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Twelve months ago I started working on a project (which began at that time) with my advisor. Six months ago another student (refered to as A in the following) joined the project.

We are now publishing a paper on our results. My advisor asked me if I would find it reasonable that A’s name was put before mine in the article. Our advisor’s reason is that she believes A has contributed a lot more to the publishable results and making figures for the article.

I agree with this latter part: student A has definitely been the working horse behind these results and made the graphics for the article. However, my contributions were in the first 6 months of the project, laying the foundations for the setup, etc.

I’m not sure how to feel about my advisor’s question. Is my contribution worth less because they are further back in time? And does making article-figures count as “ammunition” to be put first in an article?

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Authorship questions are among the most difficult aspects of academia and where feelings may run high. First, it seems you have a reasonably good working relationship with your advisor, it is good that she asked you. Some would tell you, some would just do it. So from this perspective, your advisor does what she (in this case) should.

The question of ordering of names is tricky and there are no simple rules, or actually there are simple rules, but they may be difficult to apply in the individual case due to a variety of reasons, including anything from personality clashes to just simple difficulties to asses who has done most. There are examples of point systems where authors are given points depending on what they have done and how much. In one case, the study design and writing (discussion) had much higher weight than aspects of experimentation and data analysis. the problem is that one should agree on such matters before starting on the writing.

So, to assess your and your co-author's contributions, you need to split the project down in at least four parts:

  1. Who came up with the original idea and designed the study (high credit)
  2. Who did the experimental work (equivalent) that generated the data
  3. Who did the analysis (equivalent) of the data
  4. Who contributed to interpretation and discussion towards the conclusions

Each of these have some weight with 1 and 4 most often larger than 2 and 3. Then when several persons split a chore you need to figure out roughly how much of each point each person has contributed. This would then give you a profile of who has done the most (important) work etc. I completely agree with anyone who would say this is easier said then done but you probably see the principle.

So to the question(s). If you have work earlier or later on this is of less significance, it is what type of work you have done and of course how much. figures can be extremely important. Good graphics convey the message in condensed form. plotting data is, however, in most cases not much more than a technical issue. Creating conceptualizations of processes, events etc. can be key to the paper so making figures can be a considerable input to be counted.

You can also check the text on this link for a text on authorship. An example of how authorship can be determined is given on AuthorOrder

  • 2
    Don't forget to also ask: "Who wrote the majority of the actual paper?" – aeismail Nov 8 '13 at 18:02
  • Fact is that the advisor came up with the idea behind the experiment, the theory, did the data analysis and wrote most of the paper. So all that was left was the experimental work and making figures (roughly speaking!). Even if I am equal with regards to the experimental work with student A, student A at least made the figures.... – BillyJean Nov 9 '13 at 11:14
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Peter gave a good summary of the types of issues encountered in determining authorship, maybe I can answer some of your more specific questions:

“Is my contribution worth less, because they are further back in time?” — It’s neither less nor more. There is no unique scale to weigh the different important requirements of authorship, and except in clear-cut cases, it is somewhere between a judgment call and a negotiation.

“Does making article-figures count as “ammunition” to be put first in an article?” — The typical standard to judge authorship issues is the intellectual (or scientific) contribution of each co-author. Having the ideas, setting the foundations for the work is very important. But obtaining the results, analyzing them, presenting them in a convincing manner (which includes making figures, writing the paper, etc.) are also crucial: without it, there would be no paper!

“I’m not sure how to feel about my advisor’s question.” — We can’t answer that for your, as it also depends on your relationship to your advisor. She has more experience than you in makings such decisions: do you trust her to do the right thing? (at least according to her) Or do you suspect her of trying to screw you over?


Finally, a solution may be to used footnotes to indicate equal-coauthorship, if that is something the journal accepts. This is typically indicated by a sentence like

“The first two authors contributed equally to this work”

or

“The authors wish it to be known that, in their opinion, the first two authors should be regarded as joint First Authors”.

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