I've stumbled upon various professors (R1 universities in CS) having almost no first-author publications for multiple years while directing (or co-directing) their research groups/labs.

From the perspective of a PhD applicant, this might mean two things:

  • They spend so much time and effort advising their PhD students that they do not have time for their own first-author research. This is a good thing. (Their students' research is also the professor's research in a way though.)

  • They are either unproductive, or spending most of their time doing things outside academia (consulting, starting companies etc.).

I was wondering if this was normal, and whether there were other possible explanations for this type of a publishing record.

In other words, should this be a "red flag" when looking for potential PhD advisors?

Edit: This is not a theory-focused field. So the author names are ordered based on their contributions.

  • 18
    You may need to specify the field a bit further. If I am not mistaken in the more theoretical parts of CS, never being the first author simply is an indication of having a name with a first letter that is found later in the alphabet. So you may need to look more closely at their publications and check if the author list is sorted or not.
    – mlk
    Jul 30 '21 at 12:20
  • @mlk Thanks for pointing that out. I edited the question.
    – hex
    Jul 30 '21 at 12:34
  • 2
    Regarding your second point, if they were unproductive and doing things outside academia, I don't think they'd have enough time to supervise their research group in a manner that would produce multiple quality publications per year. Jul 30 '21 at 13:05
  • 10
    In other areas, biology for instance, PIs names will appear last in the listing. Jul 30 '21 at 13:09
  • 3
    Does this answer your question? What does first authorship really mean? (See the CS specific answer in that thread.)
    – GoodDeeds
    Jul 30 '21 at 20:13

The authorship standard in my field (neuroscience/biomedical) is that the first author is the person who primarily did the work, often a graduate student or post doc; the last author is the person who supervised the work, often a professor. Middle authors are seen as having more modest contributions, but their actual impact varies quite a bit and it's impossible to judge just from the author list. In this scheme, you would be better off judging a professor's productivity by considering the number and significance of last author publications they have.

CS has varying authorship conventions (in theoretical areas closer to math they tend to follow the math convention of alphabetical authorship, for example), but my understanding is that in at least some applied areas of CS they follow this same convention. It would actually be pretty weird for a professor to have a large percentage of first author publications in my field, it would suggest they are not letting their students get proper credit for the work or are not advising students.

I would not, however, characterize this as "they do not have time for their own first-author research"; rather, their role in their own research has changed and now their own research includes working with students. You don't need to be the first author for it to be your research.

  • This is certainly the answer as far the disciplines are hard science. In all chemistry, materials science, and, to the best of my knowledge, physics and engineering, the standard is that leading scientists are last authors. Regional exceptions do exist. And other situations as well. The chemistry group where I did my master adopted alphabetical order by default. OP should look at the last author position instead.
    – Alchimista
    Jul 31 '21 at 10:26
  • 2
    +1. I would add that some fields of biology use "corresponding author" to indicate the "most involved" of the senior authors. Others seem to consider it as denoting nothing more than poor soul stuck dealing with the online submission portal (and, a contact point for questions).
    – Matt
    Jul 31 '21 at 20:35

I suggest not putting too much emphasis on this one factor. The reason is that there are just about as many reasons for this as there are associate professors. You've named a couple of them. Let me add a few more.

Some recently tenured faculty need a break, especially if their path to tenure was especially arduous.

Some recently tenured faculty want to change their research focus now that they have the freedom to do so. This takes a while and may seem unproductive from the outside.

Some people contribute collaboratively to the work of others and are happy to let the others take the major part of the credit, especially since their own position is now secure.

In some collaborations it is difficult to say who was the "major" contributor. As you note, some professors are happy to let their students take the lead.

Some professors just aren't enamored of the "paper chase" and are happy to do research for its own rewards.

But if they are leading a lab, and the lab as a whole is productive, they might be ideal advisors. They aren't as likely to step in front of you at the last moment claiming first authorship. I'll guess a lot of "first authorship" by professors is demanded rather than earned. I'm relying for that on questions asked on this site, rather than personal experience, however.

I contributed quite a lot to a lot of the projects of others and was happy to do so. I was secure in my position and didn't need any citation count heat index confirmation of that. The work was good and made contributions. I doubt that in most of it anyone really thought about authorship order (one exception where it was very clear - to all of us who had the lead). In particular, I don't appear on the dissertations/publications of my doctoral students (other than an ack), nor did my advisor ever consider joining me in authorship on my work, though he did contribute to it.

In choosing an advisor, think more about who can be helpful in the short and long term. Your reputation is your own, it doesn't derive from that of your advisor. Ask around (other students) to see what sort of support you are likely to get.

I had a friend on the faculty (tenured) while I was a grad student. He predicted at the time that he would never make full professor. It turned out to be too pessimistic.

  • In many experimental fields, the first-author papers published by a professor are also different types of papers (reviews, perspectives, op-eds, etc), not the data-driven papers that a trainee would work on.
    – Matt
    Jul 31 '21 at 20:43

Maybe there are sufficiently confident in themselves and their work not to need the recognition that comes from being 1st author. I will certainly give authorship priority to my students whenever it’s reasonable: my contributions tend to be more at the conceptual than the calculational level, and a 1st-author paper will have more i pact on their CV than mine.


I think it is also a matter of attitude and personal choice.

To give you and example, both my PhD and postdoc advisors are well-established with about the same number of publications per year but have a very different publication profile:

  1. My postdoc advisor has no first-author papers from the last 5 years or so: they have lots of students and prefer to supervise lots of projects. Most of their papers are as senior author.
  2. My PhD advisor has less students and prefers to also pursue projects that are interesting to them resulting in first author papers (about one per year) and some last author papers.

From a student's perspective, it is a very different experience:

  1. My postdoc advisor's group is large, hierarchically structured and research lines and projects are very well-defined. Lots of hands-on supervision and help from the supervisor. The PhD students don't have to stress about what to do, it is quite clear to them.
  2. My PhD advisor's group was smaller with much more interaction and collaboration. Students were expected to be more independent and responsible and propose projects. Students could always ask for help or advice but one had to ask.

Which kind of supervisor is better, depends on the student. So, to answer your question, the lack of first-author papers is not an indication of a better/worse supervisor but it could be an indication of a different type of supervisor.

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