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This past summer, I started my undergraduate thesis project under two advisors. One of my advisors had done research on a similar topic to what my thesis project is covering and she had the data collected from their experiments. (For context, we are synthesizing anticancer molecules and testing them on cancer cell lines. In her research, they made different derivatives than me but with the same starting materials).

Since the two works require similar background knowledge, I was asked to write the paper for their research since I would be looking through articles anyways for my project. I wrote the entire paper and provided all analyses of the data (abstract, intro, results, discussion, experimental section) and my advisor provided comments for edits.

I am listed as the sixth author out of seven. Since I'm just an undergrad, I'm not sure how authorship works but I know that the people who contribute more to the project are earlier in the author list.

Based on your experiences, should I be earlier in the list or is this position common when someone writes the paper when they didn't contribute to the actual research? Obviously I know I shouldn't be first author but I feel like 6th/7 is pretty low for someone who wrote the whole paper. I'm not sure how to go about discussing this with my advisor.

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    This cannot be answered without knowing the contribution of every author. Nov 1 '20 at 23:01
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    I am listed first on a paper to which I contributed some data and a few hours of discussion, nothing else. The person who did the real work is near the end of the list. Why? The paper is in a discipline where the practice it to list authors alphabetically. So, the discipline may make a difference. (Yes, I did ask to be removed entirely. The other authors said they couldn't have done it without my ideas and data.)
    – Bob Brown
    Nov 1 '20 at 23:52
  • The point was that I don't have experience with publishing papers and I was wondering if being 6th out of 7 authors listed is common for someone who wrote the paper but didn't do the research. I'm not looking to complain about my position (I'm actually very excited to be an author) but I wanted some insight into what is common when publishing papers. The people listed before me are those that synthesized the compounds in the lab and tested them on the cells (collected the data). Also the authors are not listed alphabetically.
    – user8976
    Nov 2 '20 at 1:57
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More important than who "wrote" the paper is whose research and ideas it is based on. Who is responsible for the "intellectual content" of the work. But I agree that 6th is pretty low. Some fields are fanatical about author order. But you can ask. Ask, at least, for an explanation of the author order. Maybe it is rational, maybe not.

But for an undergraduate, any paper is a good thing and being associated with established researchers in print is especially good. So, even if it isn't exactly "fair", it is still something that you can point to in the future. Not everyone has such a thing to help them get to the next level.

Sometimes, not very rational, an author will be "high up" in the list for no better reason than they need a particular boost at the moment to get a job or similar.

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  • "not very rational" Also not very ethical. Nov 1 '20 at 23:02
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, no, but (a) common and (b) your perspective, like mine, is different from that of those who do this. The very imperative to make author order so important leads to such abuses, I think. But, it is what it is, and an undergrad may just have to live with it for a while.
    – Buffy
    Nov 1 '20 at 23:09
  • "just have to live with it" If your supervisor is abusive, do not "live with it," quit! If you stick with an abuser you are encouraging their behavior. I have no comment on this specific situation. Nov 1 '20 at 23:13
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, easy to say "quit" but hard to do - giving up years of work potentially. Quitting is easy for only the rich and connected.
    – Buffy
    Nov 1 '20 at 23:18
  • Yes, it's true that doing the ethical thing is often hard and harder if you lack privilege. Nov 1 '20 at 23:19

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