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I'm doing undergrad research with a team, advised by a professor. I have a good relationship with this professor, but told us after the research started that he would be first author. I was at first just excited to do research, but the more I think about it, the more I think this isn't right.

  1. His contribution was the original idea- not a fleshed out idea that we just implemented, but a very general "try this approach," a push in the right direction. Taking this approach, mind you, would be obvious to anyone well versed in the field (as I have learned), and within this approach, there are thousands of different avenues we could go to try achieving the results we want.

  2. We have spent months doing research, and we have weekly-ish meetings, in which he asks us questions about what we're doing (we explain how our work, because it is our own creation) and he reminds us to write down everything we do. This has been his contribution for the duration of the project.

  3. We are expected to write the entire paper ourselves- which he will then edit.

I have a meeting with him (one on one) in the near future and I would really like to bring this up, because first authorship would be huge for me or anyone on my team, whereas he already has an academic career. But I am only a first year, and he has expressed interest in doing future research with me.

My question is: do I have any leverage in this argument? Can I present this as a deal breaker for me for future projects? Is there any other way to denote who actually did the work that I can push for here? I'm not sure if he wants to make it seem like he did the work or if that's just "what we do" in my department for undergrad research. I don't want to ruin my relationship with this professor, but I also don't want to feel like my team and I are being taken advantage of.

Responses to questions:

  • My field is applied computer science
  • I think it would make sense for either my friend or me to be first author (I don't think having to make this choice would lead to problems)
  • I have no objection to co-first-authorship, but it would have to be me and my friend, not one of us plus the professor.
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    Why does it matter that the professor already has an academic career? Shouldn't this depend on contribution not on career stage? – Nathan S. Apr 20 at 19:47
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    @NathanS. I agree with you, but his position of power is the reason he will be first author. The argument I was trying to make in comparing our career stages is that while being first author might help his CV, it would make mine – anon Apr 20 at 21:16
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    @einpoklum Because contributions are not anywhere near equal and there are often many authors on a given paper. If you don't have some way to track the primary contributors it would be very difficult to make any measure of peoples' individual productivity. I think it would result in a lot of currently "middle authors" being excluded from author lists as well as give incentive to work on many different projects at the expense of penalizing narrow focus. – Bryan Krause Apr 22 at 21:46
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    @BryanKrause: Papers should not inform readers about the measure of contribution of the different authors. Once people adopt this outlook, it is no longer much of an issue where your name is, nor whether there are more or less names. – einpoklum Apr 22 at 22:08
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    @Joooeey: That's a weird and unethical policy. Such professors might adopt a policy to throw coins in case of conflicts. – user111388 Apr 24 at 7:09

10 Answers 10

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Although Buffy's advice to let this go is practical, and I agree that would be perfectly fine, I think you have a second option here. Namely, if you are careful, you can bring up your concern with the advisor. However, if you do this, you shouldn't phrase it as an accusation or a claim that someone else should be first author; that would be unnecessarily antagonistic and probably would not help your case.

Instead, you could phrase it as a question. Say that you would like to understand how authorship order is determined better. Although you assume that the author order has already been agreed upon for this particular paper, as a starting researcher you are curious about the etiquette of authorship. You can ask if it is common for the PI to be first author in your area. Depending on how receptive he is, you can ask other questions.

If you follow this approach, then probably one of two things will happen:

  • First, he could become defensive and dismissive. This is more likely if he is really being unethical. In this case, Buffy is probably right that your best bet is to let this go for now. Sadly, these things happen; author order isn't always determined correctly, and that can be either due to honest error or due to dishonesty. You could always talk to another professor or mentor for moral support and to assess how to proceed (particularly for future projects), but probably for this one accepting the order is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

  • Second, he could be helpful and receptive. Maybe he will explain that he is usually first author on his papers. Perhaps he has a good reason for this. For example, in some fields, that is accepted, while in others that is pretty condemned (I don't know what is the case for your field). But he could also have some personal justification for why to go against the convention. I would not agree with him, but perhaps if he explains this then it would make it easier for you to understand.

Whatever you decide, try to see the bigger picture that authorship is not always obvious, and this professor will be judged for his own actions by colleagues and the community in the future; it's to some extent out of your hands. Good luck.

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    Also the question is: how important was identifying the direction in the first place? Sometimes the weeks of productive student work (the part that OP sees) is preceded by years of hard struggle with the question at hand to boil it down to manageable chunks. This is not always visible to the students doing the groundwork. – Captain Emacs Apr 20 at 17:37
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    I agree, but sometimes the PI may really want to demonstrate their primacy in developing the idea (rather than supervising a student's work), for instance for grants etc. I personally found these author ordering issues in non-biological/-medical fields quite irrelevant in the end. I know that in biology/medicine, that's a different issue. So one may consider the field here. – Captain Emacs Apr 20 at 19:10
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    Note that the PI may have already known the basic approach and solution to the problem - and just gave it to the students to give them the experience in working it out. – Nathan S. Apr 20 at 19:50
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    @CaptainEmacs The PI here actually is not my advisor. He comes from a different engineering field and our research is aimed at creating a tool which solves a specific problem he faces in his research. – anon Apr 20 at 21:11
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    @bean Losing a paper on the question of the ordering of the author? I would not advice such a thing. You may think of avoiding future collaborations, but that would burn bridges. – usr1234567 Apr 21 at 9:34
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The idea was his. He guided you throughout, giving ideas ("try this"). He seems to clearly have been the "team leader" from what you say. In the absence of any dramatically different information or analysis, I suggest that you let this go. You get a publication. It isn't a doctoral thesis. You gained knowledge that will help you later. Lots of good things here.

And, in general, fighting with advisors is a poor career move.

But, in future projects, especially when the idea for the research comes from you, settle the question of first authorship at the start. Or, just decline to participate, citing other commitments.

In fact, even in this case, it was settled at (or near) the start. And if there were many participants, it may not be clear that anyone else has a better claim.

Depending you your field, this is a typical thing. Even when the PI is listed last on a paper, many (not all) people assume that it was the PI that "really" did the work.

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  • Is it common to go for something of a "joint PI" in a paper? – anon Apr 20 at 15:47
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    PI is Principal Investigator, @arbitraryusername, which normally means someone funding a project or with authority over it. It doesn't normally or automatically mean "equal contribution". For that, listing authors alphabetically with an acknowledgement footnote indicating the fact is often used. – Buffy Apr 20 at 15:57
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    “many […] people assume it was the PI that really did the work” — agreed, but also contrariwise, many other people will assume that the PI did not contribute concretely beyond lab/group leadership, and will assume that most of the actual work came from the less senior authors. (Field-dependent, of course, but I’ve heard this from people in a wide range of fields, including both experimental sciences and theoretical computer science.) – PLL Apr 21 at 10:06
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    I think this is bad advice. If you did most of the work, you deserve to be the first author. Your advisor's behavior is not only selfish, it is also borderline unethical. My suggestion, whatever you end up doing, is to get away from this person as soon as possible. – Gabriel Apr 23 at 13:24
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    @Gabriel, while I agree with you in principle, fighting with your advisor, even when you are in the right can be a career destroying move. If they are unethical in large as well as small ways, it is the student that suffers. Throwing yourself on your sword for a principle is seldom a optimal strategy in life. But, in this case it isn't actually obvious that the advisor doesn't have a valid claim. Especially in a team project environment. But, yes, some advisors should be quickly left behind. But try to leave without knives embedded in your back. – Buffy Apr 23 at 13:30
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I agree with @Buffy that you should let this go and not bring it up. Even in a veiled-yet-transparent way, as @6005 suggested (I don't see any way you could bring that up, now, in a way that doesn't create needless conflict with the person helping you through your early career).

I'm fortunate to be in a field (econ) where the order of authorship is always alphabetical, so this doesn't come up. But even here, there's a fairly famous story of a firmly-established, well-known professor telling one of his grad students something like: "This is great work, and will for sure get published. It was sufficiently your own that you can publish it with yourself as the only author. If you do so, it will go to a good journal. Now, if you want to put my name on it also, then it will surely be published by the best journal in the field. The choice is entirely yours."

The story goes that the student opted to put his advisers name on, and sure enough, was published in the top journal.

My point here is that, rightly or wrongly, you shouldn't think of authorship as strictly merit based. Right now, despite everything you wrote, it strikes me as utterly normal that the professor overseeing undergraduate researchers would be the first author. Instead of fretting over it, be very happy that you're getting authorship as an undergrad (maybe that's normal in your field; in my that's incredibly rare), and then think toward the future.

Regardless, congrats on having a professor who is this interested in doing research with someone who is still early in their undergraduate career! It certainly speaks well to your work so far.

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    I think in computer science it's somewhat normal. He has multiple undergrad research groups working on their own projects, and I'm assuming they're all going to be authors on their own work. As far as my approach to talking to him about it, I think I'm going to just wait until after we publish this paper, when there are no material stakes in the discussion of his authorship policies (he wont get defensive for fear of "losing" first authorship on this paper over a disagreement). If I strongly disagree with his policy, I will have a much easier time telling him so then. – anon Apr 20 at 17:16
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    I think that's a great plan. Asking a question about how authorship in your field works, as an undergrad, when there is no pending authorship, makes perfect sense and shouldn't be inherently confrontational at all. Especially if you can do it in a class or group setting, where it's part of a lesson. – Jeff Apr 20 at 17:22
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    "it strikes me as utterly normal that the professor overseeing undergraduate researchers would be the first author." In my field it's abusive. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 21 at 3:49
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Can you elaborate on how it's not at all normal for the senior person who knows how to conduct research, in a lab of undergrads, being the first author in your field? – Jeff Apr 21 at 13:56
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    In my field, the first author is the student who did the grunt work. The last author is the supervisor. Being last author is more prestigious. If the supervisor puts themselves first, they are taking credit away from the student and taking credit away from themselves. It's both abusive and illogical. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 22 at 3:09
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You state that you are an undergraduate, and that you have a good relationship with the professor. Based on these points, I'd urge you to regard this as an opportunity to learn, and maybe to deepen a relationship with somebody more senior in your field, instead of viewing it as an opportunity to build your resume.

I would advise that you do discuss it with your adviser. Not as a negotiation, but with an inquisitive approach. Be upfront that in an ideal world, you would like to be the first author. Make the case, as you have here -- but don't dwell on it overly -- (a) why you think that would be fair, and (b) why it would be advantageous.

But spend more energy on asking questions (which I'll pull and reframe from your question). Keep your mind as open as you can to the answers.

  1. How would he describe the contribution he, you, and others have made to the project? How significant does he feel his expertise is? How does he perceive the quantity and quality of work of the various participants?
  2. How might it be helpful to him, in his career, to be listed as first author?
  3. What will the editing process look like, and how will it add value to the final product? Does he expect to be just tweaking grammar and spelling, or will he also be looking for substantive critique of how you present the project?
  4. What might a negotiation look like at this point? Is he open to arguments that somebody else should be listed as first author? If so, what kinds of arguments would be persuasive? What might he consider irrelevant?
  5. How does he view the ethics of the decision, considering these points -- and presumably other points that you haven't brought up?
  6. As your career moves forward, how would he advise you to approach first authorship in future situations?

If you can get some good answers to questions like this from somebody in your field, it might help your career more than simply getting first authorship on this paper.

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    I have ultimately decided to take this approach, but I will wait until after our current paper is published. Our relationship is already probably the most valuable tool I have in my "career development toolbox," so for now, while I'm still just doing "schoolboy papers," at least, I can continue learning and gaining experience and not lose too much sleep about author ordering. Thank you for these great questions though, I will definitely be asking some of these when the time comes. – anon Apr 22 at 0:53
  • Yes, this is an opportunity to learn - learn how senior faculty very often "live" off the backs of their juniors. – einpoklum Apr 22 at 17:44
  • @einpoklum I don't have enough information to agree or disagree with you, and it seems to me that the original poster probably doesn't either. As has been described in other threads, there are a lot of factors involved in who deserves the kudos. It's possible that the professor is being unfair; it's possible that the professor has contributed to the paper's success in ways the poster is unaware of; and it's also possible (likely, I'd say) that multiple people could make a reasonable case for first author, in which case there is indeed nuance to learn about. – Pete Forsyth Apr 23 at 2:30
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You should consider the following:

-The importance of the paper to your professor may be dependent on their appointment. For instance, if they are an assistant professor and tenure track, this may be beneficial for their tenure package (in addition to grant money, teaching load, teaching scores...). You may be unaware that if a professor is tenure track, they have typically 7 years to obtain tenure to promote to an associate professor, or tenured professor. If that does not occur, then they will be released from their job. If they are an associate professor, this is less important, as at least their appointment is not on the line.

-Don't underestimate the amount of time that it will take for your advisor to perform the editing, which can take longer than just writing the paper themselves. In addition, you will need the expertise of your advisor to help craft a paper that will make it through peer review successfully, with hopefully minimal editing.

If you do not feel like there is a good return on your time in writing the paper, then you have done enough work to legitimately be included on the paper (and get a good recommendation if things are left on good terms). However, there is a reasonable chance that the paper may never be written, depending on how busy your advisor is. Alternatively, you could write the paper as a second author, and relay to your advisor that you really enjoyed this project and would like to be primary on the next project. This would be the ideal scenario if you are looking at graduate school, as the relationship between you and the advisor would have been mutually beneficial and would result in a presumably strong letter of recommendation.

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    This professor is tenured – anon Apr 22 at 0:38
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You might not realize it but your supervisor might have known in advance what will work and how it will work. When he says "try this" this is frequently a way to pretend that he doesn't know so as to stimulate the undergrads to work (it's is very discouraging to work on something that is sure to work out, there is no excitement then). However the "try this" is often built on years of experience, and he might know very well how this project is going to go, what works and what doesn't. It might have looked like he didn't do much work, but there might be a lot experience behind it that you are discounting. Generally speaking imagine that your supervisor did not exist, would that project be possible, would it surface at all? Imagine now that you never contributed to that project, would it exist? If the answer is NO and YES then clearly he should be first author.

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  • Also to add to this : wait for his edits before you even start the conversation. After seeing the edit you might realize that he is extremely experience in this. – Anon Apr 23 at 5:02
  • I agree with all of the answer except: "he should be first author." This last conclusion is very field-dependent. In many fields by convention advisors do not put their name first, but last. – 6005 Apr 23 at 12:39
  • If that is qualified then I would give this +1. – 6005 Apr 23 at 12:39
  • @6005 I have heart of fields (mechanical engineering subfield) where it is common to put the advisor or chair of department first. – usr1234567 Apr 23 at 13:47
  • @6005, from a purely utilitarian POV starting a fight with your supervisor is not a good idea, if you get the reputation of somebody stingy with credit people will be unwilling to work with you. I have a two-strikes philosophy : I start working with somebody with an open mind not expecting anything ,if it goes bad and the person was useless then I don't work with them again until they give me something (e.g a lead on a new project or something like that). Also once you are big in the field in ten years from now and have tenure you can start exacting your revenge on everybody that crossed you. – Anon Apr 25 at 5:23
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Make a play for alphabetically/arbitrarily listed names.

I agree with @Buffy's answer and mostly-agree with @AnonymousPhysicist's supplement: The advisor's conduct is inappropriate: If you were his equal(s), he would be in the right to expect first authorship; but as an advisor, he should take the step back. But the bottom line is that he has a legitimate claim to first-authorship, and circumstances are not such that you can or should apply leverage.

Having said that... I have a potential practical suggestion. The chances of it working depend on the field you're in, but it most probably will not be perceived as antagonistic.

If you can secure the agreement of all other named authors, approach the advisor together, and tell him that you would like author naming to be alphabetical, rather than by supposed order of contribution, with a footnote to that effect.

There are several (sub)fields in academia where this is actually the norm - and I believe other fields should adopt this as well. If you agree - use this opportunity. It has the positive byproduct of your advisor not being "meaningfully first".

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  • The advisor's name is probably Dr Don Aaron, and he is always the first author, that's we he haven't bothered to talk to his students about being the first author... – usr1234567 Apr 23 at 12:50
  • @usr1234567: If a footnote says "authors are listed in alphabetical order", then that's not an issue. – einpoklum Apr 23 at 12:55
  • I was kind of joking. But still, I have never seen such a footnote. Even on papers where I was one of the authors and we had alphabetical order (and no, I wasn't the first). – usr1234567 Apr 23 at 13:04
  • @usr1234567: You will see these when the author naming order is not the common choice for naming order in the field. – einpoklum Apr 23 at 13:43
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I agree with the other answers that you don't have much leverage to negotiate authorship with your advisor and should not try. But I wanted to answer this part of the question:

Can I present this as a deal breaker for me for future projects?

The deal is already broken. No presenting is required. Assuming you work in a field where author order is important, the supervisor's behaviour is exploitative. You should not work with them on future projects if you have an alternative.

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    I think it's very bold to go off the evidence in the OP all the way to "abusive." – Kevin Arlin Apr 21 at 5:07
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    Let me say this differently: Presenting this as a deal-breaker is needlessly confrontational; just let it be a deal-breaker and walk away. – JeffE Apr 21 at 7:58
  • @KevinCarlson In my field the supervisor is last author. If the supervisor puts themselves first, it is always abuse. It is also self-harm as last author is more prestigious than first author. Exception: all authors are supervisors. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 21 at 8:17
  • More on author order. academia.stackexchange.com/a/537/13240 – Anonymous Physicist Apr 21 at 8:18
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    Abusive is slightly too strong a word, but "exploitative" fits IMHO. Other than that, agree with this answer. – einpoklum Apr 22 at 17:47
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I have experience with both possibilities at two different occasions, with two different people:

  1. I came up for my rights. This started a conflict. It ruined our working relationship.

  2. I did not come up for my rights. Several years later this still hurts: the paper was mine and the person stole it.

With hindsight I prefer option 2: ask yourself the question what you have to gain with conflict. The more senior person almost certainly has thought about the order of authors and has already made a decision. If you fight it, you will always risk more than you will gain.

One really helpful thing for me was to investigate what I could gain: in the first situation I did not gain anything. In the second situation I gained a lot: I learned very rapidly whom I could trust. I will always be careful with that person, but I did not invest emotionally in the conflict. If you want to fight back: write a solo-authored paper.

One lesson learned: before I start researching and writing a paper, I ask all people involved what their view on authorship is. That view can be changed during the writing process, but that way I create some safety.

I know there are already good answers to this question, but I wanted to throw this out there in case anyone needed to hear it.

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Some Elsevier journals are using the CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) author statement. It clarifies what the authors did, but does not help with the order of the author names.
Maybe you can add such a section near the acknowledgment section. If you like the idea, talk to your advisor about it. Be aware, that it's a new approach and might be unknown to your advisor.

Citing from the CRediT homepage:

CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) was introduced with the intention of recognizing individual author contributions, reducing authorship disputes and facilitating collaboration. The idea came about following a 2012 collaborative workshop led by Harvard University and the Wellcome Trust, with input from researchers, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and publishers, including Elsevier, represented by Cell Press.

CRediT offers authors the opportunity to share an accurate and detailed description of their diverse contributions to the published work.

The corresponding author is responsible for ensuring that the descriptions are accurate and agreed by all authors. The role(s) of all authors should be listed, using the relevant above categories. Authors may have contributed in multiple roles. CRediT in no way changes the journal’s criteria to qualify for authorship. CRediT statements should be provided during the submission process and will appear above the acknowledgement section of the published paper as shown further below.

[list of potential roles]

Sample CRediT author statement
Zhang San: Conceptualization, Methodology, Software Priya Singh.: Data curation, Writing- Original draft preparation. Wang Wu: Visualization, Investigation. Jan Jansen: Supervision.: Ajay Kumar: Software, Validation.: Sun Qi: Writing- Reviewing and Editing,

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    I'm flat out against that. Alphabetic authorship is the way to go. – einpoklum Apr 22 at 17:43
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    @einpoklum It's not about the order. Its about to make the actual contribution more transparent. Alphabetic order sounds ridiculous to me, but that's just our fields. With the credit system, you can determine the contributions without knowing the customs of a field. – usr1234567 Apr 22 at 18:51
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    The contribution should not be more transparent. It should be entirely opaque, since papers should not be vehicles for self-aggrandizement. You're publishing a result in math/philosophy/biology/sociology/whatever, not in the gazette of academic gossip. – einpoklum Apr 22 at 19:59
  • This is flat out horrible, useless and distracting to the reader. I couldn't care less if Priya Singh or Ajay Kumar did the writing. I care about the results, not about the individual contributions. It's like kindergarten "but I did more than this guy!!!" – user111388 Apr 24 at 7:14
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    @use1234567: Please make this more explicit that the questioner should ask the advisor if it is ok to add such a statement. From your answer it is not clear to me what the OP should do with the fact that some journals act like this. – user111388 Apr 24 at 9:25

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