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I am working on a paper after finishing my Masters. I did all the lab research and writing of the manuscript. My professor was only involved to guide me throughout the research and read my writing and give his comments.

Can I argue with him and tell him I am not letting the article to be published if he insists on being the first author?

  • 50
    Please specify your field, because author order has different meanings in some of them. For instance, in many areas of research, it's usual to order authors alphabetically. – Federico Poloni Mar 14 at 7:56
  • Are there others involved? What would the whole list of authors look like according to you and him? – aqua Mar 14 at 8:48
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    First author or joint first author? Since many fields can have papers with large numbers of people with small contributions it's common to highlight the "first authors", ie the people who put the most direct work into the paper. It's not unusual for a student and direct supervisor to be joint first author on a paper they both put many hours into. – Murphy Mar 14 at 11:19
  • @user49915 please post answers into answers, so they can be voted on – aaaaaa Mar 14 at 23:21
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It isn't a good career move to counter your advisor in things like this. You need him to sign your thesis (already done) and to write you a good letter of recommendation - maybe still to come. If you anger him, whether rightly or wrongly, it will be you that pays the price.

As I said in a comment, this kind of "authorship" is common, accepted, and perfectly natural in some fields, even if it is a bit stupid.

Having joint authorship with a professor can actually be a help to your career, even if he takes first authorship. Some people will just assume that he did all of the work (no matter the order of authorship), carrying you along. Others will just assume that you did all the work and he is first author by courtesy.

This is something you can't control.

But a publication with your name on it anywhere is a plus for your career.

If you want to fight a system that you think is stupid, wait until you have some power and standing in academia to back you up. Otherwise you get squashed before you have a chance to fly.

Work with him and get a good letter.

I realize this isn't the answer you wanted to read. But think long term, not the short.

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    It is perhaps common, but it's neither universally accepted nor natural. – einpoklum Mar 14 at 0:39
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    Note that signing a thesis is a thing limited to some countries. I never heard of it outside of this site. It’s rather confusing to those who are not in a country where this is done. – Wrzlprmft Mar 14 at 6:33
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    @Wrzlprmft That's interesting. I would have assumed that an advisor, supervisor, or examiner needs to, at least figuratively, sign off on a thesis everywhere for the project to be considered completed. Otherwise, how is decided whether the student is done and has passed? – xLeitix Mar 14 at 10:57
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    @Wrzlprmft, presumably they "sign" something. A grade form or an acceptance document. – Buffy Mar 14 at 11:17
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    I agree with snapshots of this reply (do not undertake this with anger, do not try to fight the system). However, the need to help a student appreciate that expressing his or her sense of what is right in an honest, objective manner is the right thing to do seems to have been missed if not entirely subsumed in this reply. The best we should offer is not what seems to amount to "keep your head down, tow the line, and hope someday that maybe you will be the boss". – Jeffrey J Weimer Mar 15 at 1:31
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Can I argue with him and tell him I am not letting the article to be published if he insists on being the first author?

Other answers have already indicated this is potentially a somewhat dangerous move if you plan on continuing with a career in academia.

However, I believe that you can, and perhaps you should. It would be especially useful in such an argument/discussion if you could bring examples of similar cases - with the same advisor or in the same department or subfield - where the advisor was credited last.

On the other hand, I notice you've written:

My professor was only involved to guide me throughout the research and read my writing and give his comments.

And I have to say - "only"? If he was guiding you the whole time and giving you comments all the time, isn't it possible that the research progressed in a way that he envisioned? Perhaps you're misjudging the extent of his contribution. While the work you did seems arduous to you, that's partly because you're new; perhaps for a more experienced researcher, you just did the "grunt work". I'm not saying that this is necessarily the case, but don't go arguing with your advisor unless you can be certain this point of view cannot be defended.

Also, regardless of the above - don't start this discussion with an ultimatum or with a declaration you intend to "bury" the paper.


Finally, another alternative I would suggest, on principle and irrespective of who did how much, is alphabetical order of author names. The practice of listing names by order of decreasing contribution is very problematic and IMHO should be opposed in general. Author names should be listed alphabetically, and if the authors do not explain who did what then people can just ask; or better yet - not ask. Of course, the advisor might theoretically be even more averse to that than to being listed second; it depends.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. He provided me with the resources (lab) and offered me to work in that project. However, I did all the experiments needed (without help) and wrote the whole paper based on my thesis. Of course, the research progressed in a way that he envisioned but it was because of my findings. As a student, I did what he wanted me to do but I don't think this disqualifies me from being the first author. – user105565 Mar 14 at 1:21
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    Whether or not alphabetical order of naming is done varies heavily by field. For example, in Computer Science this is almost-never done, whereas in Mathematics it is almost-always done. In lower-tier journals, the editor or institution may have influence, but AFAIK it would just be misinterpreted to do it unconventionally. – imallett Mar 14 at 4:11
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    @einpoklum The fact that one believes certain things should change doesn't mean they are near desired state now or will be there in 10 years. OP should not be asked to be the martyr for a perceived future good (of course, they can choose to become one). I personally do not so much believe in alphabetical ordering, because it disadvantages people which have no A or Z as first letter of their name. Unfortunately, psychology rules, and the first and last authors are more likely to be popping out from a page (disclosure: I have often been middle author and it didn't harm me, but that was luck). – Captain Emacs Mar 14 at 11:02
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    @imallett Alphabetical ordering is quite common in computer science. – chepner Mar 14 at 14:00
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    @chepner Gotta have some way of testing all of those sorting algorithms ;) – Kenneth K. Mar 14 at 16:02
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Can I argue with him...

Rather than taking a starting position where you want to get in an argument, a much better approach would be to try to have a mature conversation where you can each agree on what your contribution to the paper was, and what each of you feel is the appropriate criteria for first authorship. Ask your supervisor for his opinions on this matter, and be open-minded and respectful. If you have a different opinion, then let him know your contrary view, and let him know that you are feeling aggrieved.

It is not unreasonable for you to raise authorship concerns with your supervisor. This is a conversation that is a legitimate part of joint research work, so you don't need to repress this. However, like all professional matters, it should be raised in a respectful and professional way. Begin by assuming good faith on the part of your supervisor, and don't start off framing the matter as an "argument" you need to have. Try to figure out where you agree and where you disagree, and just be mindful to make sure you don't allow your frustrations to lead to escalation into an unproductive conversation.

Before raising this matter with your supervisor, it would be a good idea for you to read some material on authorship conventions so that you are able to put your case with some support for outside sources (e.g., see this report). However, you should expect to have a preliminary meeting where your only initial goal is to exchange views on the matter, and then allow each party to go away to consider the views of the other. An initial conversation on this topic might end in disagreement, but if you can support your own view with reputable outside sources, that is likely to be more persuasive than if you cannot.

These kinds of cases really shouldn't arise, since supervisors and students should always discuss authorship expectation before they begin a research project and papers. I think your supervisor probably made a mistake in not discussing this up-front with you before the work on the paper was done. Even if you are unable to resolve this particular disagreement, it would be a good idea to formulate clear expectations on future papers with your supervisor. Inquire into the requirements he would expect for you to be first author on a paper.

I did all the lab research and writing of the manuscript. My professor was only involved to guide me throughout the research and read my writing and give his comments. ...

If that is an accurate description of the contributions (who came up with the research idea?) then it does not sound to me like enough to warrant first authorship on the part of your supervisor. Conventions will vary from field to field, but in my understanding, the first author should generally be the person who did the most work on the paper. (When I have supervised students in research projects they have always been the lead author on the resulting papers, except in one case where I did the majority of the work on the paper and wrote the first draft.) Ethical guidelines on authorship, such as in the linked report, may give some guidance and references discussing authorship-order, so these are worth reviewing.

Please note that there are some reasonable counter-arguments to this view, especially within the scope of research done in a Masters degree. In that context, research work is usually at a low level and the supervisor often has a substantial teaching and supervision role. One might reasonably make an argument for first authorship of the supervisor in this case, but in my view it should depend on the specifics of the contributions on a case by case basis.

7

Occasionally (and more than occasionally in private / Ivy League institutions), professors will have their names credited as the primary author of a paper that was produced by their graduate advisees. In my view it is unethical, but in the eyes of some academics, it's customary. Some professors view their advisees as underlings to further his or her brand recognition in whichever field he/she works in.

in my view, your advisor is in fact not the author, if it's true that you did the research and literally wrote the paper. Before confronting him about it or giving him an ultimatum, I would go to another professor in your department whom you trust, and have a confidential conversation about the appropriateness of your advisor's demands versus the general attitude of the department. Sometimes you'll find that "nearly everybody does that" and sometimes they'll say "that's unacceptable."

If you consult with other professors and you get the impression that you are in the right, you will have more clout in dealing with the issue if your advisor becomes obstinate and makes a big deal out of it. But beware, all of the professors in your department are probably friends, or even worse they could be extremely factionalized. In either case, you run the risk of this "private" conversation being circulated around the proverbial "teacher's lounge."

Unless you are in an insanely competitive field at a flagship research university, I don't think this is going to blow up in your face. But only you can make the judgement for yourself.

After conversing with a trusted faculty member, I recommend you next present your concerns to your advisor, and see if he is willing to be reasonable about this. If he still isn't, this is a situation where you might need to get the administration involved, but they largely bend to the whims of tenured faculty members who bring in the big bucks with their research.

There should be a discussion here on the benefits versus detractors of submitting to your professor and having your name published second on the paper...versus not having your research published at all. I am a somewhat stubborn person and refuse to let anyone take credit for my work. But this might not be the most expedient approach for a person who is trying to get his/her name on publications under any circumstance. You'll have to decide which one you are, and I hope some other folks chime in on this particular subtopic.

addendum: If you produced your research using a program or model developed by your advisor, or some kind of privileged archival/digital/etc. access through your advisor that you'd otherwise not be able to use, I can see his demand being slightly more legitimized, so consider that as well.

  • 3
    While I respect your opinion here and agree with much of it, note that it isn't really an Ivy League issue. Some fields just expect that advisors and supervisors and such are first author. Fact of life that is hard to counter. Since it is expected in those fields, it seems odd if you do it differently. Use the professor to get your degree and move on with one or more publications. – Buffy Mar 13 at 22:54
  • This is the kind of counterpoint I was looking for. It is probably more expedient to allow the advisor to take credit if the promise of future publication or securing a job is high. There isn't too much consequence if the research is not groundbreaking. However, if OP developed some novel AI model that's going to change the world, I certainly would recommend he press the advisor on authorship. – Umbrella_Programmer Mar 13 at 23:36
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    @Umbrella_Programmer Many advisers are sane and value the contribution of their students, if they make a ground breaking innovation. In the case of a plain execution of a master thesis, I can understand an adviser claiming first authorship. – usr1234567 Mar 14 at 8:08
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You should note that "important professor et al." usually brings more attention and citations than "student nobody knows et al.". Thus, I would not fight his decision.

Is his last name ahead of yours in the alphabet? Then you could ask him, whether you can make a footnote "Authors in alphabetical order", after writing him first.

  • This makes sense -- in some contexts the professor putting their name first could be seen as a form of endorsement, and depending on the professor and the field, that endorsement could be very valuable to your career. – John Coleman Mar 15 at 22:33
2

I would suggest to him that you be the first Author, but he be the corresponding author. In my department, for a tenure package (for example), professors are rewarded equally for first author or corresponding author papers. I don't believe this is that uncommon, and would be a win-win for both of you.

1

You underestimate the work your adviser did. He choose the topic, he figured out what to prepare (or get prepared) that you can have a topic which fits the requirements of a master thesis regarding amount of work and depth of knowledge.

Eventually you will do a PhD and supervise bachelor or master students yourself. Then you will learn home much work it is to advise a student well and to prepare a topic.

If the adviser is able to figure out a topic leading to a publication, that is superior and ennobles your work. As far as I know engineering, math, physics, computer sciences, and human sciences, most master theses are not worth to be published. These are rare exceptions!

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    If the OP's description is accurate and they did indeed do the work and write the paper, then the mentoring that you describe would merit co-authorship but not 1st authorship. – KennyPeanuts Mar 14 at 18:38
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    There does not appear to be anything in the OP's question that specifies that the supervisor chose the topic, etc. Can you explain where you are getting this information? – Ben Mar 14 at 22:14
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    @Ben Are you serious? A master student picking his own topic and it gets publishable without massive guidance by the adviser? This is so unlikely or OP must be such a genius, that it should be mentioned in the question. This answer is not only meant for OP but for the bulk of people facing the same problem. – usr1234567 Mar 15 at 5:27
  • @KennyPeanuts From the question I don't know. If everything was prepared, the student run some repetitive lab tasks, wrote the text along existing papers and did not add any intellectual value, then certainly not. This could be backed by "I did all the lab research and writing of the manuscript." – usr1234567 Mar 15 at 5:30
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    A master student picking his own topic and it gets publishable without massive guidance by the adviser? — Sure, why not? My master's students have done it. Hell, I know undergrads who've done it. – JeffE Mar 15 at 8:58
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I have faced the same issue several times when I was still studying. I have written three articles and was always in the second position. Of course this may seem "unethical" and not correct, but just take a look at what you have done on the topic so far and what your professor has done so far.

I can only speak for the field of meachnical engineering, but several points to mention in this field are:

  • Most probably you didn't start from scratch. You based most of your work on previous work of your professor, PhD-candidates and other students
  • your supervisor guided you through your thesis. Looking back at my thesis, I have to acknowledge that I'd have not been able to make my thesis in 6 months without my supervisor putting lots of effort in it. And also looking back I have to say that many good ideas were brought up by my supervisor and I was just there to "realize" these ideas. Also the "basic" idea on which the whole thesis was laid out was, of course, coming from my supervisor. Honestly: realizing ideas when being guided by a supervisor is the easy part in doing science. Being the one to guide others is the hard part.
  • your supervisor guided you through the process of writing the paper or even learning how to write the paper.
  • Having a "known name" as the first author always helps.

Of course it felt bad to be the second author in articles when I wrote my thesis, but looking back it seems like the right way. Perspectives change when you are on the other side and you see the "real" workload of being a supervisor. :)

0

You face three issues.

First, what is the merit to you of being first author versus being co-author on a journal with only two authors? This question is independent of your "feelings" about being first or second. Can you make an objective statement that says your future success in your field of study absolutely depends on you being first rather than second author on this publication?

When you can categorically make a statement that is this strong, you need to make it and do so now. By comparison, when your best statement on this issue is no more than the equivalent of a nebulous understanding that "it gives me more exposure in my field", you should weigh the two other factors more heavily.

Secondly, what is the merit to your advisor of being first author versus being co-author? This is the mirror question to the above. For example, does an upcoming tenure and promotion decision for your advisor depend absolutely on the number of first author papers that he/she has published?

You should at least discover the background for this question. You may claim an injustice is being done to you by your advisor based on the first issue. Yet how far have you gone to appreciate where your advisor stands by mirror comparison?

Finally, what are the rights that each of you bring to the table in order to complete the publication? In your role as the primary worker and documenter for the work (taken at face value as being truly stated), you have a right to negotiate authorship. Your advisor however may be due full acknowledgement due to his/her greater role of having provided all of the ideas behind the research. To what extent did he or she completely initiate the work that you did, proposing all of the approaches that you took and defining all of the analysis that you were to do? Perhaps your advisor does have a greater right to claim first authorship because of his/her greater role in setting, maintaining, and directing the success of the work.

These issues are what you face at a negotiation table. It is not an argument table ... it is a negotiation table. The negotiations should be done up front, hopefully before the publication is started.

In practice, at this point, you should first decide whether your case has strong merits on the three issues above. Regardless of your decision, you should still talk with your advisor to clarify what you understand about them. You should strive to present your case honestly, not argumentatively. You should do so even with the understanding that you may have accept the pre-ordained outcome of being a second author, not a first author. At best, you may make a strong and sufficient objective stand to sway your advisor to appreciate the greater need that you have to be the first author. At worst, you will leave the presentation as a second author but knowing that you will not be carrying an unreconciled resentment about what you could have done but did not do.

Finally, discussing this with your advisor may not be an easy task. You may already face a sense of being held hostage to the power of your advisor to sign away your thesis or your future career. Do not let this fear put you in a place where you believe that you cannot at least assemble and put forward an honest, objective, and balanced case for your views. You may never change your advisor's mind regardless of the strength of your case. When you learn to state your case with no need to win it under situations of authority, you will learn how to do it better the next time at the outset when it may count even more.

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