I (as a Ph.D. student) supervised a masters project.

In particular, I defined the problem statement and prepared a sketch of the solution, that is, the steps which had to be done to achieve the solution. The masters student basically followed those steps which were mostly programming implementations. I composed the paper. Now, the paper is ready to be published, and I'm in a dilemma in selecting the first author of the paper.

On the one hand, I feel I am the right one because I solved the critical part of the problem, and the student just implemented what I had already planned. On the other hand, he may want to apply for a graduate position later, and I understand that he would morally expect to be the first author as this paper is his only serious research output. My supervisor left the issue to me by stating that my opinion would be his.

We unfortunately didn't set any specific set of expectations beforehand, particularly regarding papers and authorships.

According to a neutral mind, who most deserves to be the first author?

PS. The field is electrical engineering.

  • 22
    Who actually wrote the paper?
    – TimRias
    Sep 10, 2019 at 12:44
  • 11
    The laying out of initial expectations is a big part of decisions like this, in addition to the actual writing of the paper. If you laid out the problem for them and only advised when they asked for help (and just advise, not considerable "doing"), then it would also be on them to do much of the writing work as well, preferably producing at least a full rough draft - more if this is part of their thesis. On the other side, the initial setup could have been "work with me on this project, I'm here to help and lead, and you can be an author". Hard to tell from only what is written here.
    – BrianH
    Sep 10, 2019 at 12:51
  • 9
    Which field of S.T.E.M. are you publishing in? As others have pointed out, the answer here might be field-dependent. Different communities conclude very different things from author order. Sep 10, 2019 at 14:13
  • 4
    @Pinton What I meant by senior authorship is that, in my field, typically the first author is the person who "did the work", and the last author is the person who supervised the work (typically a professor), which often includes setting the general direction. For more senior people, last authorships "count" as much if not more than first authorships; I was asking in case a compromise where you are last author might be appropriate, especially if this is the main research contribution for the masters student.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 10, 2019 at 23:37
  • 9
    Please also remember that most people tend to overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the contributions of others - this goes both for you and the student. Code can be a huge contribution and it is easy to overlook when it was not you doing the programming (how many times have I thought "I could have programmed that in a week" to only discover it took me months). Leadership can also be important and easy to overlook ("She just talks to me once in a while and I do all the work - how does she deserve first authorship?"). Sep 11, 2019 at 11:16

7 Answers 7


It would, perhaps, be generous of you to do so, but not necessarily wrong. In math and CS, listing authors alphabetically would probably be appropriate with little or no attention to "first" authorship.

But an academic being seen as generous is not a bad thing. Too many questions here are just the opposite, demanding first authorship, sometimes properly and sometimes not. But such generosity is more typical in a professor with an established reputation than in a current grad student.

But a serious consideration would entail looking at whether the student made a significant intellectual contribution to the work. If not, then first authorship is probably overly generous and might set a bad precedent in the mind of that student.

I'm with your professor on this. Your call. But the advice in comments (BrianH) on setting expectations at the start is good - even essential.

  • 8
    Is there any downside to "† these authors contributed equally"?
    – user541686
    Sep 11, 2019 at 8:46
  • 1
    @Mehrdad - "Co-Authored by Mr. X and Ms. Y"?
    – Valorum
    Sep 11, 2019 at 11:42
  • 2
    @Valorum: I mean, the example I gave is one that I've seen before, but sure, if that's common and applicable then why not.
    – user541686
    Sep 11, 2019 at 11:49
  • whether the student made a significant intellectual contribution to the work. If not... — ...then the student shouldn't be an author at all!
    – JeffE
    Sep 11, 2019 at 22:02
  • 4
    @JeffE, for some value of "significant".
    – Buffy
    Sep 11, 2019 at 22:03

I work in an engineering field, and my PhD students often do what you described. In my opinion, you should be the first author because

  • you have set the problem;
  • you have set the outline of the solution and supervised the student;
  • you have composed the paper.

To grant the first authorship to a master student, she usually needs to

  • at least contribute to the development some novel ideas;
  • take most of the writing burden.
  • 19
    I'm a bit less concerned about the actual writing than many are. Sometimes a paper is improved if someone with better writing skills puts the actual words down. The contribution can be in editing and discussions about making the presentation accurate, while the "wordsmith" does the actual composition.
    – Buffy
    Sep 10, 2019 at 19:19
  • 2
    I agree that writing is a key determining factor. Everyone in STEM always moves on to the next exciting idea, but someone has to get the paper done (often over a period of months in dealing with revisions and reviewers). Sep 11, 2019 at 17:16
  • 5
    @Buffy exactly. I now work in industry, but we published a paper describing a scientific tool we developed. Since I was the only person available with the academic experience necessary to write the paper, I wrote the entire thing. However, since my contribution to the actual tool was quite small, I put myself smack in the middle of the authors (in my field, the first and last positions are important), in the least important position, despite having written the entire paper myself.
    – terdon
    Sep 12, 2019 at 10:01
  • 1
    @Buffy That is true when the person writing is an experienced paper writer. However, when a student does the writing, he typically is not that experienced, and considerable effort will have gone into the writing, giving significant weight to the first author question.
    – TimRias
    Sep 12, 2019 at 16:05
  • I’ve known excellent researchers that couldn’t present or explain their work in a way that would pass a peer review. I’ve also had average PhD students that published in top journals because they could write, present, and defend the work excellently. If someone contributes to the novelty and writes the paper spending months in revisions, they deserve to be first author. Even if they didn’t do the majority of the scientific contribution.
    – electrique
    Sep 12, 2019 at 16:43

Since the work would not exist at all without the contributions of either one of you, in my view, it would be entirely appropriate to share first authorship. This is done by placing an asterisk by each of your names pointing to a footnote indicating "these authors contributed equally".

This reflects positively on both of you and does not detract from the contributions of either one. You can both list the paper in the "first author publications" section of your CV, and it costs nothing to do. Also, in my experience, one cannot usually implement an entire solution of any complexity without contributing intellectually to it in a significant way.

In my field first authorship normally goes to whoever actually did the work. However, my opinion has always been that credit is a thing best distributed as widely as possible, within reason of course.

  • 10
    I'm not sure if "the paper would not exist without either of you" is a good measuring stick. Most of my collaborative papers "would not exist" without any of the co-authors (I would argue otherwise the collaboration wasn't very fruitful), yet there is usually some fairly clear distinction between the amount of contribution between different authors.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 11, 2019 at 8:06
  • 1
    The paper would also not exist without OP's parents, but that doesn't mean they should be made co-authors.
    – E...
    Sep 13, 2019 at 18:39

This answer assumes that we are not talking about the Master's Thesis of the student here, just some project during your and his time at uni, which stems from the line of inquiry *you* are following in your PhD studies.

According to your question and subsequent comments, you clearly did the intellectual and editorial work, presumably you wrote all natural language sentences; the student clearly provided the (relatively) menial task of writing the code. Without the student's contribution, your paper might still have valid meaning as a purely theoretical piece (or you could have done the programming yourself if you had the time). Without your contribution, there would be nothing at all. You were the "owner" here.I also don't get the vibe that you had regular meetings with the student on an equal footing, as a "sparring partner", but it was a clear top-down relationship.

Of course the student wants to have primary authorship, but that does not change the fact that he has not been the primary author. If I understood you right he authored nothing of the paper, only the source code - which probably is not the thing that's printed in publication and consumed by avid readers.

If you are not inclined to deny his request, then you can of course play the "equal authorship" card (which would certainly be nice of you, but... not correct, neither factual not moral). Unless you have formal limitation of what to write there, you could say something like ("$ME (first author), $THEM (programming)") or something along these lines. But in all honesty, you should put it the way it happened. You did author the paper, so you are the primary author. You can still go out of your way to praise the efforts of the student in a personal foreword, which may have equally large benefit for the student.

At the end, the advice of your supervisor is the most important: you have to decide. I could well imagine that he intends it as an exercise for yourself, to work on your moral compass and/or leadership skills, and maybe to drive home the point that these kinds of things should be specified beforehand.

(By the way, I think "moral" is the wrong word here; "ethics" would be the one. And in this context, above all, this is about honesty and objectivity, not about favours. That should be the nucleus of your own answer...)

  • 5
    I just strongly disagree with the notion that source code is a secondary contribution. In many cases (not sure about the actual situation of the OP), source code is IMHO the actual scholarship. The devil is in the details, but I would never assume that if someone wrote all the code but no words of the paper, they do not deserve first authorship. For one, it is much easier to recover a paper when you have the source code than to recover source code if you have the paper. Sep 11, 2019 at 11:23
  • 3
    @MartinModrák, sure... I studied CS myself, and in my diploma thesis did some research plus coding - the importance was objectively certainly on an equal footing. I am not saying that the student should get no credit; it just seems to me that OP seems to be afraid to value his own efforts enough... hard to tell over the 'net, OP will know if that fits his bill or not.
    – AnoE
    Sep 11, 2019 at 11:34
  • Paper won’t exist without results from code, admitting that the purpose of implementing the algorithm was to support theoretical claims. By the structure of the paper, results from code implementation does account for at least the Experiments and Setup parts(how you would know that the idea actually does generate a publication without the source code generated results). If was purely a theoretical paper than you wouldn’t need code to generate a publication ....
    – n1tk
    Sep 12, 2019 at 17:15

If you defined the problem and did all of the mentoring, you could argue that you should be the last author on the paper (in some respects, a more prestigious position than first author as it traditionally represents the mentor/advisor). Is your advisor OK with that arrangement?

  • 1
    Regardless of what my advisor thinks, I don't believe that the last position would benefit me as a graduate student.
    – Pinton
    Sep 11, 2019 at 22:12

When in doubt, go with alphabetical order.

Having said that, you (OP) said in one of the comments:

Regardless of what my advisor thinks, I don't believe that the last position would benefit me as a graduate student.

If your advisor is even 'hinting' that you should take last position, then why are you even arguing?

  • 2
    "If your advisor is even 'hinting' that you should take last position" - are they? The OP just writes "My supervisor left the issue to me by stating that my opinion would be his." Assuming that the OP has told their supervisor approximately the same lines of reasoning as they have explained here, the supervisor is either just as undecided as the OP (but will support whatever decision the OP makes), or 'hints' that the OP should indeed place themselves as the first author (because the OP feels they are "right"). Sep 12, 2019 at 20:15
  • In the question, OP says "supervisor said 'it's up to you'", which in academia sometimes means "it's up to you", and sometimes means "well, if after all I've said, you're not going to listen to me, I'm not going to waste my time further, on your own head be it". The reason I wonder if it's the 2nd meaning is that in a comment on S.Burts's answer, OP says "Regardless of what my advisor thinks, I don't believe that the last position would benefit me as a graduate student." Sep 13, 2019 at 3:42
  • 1
    Aah, right, I now realize that statement in itself can also be read as the advisor hinting at putting the OP at the last position. You're right in that case and with the information given, it's totally open to us which way things are. Sep 13, 2019 at 6:14

In my field (biology) usualy the author who actually writes the paper is the first author. The one who leads the writing, the one who gathers comments from others and is responsible for the final text. So according to this it should be you.

Could it be that you have a fear of claiming what belongs to you? Out of a fear of disappointing him.

Some journals do allow to specify the equal contribution of first two authors.

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