ZeroTheHero Collecting Data in a research environment is perhaps the least significant task - it's the analysis and application of the data where the work comes in
    – awsirkis
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 21:09

Assuming your are coming from a STEM field (or any other field) where the rank of authorship is determined by how much every author contributed to the publication, the PhD student who drafted the paper should be first author.

Here's why: You do not only have to think about the work load every author had, but also keep in mind the creative work, i.e. doing an outline, drawing graphs and so on. Apparently, you did some analyses, graphs and minor text contribution (compared to the rest of the text). Proof-reading should not be taken into account, since somebody who only proof-read an article would not deserve any authorship, some might argue not even an acknowledgement (but rather nice "Thank you" in person and a free coffee or something similar).

It seems like the PhD student did most of the manuscript which you then revised by adding your analyses and conclusions. This is a substantial part in writing a paper, but it does not grant you the right to take first authorship.

Now to your post-doc supervisor's role: Even if this would not have been able without the post-doc, merely being in a supervising role and giving advice or guidance will put your name at the end of the author list, where the supervising professor is usually the very last author (as this is the position that most likely tells the reader who is the big supervisor behind the research effort).

To summarize:

  • Lots of experimental work and drafting the paper: First author.
  • Additional work and revisions: Second author.
  • Supervisor who is not the professor: Second (or third, fourth, ...) to last from the professor.
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    What is MINT?.. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 16:10
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    @AzorAhai My bad, MINT is the equivalent of STEM in my language and I forgot that.
    – Ian
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 17:24

Another possibility is to list the authors alphabetically and state this choice in the acknowledgements or in a first-page footnote, if the template allows that. Although this may not be immediate to grasp, the readers who really bother will easily deduce that this means equal attribution. (*)

This way out of the sorting dilemmas requires that everybody buries the hatchet, and that each understands that the paper could have not come to light without each of the authors: no properly collected data, no thoughtful interpretations, no accurate information delivery. Effectively these are the three pillars of a well-written, say also 'well-readable', good paper.

The first author in lexicographic order will be perceived as the main one in plain references, wishing for you all that you get spades of them in the first place. This is a little advantage but not a substantive or lasting one. The other authors may still direct their own readership to the equal-attribution statement when this is appropriate, say in their own résumé, with a side annotation or the like. Really interested readers will find out the disclaimer while reading the paper.

Also, there are the other marks of seniority such as who is the corresponding author. Without using the above disclaimer, you might trade the first author position -- ownership of production -- for the corresponding author position -- ownership of communication. Ideally nobody should really 'own' the paper (and factually copyrights are being hander over), rather feel like a steward/stewardess of the findings and achievements in it. Ideally.

Let the emotions simmer. Then double check with the journal information, and possibly with the responsible editor, if your preferred option is feasible. It would be a pity to waste the negotiation efforts for a plan that is not implementable.

(*) Actually you could also plainly write: X did this, Y did that, etc. Each part demands responsibility and professionalism, so no-one should feel vilified for dealing with the lesser, menial tasks. This goes well with the alphabetical order.


The answer depends on the quality of the work the PhD student and you did. I would recommend to read Recommendation 12 (english version on p.82f) of


which gives very good guidelines.

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    Hey, providing a link in an answer without at least summarizing what the link says does really not make for a quality answer (for one, the material you are linking to might one day be removed, and then this answer conveys between zero and very little information). It's great that you provide your source, but could you at least summarize what your source says (and possible, add your advice to it explicitly if it is anything more than "read the linked document and think about it")?
    – penelope
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:55
  • Recommendation 12 does not say anything specific about authorship order. It gives a recommendation for journals (they shall "make clear for authors that they are committed to best international practice with regard to [...] the criteria for authorship"), which does not answer the question. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 15:37

My own view is that every disciple's professional societies should settle the entire issue by moving to alphabetical by last name.

There will be complications for some names, but that can be settled best by a committee of those affected.

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    I agree! That's how it is in my discipline. Really helps to calm down the ego problem some people have. :)
    – layman
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:05
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    Professor Aabenraa agrees... :) Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:13
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    While it might or might not be beneficial to switch to this system within all the disciplines, I do not see it happening in the next few days/months, and as such I really don't see how it answers the OPs question or resolves his situation at all.
    – penelope
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 14:57
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    While your opinion might be valid, this site is not about exchanging opinions. Your answer does not contribute to OP's problem.
    – Ian
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 15:24
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    This doesn't solve the problem at all. The problem is to establish contribution relationship. The point is not to be 1st on the name list, but to be recognized as the principal researcher for the problem. In fields with alphabetical ordering, the order doesn't mean a thing and the lead author is recognized by other means. So, unfortunately this is not an answer to the question.
    – luk32
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 15:35

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