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TA (a PhD student) of one of my classes was looking for an undergrad to join in one of his projects. This was not directly related to the field I want to work in grad school, but there is no group or faculty in my preferred area, so I wanted to join in anyways (because it is another area I enjoy and I had lots of free time). We started working on it with him, had weekly meetings, I helped with theoretical aspects, and I did all implementations (replicating the other papers that did not provide code so we can compare plus our own experiments). I also did a lot about designing the experiments (which is the only way of proving your work in this area).

This got accepted to one of the top conferences. While I obviously didn't expect to be the first author, I was kind of suprised when I saw that I was the last author, and the professor (PhD student's advisor) was the second last author. For context, it is CS (but not theory), and the author list in our paper is clearly not alphabetical. Now, my questions:

  • Isn't this unusual? I thought it was better for a professor to be the last author? When I asked the PhD student about, he just said it was the professor's decision.

  • Should I still include this in my PhD applications (it's my only publication so far)? I feel like the admissions committee would ask about why I am the last author.

  • When asked, should I mention the possible reasons? I never asked the professor, because, after this project, the PhD student left the program and started a PhD program from scratch somewhere else. Since I had mainly worked with him, and since it was not my primary interest area, I decided to not start a new project. (I don't remember if I conveyed this to the professor after the author list was sent or before, it might have had an effect).

Finally, I have checked this professor's Google Scholar page, and in fact he has acted similarly at least 3 times before (3 publications, each with some of his PhD students, in each one, one of the PhD students is the last author). I believe this (and his other PhD student leaving) are supporting facts for me, I still feel like it could come across as whiny

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    Is it more desirable to be first? To be last? To be next-to-last? What are the implications of position in the author list? Are you being short-changed by being last author? Are you getting more credit than you deserve? What is the issue? – paul garrett May 22 at 2:02
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    It's in computer science but the author list is not alphabetical, so anyone who sees is will assume that it's "the most contributing to least contributing and PI/lead last" order. I'm clearly not the lead, so they will ask why. – kepmhme May 22 at 2:28
  • Ah, thanks for clarification. I sorta suspected that, but it was one of these "either this or the opposite" situations for me... My sympathies. – paul garrett May 22 at 2:54
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    Absolutely include it in your CV. It would be foolish to omit it. Self defeating. – Buffy May 22 at 13:09
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    Actually, in any application. "It was my advisor's choice". And you are a rare undergrad to have any publication at all. Long term is is a big win. – Buffy May 22 at 14:23
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There are at least three basic author order schemes:

1) Alphabetical

2) In decreasing order of contribution

3) Split into junior and senior contributors, with juniors coming first in decreasing order of contribution, and then seniors in increasing order of contribution. [Often with just one senior spot]

In Computer Science, I've predominantly seen 1) and 2). An undergrad being at the end of an author list that is clearly not alphabetically ordered is a dead give-away for order type 2), and hence does not require particularly explanation.

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    For completeness, it should be mentioned that in some fields, last authorship is a thing (often dedicated to the person who brought in the funding). But I haven't seen it in CS. – lighthouse keeper May 22 at 13:25
  • Not common, but some papers have authors in random order. – GoodDeeds May 22 at 13:36
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    Then it's still problematic in another level. In all those months we worked on it, the professor did nothing but just asking for updates and trying to force us/tell us to finish stuff before some deadlines. And still, I have never seen a (non-alphabetical) author list where the PI was the secon to last author (sometimes they are the first, probably because they worked on it 1-1, did most of the work etc) – kepmhme May 22 at 13:38
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    Which part of CS does this refer to? (3) seems to be quite common, especially keeping the primary advisor last. – GoodDeeds May 22 at 13:40
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    @kepmhme Presumably, the professor pitched the idea to a funding source which allowed the PhD student to do the project in the first place, which is a ton of work. The professor typically does the first 80% of the work, and the students do the other 80%. If that doesn't add up, you know why people are left unsatisfied. Including you as an author at all is praise, and especially as this could be interpreted as portraying you as the subject expert, don't sniff at it. -but I'm not in CS – Riet May 22 at 20:08
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Isn't this unusual? I thought it was better for a professor to be the last author? When I asked the PhD student about, he just said it was the professor's decision.

It may be unusual, but if the professor wanted to give you the "seat of honor" it's probably because you deserve it. I wouldn't worry about this.

Should I still include this in my PhD applications (it's my only publication so far)? I feel like the admissions committee would ask about why I am the last author.

Of course! Having any publications at all as an undergrad is a substantial accomplishment. If they ask why you're the last author, you can just say it was the professor's decision and explain your contributions in detail.

(Later on, you may produce further research that supersedes this, but there's no harm in leaving this citation on your CV, too.)

When asked, should I mention the possible reasons?

Focus on what you contributed to the paper, rather than speculating on what the professor's reasoning was.

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    What do you mean by "seat of honor"? – GoodDeeds May 22 at 13:37
  • The position in the author list normally reserved for the supervising professor (whether because it indicates a large contribution, denotes the corresponding author, or another reason--the OP doesn't indicate why they think it would be "better" for the professor to appear there, so we can only speculate). – Max May 24 at 3:10
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Just for background, I'm in the field of computer science and am both a PhD student and a faculty member (going on 3 years now).

If there is anything I've learned about authorship, one's position all depends on the composition / mindset of the research team (w/ heavy influence from the lead / PI).

Isn't this unusual? I thought it was better for a professor to be the last author? When I asked the PhD student about, he just said it was the professor's decision.

Not unusual. My adviser prefers that she be the last author when she advises. I prefer that authorship should reflect the amount of effort exerted (another topic) on research tasks discussed in the paper. Another co-faculty prefers that writing should have greater weight (in terms of effort) versus actual tasks performed for the project. I honestly think its a mindset -- regardless of what the rest of the "field" is doing.

Should I still include this in my PhD applications (it's my only publication so far)? I feel like the admissions committee would ask about why I am the last author.

Yes! Don't leave it out as you're just starting out. When you're asked about it, it'll be your chance to brag!

@Max already gave good points to answer this. But to add my personal experience -- I benefited from publishing a paper my (undergraduate) adviser told us we should try to push out. We didn't think much of it because none of us wanted to go into the academe at the time. Later (after deciding to pursue research), I found out that the paper would help me get into a higher rank.

When asked, should I mention the possible reasons? I never asked the professor, because, after this project, the PhD student left the program and started a PhD program from scratch somewhere else. Since I had mainly worked with him, and since it was not my primary interest area, I decided to not start a new project. (I don't remember if I conveyed this to the professor after the author list was sent or before, it might have had an effect).

If you're asked then its your chance to brag! In general, being an author implies you had a hand in the work. I forget how many interviews I've paneled, but I really could careless about the position. We just have to accept that there are different notions of authorship position. I'd rather focus on learning about your contribution to the project and what the whole research group managed to find out.

This is just my personal opinion, but don't let authorship order get to you too much. Inclusion as an author is a bigger issue. Also, as you progress with pushing out publications and working with other individuals, reflect on what authorship position / order means to you and how other individuals might have influenced your thoughts. Lastly, keep in mind to develop your voice in research team discussions. Things can get awkward if not everyone's on the same page, but I feel the easiest way to get through this is to lay things out so everyone knows what everyone else is thinking.

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