I am a self funded PhD student and have been told by my supervisor that her name should be first on any future journal I will be publishing during my studies under her supervision as "this is the only thing she gets from her PhD students".

I am just wondering if the ordering of author names matter? She is going to help me only by proof writing my article. All research will be done by myself.

Is she legally allowed to say it? Should I accept it?

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    What field are you working in? That will help people tell you how reasonable and common this behavior is. In my field -- mathematics -- this would be a very strange thing to say: it would be more than enough cause for you to find a different advisor. By the way, of course it is legal (in the United States): there are no laws governing academic coauthorship! Feb 9, 2014 at 18:12
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    @PeteL.Clark: In some countries, even in mathematics, people use their superiority to force PhD and master students to write papers for them. However, I agree with you that it is a very strange thing in US (and some other countries).
    – user4511
    Feb 9, 2014 at 18:17
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    @Vahid: That would be bad enough, but what the advisor actually asked was pre-guaranteed first authorship. Since in mathematics more than 99% of papers have authors listed in alphabetical order, I think we can conclude that this practice must be essentially unheard of everywhere. Feb 9, 2014 at 18:36
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    If you end up deciding to follow this person (which I think is a bad idea because she is pretty narrow-minded when it comes to mentoring). Do not ever sign off "all the articles you will publish when working with her." This is plainly ridiculous. Lay out the objectives, give a number of the articles to her as 1st author, and set aside a couple that both of your agree that you'll be the 1st author. You'll need some 1st author evidence to jump start your career. If she declines, run away like escaping a plague. Feb 9, 2014 at 22:18
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    This is not a duplicate of the marked question. This question asks specifically whether the supervisor should be first author, not whether the supervisor should be any author.
    – ff524
    May 1, 2014 at 5:36

2 Answers 2


I am just wondering if the ordering of author names matter?

In a small number of academic fields -- like mathematics -- the overwhelmingly majority of jointly authored papers list the authors' names in alphabetical order. In these fields, a non-alphabetical ordering of the authors stands out like a sore thumb: the average mathematician knows it is meant to look bad for the latter-listed author but is not sure exactly what it means. In a field like this, if you hear a potential advisor say this, you should say "Thank you, I'll look for someone else" and walk out the door.

In most other academic fields, the ordering of the authors conveys important meaning in a manner which can be subtle and vary from field to field. There are some academic fields where being the last named author carries a lot of prestige, but in my understanding this is the kind of prestige awarded a very senior person. I don't know of any academic field in which putting the junior author at the end looks good for them.

But anyway, here is another kind of answer to your question: the ordering of names must matter to your potential advisor or she wouldn't have brought it up! Therefore if you yourself are not sure what rights you are signing away in such an agreement, you should be especially skeptical. I think the first thing that you should do is look around to see how common this practice is among other faculty and students in your department. (If you are in an academic context far from the American one, it would be more prudent to do this even if you are in a field like mathematics than to immediately walk out of the office like I suggested above. I don't know what the standard arrangement is at every math department in the world...obviously.) This will be easy to check just by looking at the publications of the faculty members. Also asking the other students can help.

She is going to help me only by proof writing my article. All research will be done by myself.

Proofreading is not the same as advising. An agreement where your advisor guarantees in advance not to advise you in most meaningful ways and that she will insist on first coauthorship sounds like an especially bad one. It also sounds unethical to me by the general standards of academic ethics, although subfield ethics may have a role to play.

Is she legally allowed to say it?

Not every form of bad behavior is illegal (thank goodness). I can't speak to the law over the entire surface of the earth, but in the US there are certainly no laws pertaining to this kind of thing.

Should I accept it?

I think that what potential advisor is really trying to say is that she does not want to be your potential advisor. Sometimes people have trouble saying "no" outright; this happens in academia (where the tenure process takes a good shot at making "yes-men" and "yes-women" out of academics) but also in life generally. A lot of times I have seen academics offer to do things for students only under quite unreasonable conditions that they clearly (to me) expect the students to turn down...only to have the student not know so clearly that the conditions are unreasonable and accept them. Of course both parties end up unhappy.

In your case I feel reasonably confident that your advisor is trying to tell you to go away. What I am unsure of is whether she's telling it to you specifically or to all students generally: the rather oafish "this is the only thing she gets from her PhD students" seems to indicate that this professor is simply not onboard with the practice of having PhD students at all. But either way, I advise you to look around: probably you can do better.


In many fields first authorship signals who has contributed the most, scientifically, to the paper. Included in this is not only efforts to do experiments and drawing conclusions from the experiments but also to originate the ideas on which the paper is built as well as writing the paper. It is quite normal that the first paper a graduate student writes may have the main advisor as first author because of the wealth of input an inexperienced student may need. As time progresses, I would say the student should move to the first author position as the work becomes more and more independent. The goal is, after all, to train you to become an independent researcher. So the statement that the advisor should be first author on all you produce would not be considered reasonable in many disciplines.

Should you accept it? From an ethical point, no. In reality, you need to think of your future and assess what effects such actions would result in. Not knowing the way publications normally look in your field it is difficult to say anything specific but when considering general authorship guidelines as detailed in, for example, the Vancouver protocol (do a search on Academia.se to see details) the person who fulfil all criteria should be an author and the person who contributes most should e first author.

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