Consider this situation.

A research plan is formulated for a masters student (M) collectively by a professor (P) and a PhD student (G). M runs the experiments but has no idea how to extract knowledge from his experiments (he is not motivated enough to make the effort). P asks G to 'look into it'. G analyzes the data, studies the subject background, identifies some erroneous numbers and re-runs some experiments. G then drafts a research manuscript for submission to a journal.

Even though the 'raw' data was acquired by M, it was G who made efforts to discuss the results and transform the data into a manuscript. M argues that since the research plan was a part of his masters dissertation, he should be the first author. To resolve the dispute, P keeps himself the first author, G the second, and M the third.

Who should be the first author in this case? (The first authorship matters in the field in question.)

  • 7
    To resolve the dispute, P keeps himself the first author -- very Solomonic!
    – henning
    Dec 2, 2019 at 17:09
  • 2
    Seems like, third guy gets the profit in fights between two :-(
    – Coder
    Dec 2, 2019 at 17:36
  • 2
    Hmmm. Maybe P is telling you that you should have resolved this long ago and he doesn't want to deal with it anymore.
    – Buffy
    Dec 2, 2019 at 18:18
  • 1
    At this point just go in alphabetic order.
    – deags
    Dec 2, 2019 at 19:11
  • 1
    @Coder In most cases, the marginal benefit to a professor (particularly a senior one, if P is senior) of a single paper will be quite small (unless the paper is a really impactful one). It could be the case that P is doing this at least partly for selfish reasons, but it could equally be the case that P is just fed up with M and G arguing over credit, and wants to make the prisoner's dilemma point that if M and G can't find a way to play together nicely, they'll both lose out. That being said, my preferred solution in practice would be the one you propose in your answer below. Dec 2, 2019 at 23:33

5 Answers 5


Several thoughts

  1. Authorship order, responsibilities, and expectations should be a conversation had BEFORE the work begins.

  2. The first author is commonly the person who wrote the paper, which generally implies the person most well versed and familiar with the study design and data.

  3. In the case there are two (or more) people with equal contributions, they should share first authorship with asterisk note, which is fairly common and widely appreciated.

  4. This may differ by field but at least in the biological sciences it is odd to see a PI take first author with students 2nd, 3rd outside of some book chapter or review.

My take on your predicament: G takes first author by virtue of significant theoretical and practical contributions. M is second, PI third

Incidentally, if your narrative is accurate, collecting the data is NOT sufficient grounds for first authorship or even authorship at all by APA guidelines. Contributions must be material outside of pure labor

  • Depending on the field, last author is sometimes desirable as it can stand for "supervision", in that case M,P,G could work, if G supervised M in some way.
    – skymningen
    Dec 4, 2019 at 15:52

There is a fair option available. The professor could have insisted that both M and G could be first author. I have seen in research follows like this:

M*, G*, P or G*, M*, P

* Both the authors contributed equally to this work.

Your present authorship order: P, G, M is really unfair for both of you (G and M).

  • What will be the in-text citation format of such a publication (M et al. or G et al.)? Dec 2, 2019 at 18:14
  • 3
    @user3024069 still only "M et al" (or whoever comes first), even if on the paper, there is a note of shared first authorship. It's more relevant for CV's and applications, as the "2nd" author can still call it a first-author paper. But you are right, the 2nd is often seen as not equal to the first.
    – Mark
    Dec 2, 2019 at 22:24

P asks G to 'look into it'. G analyzes the data, studies the subject background, identifies some erroneous numbers and re-runs some experiments. G then drafts a research manuscript for submission to a journal.

It's hard to tell from your short description, but it seems like you jumped the gun a bit here. As you advance in rank, it will be more and more important to help less-capable people on their projects, rather than just doing everything yourself. This is not an easy transition.

In this case, this was M's project, and the professor said "look into it," not "fix it." From this, I would have expected you to take a few hours to assess the situation, give the student some advice, and give the professor your assessment. If the professor then asked you continue supervising the work, or to take over, you should have negotiated authorship before agreeing to make this time commitment.

Since you didn't do this, there is a dispute:

  • From M's perspective, this is their project; they never asked for your help, and certainly didn't expect you to do more than give advice.
  • From your perspective, you did all the work and salvaged the project single-handedly

That said, you are where you are, and now a decision has to be made. Coder's solution of joint first authorship does seem like a better solution than listing P as the first author.


The order of authors is often a poor way of describing authors' relative contributions. Despite being the established norm in some areas (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering), it is not universal. For example in my area of Mathematics, it is more usual to put authors in alphabetic order and assume equal contributions.

In your situation, contributions are clearly not equal, but also it is not clear how to compare them, and different people may have different opinions on what is relatively more important: experiment, analysis, or general supervision. Since you three can't reach the agreement, it would be appropriate to put author alphabetically and state their exact contributions in a footnote or a special section:

The order of authors is alphabetical. The contributions are as follows: M set up experiment and collected the data; G performed analysis and discussed the results; P evaluates the results and provided general supervision. All authors contributed to writing and editing the manuscript.


The first author will be associated with the work and should be responsible for and capable of defending its contents. From the little information we have it seems to me G should be first.

However... there might be various reasons to place M first. Maybe M will have improved chances at a scholarship if he or she is first author. Maybe G already has several first-author paper and another one will make a marginal impact in her or his transcript. I’m sure there are variations on these too many to count.

I tend to agree with others that P first is unnecessary, although I can see how P might just want the bickering to end because neither M nor G are being reasonable.

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