I, an electrical engineering undergraduate, am currently involved in a research project, wherein I help write all the codes, run all the simulations, and plot all the graphs.

The paper is about to be submitted soon. I am hesitating whether to mention my desire to be listed as a co-author to my advisor.

Admittedly, I have no contributions to the idea and the theoretical analysis, as those are a bit too complicated for an undergraduate, or at least for me myself.

However, I have done all the implementations of the ideas and plotted all the resulting graphs, which, I believe, will be put into the paper.

In such a case, do I deserve an authorship (maybe 3rd or 4th)? Or it is reasonable to just acknowledge me in the Acknowledgement paragraph at the end of the paper?

If I deserve one, should I bring this up now or wait until I have done all my work?

  • 4
    Never allow people to take advantage of you. People like to take things for granted and not to appreciate others work. If you have done substantial work, take credit for it. And also, having your name in thank you part is basically nothing. Mar 12, 2014 at 22:46
  • @SalvadorDali Thanks for the comment. It is just so ambiguous that I am acknowledged. Being acknowledged, I am indeed thanked for my work. On the other hand, that means nearly nothing to my future PhD applications. But in such a case, if they refuse to list me as an author, I cannot argue being acknowledged to be nothing. That would be so rude. Mar 13, 2014 at 1:04
  • Having 'thank you' sometimes is not enough for huge amount of coding/running simulations, and plotting. Work of such sort costs some money, so if your professor thinks that it is really that easy, he can try to find himself a guy to do this for him and pay him money. Definitely you can not argue with his decision (but ff524 has a lot of valid points how to start this conversation). This can be a nice/sad experience to speak about what you will get in the future. Mar 13, 2014 at 1:22
  • So @FarticlePilter - did you talk to your advisor? What was the outcome? (Just curious :))
    – ff524
    Mar 14, 2014 at 21:43
  • 2
    @ff524 Talked to one of them. He said definitely I would be one co-author in his view. Will update you once I finish talking with the second advisor. :) Thanks a lot for the care! Mar 15, 2014 at 2:17

2 Answers 2


I am hesitating whether to mention my desire to be listed as a co-author to my advisor.

Please mention it to your advisor right away.

They may say, "You're right, you should be a co-author." Or, "Given your specific contributions, it wouldn't be appropriate to list you as a co-author, but you will be listed in the acknowledgements." Or they may say, "Given your current contributions you can't be a co-author, but if you also do XYZ for the paper before it is finished, then it would be appropriate for you to be 3rd author."

You may agree or disagree with their answer.

We can't really tell you definitely whether or not you should be a co-author. (We don't know enough about the content of the paper, or your contribution, and it wouldn't be appropriate for you to give that level of detail here.)

But, you should definitely talk to your advisor about it (preferably right away, and definitely before the paper is submitted).

Edit: The OP made the following comment -

After digging out some info about the previous undergraduate students, I find all of them are not listed as authors. But they are indeed acknowledged in the paper.

If you think for some reason your advisor will be reluctant to include you as an author, you can do some preparation for your talk with them as follows. Then, if your advisor's first reaction is "I've never given authorship to an undergrad before," you are prepared to politely and non-combatively make a case to your advisor for why you think you merit authorship.

  • Check if your university or department has any formal policy on authorship. For example, here are three different policies.
  • If you have no university-specific guidelines, you can refer to the IEEE rules.
  • In either case, identify to yourself things you have done that you think qualify you for authorship according to the guidelines.

Then, if your advisor's first response is "No" and you disagree (after listening to the reasoning), you can present your side (which your advisor may or may not agree with).

Also, if your advisor's assessment is "No, you haven't done enough to warrant authorship," you can ask "What else I can do before paper submission that will 'bump' my contribution up to authorship level?" I have had students in the past whose contribution to a paper didn't warrant authorship. In those cases, I told them: "Your current contributions do not merit authorship (only acknowledgement), but if you also do X, Y, Z, you will be an author."

(Note: I'm not advising any kind of escalation at this point - you don't even know yet what your advisor will say! But you may feel more comfortable with some kind of plan in mind for how to explain your contributions (as you understand them) to your advisor if advisor says "No" and you don't think advisor fully understands your side.)

In any event, talk to your advisor as soon as you can.

  • 4
    to add, while I don't know EE that well, I'm in a related area (CS) and I'd find it very odd if you didn't get at least some position on the author list. So please do ask your advisor and don't be shy about it.
    – Suresh
    Mar 11, 2014 at 20:07
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    To add to what I think is one of the better authorship answers I have seen, in the future it is best to have this conversation at the outset and then periodically during the research and writing phases.
    – StrongBad
    Mar 11, 2014 at 20:42
  • 1
    @Suresh After digging out some info about the previous undergraduate students, I find all of them are not listed as authors. But they are indeed acknowledged in the paper. Mar 11, 2014 at 20:44
  • I see. Yes as @StrongBad says this should be made clear up front before the work even starts.
    – Suresh
    Mar 11, 2014 at 20:52
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    @PiotrMigdal hopefully advisor will say "of course you are an author!" and the rest becomes unnecessary :)
    – ff524
    Mar 14, 2014 at 21:42

You do not have to have formed a solid opinion about whether your contributions merit coauthorship in order to ask the question of your advisor. In fact I think that every young person doing work which is being used in any way in a published academic paper would do well to ask this question. If you like, you can frame it not as your trying to suss out whether you have been unfairly denied coauthorship but that you are looking to learn more about the research process itself and inquiring into what sort of research contributions merit coauthorship. (Even if you are seeking to do such a sussing out, framing it as a teachable moment is probably a better way to get a helpful, unguarded response.)

In my experience, things go smoothly if the issue of coauthorship is raised earlier in the collaborative process rather than later. It is hard for me to think of a situation in which it is "too soon" to ask this question, although if you ask it early enough the answer may not be definitive. It is not good to be working on something and wondering whether one will wind up as a coauthor or not. That's needlessly stressful.

Also in my experience, undergraduates often have unrealistic expectations about what sort of work merits publication and/or coauthorship. It seems, especially on this site, that a lot of undergraduates are hoping that their undergraduate research can be published. In some cases it can, and how feasible this is must be highly field-dependent, but here is an inherent feature of undergraduate research: it is research done by someone who has much less subject-area knowledge and insight than she will herself have later on, assuming she continues in the discipline.

(If you don't continue in the discipline then you should ask yourself seriously why you want to be published in it. Getting anything published anywhere sounds neat to any suitably bookish young person -- and it sounds neat to me too, and I am a published author -- but the reality of it is that academic publication takes a lot of time and work over and beyond the work that was done to write the paper. If you are a 20-year old who has written an electrical engineering paper and then decided to go on to some other career, please think seriously about just putting that paper on your webpage and spending the time that it would take to get your paper published learning to play the guitar, or watching Lars von Trier films, or finding a cute boyfriend/girlfriend, or...almost anything else, really. If you don't continue on in the discipline, then having a published academic paper is worth essentially nothing beyond the neat feeling you get by being published. It does not convey the real life advantages that, say, being able to talk knowledgeably about Dogme95 would.)

Note well: I am not saying that undergraduates cannot do good research. They can: in rare but extant circumstances, undergraduates have done research which is better than what most other people in the field can do. What I am saying is that almost every undergraduate who does research will do significantly better research a little later on, to the extent that I cannot think of a situation in which someone's undergraduate research became a big part of their professional profile.

Added: I did not mean to create the impression that I feel that in this particular case the OP's contributions do not merit coauthorship. I can't know without knowing the details of the situation, and I wouldn't be a good judge anyway because I work in a field -- mathematics -- where the standards for what constitutes coauthorship are very different from in EE. Let me reiterate the points that I did make:

(i) The advisor is much better equipped to understand whether the student's work merits coauthorship than the student. So statistically speaking, if a student is unsure about this, asks the advisor, and the advisor says the student has not done enough for coauthorship, the advisor is probably right. Of course this unequal expertise and authority sets things up perfectly for a predatory advisor to exploit his undergraduate workers. My answer is mostly directed towards the higher probability event that the advisor is acting honorably. The main thing I advised the OP to do was to talk to his advisor about the standards for coauthorship. I feel very strongly that this is the correct first step (and should have been taken before, in fact, since the OP has some anxiety about the situation). If what the OP hears in this conversation is very unsatisfactory to him, then we can further discuss the situation. I don't want to assume that will happen.

(ii) The line between getting acknowledged and getting coauthorship is certainly a gray area, even among adult academics. For example, in the last few months alone I was invited to be a coauthor on two different papers. I had to think about each one. In the end, I turned down one request -- which came from two graduate students in my own department, including one of my own advisees -- and accepted the other after doing more work so that I felt like my coauthorship was justified. Both of these could have gone either way. When I think about whether to include myself or someone else as a coauthor, first I weight intellectual contributions (in a way which may not generalize so well outside of mathematics, which is something I have recently learned by discussion with other members of the site) and second I think in terms of the professional implications of putting on or leaving off a certain person's name. The paper that I left my name off of was the third paper coming out of a graduate research seminar organized and led by me [I was a coauthor on the first two], and the results obtained were ones that I specifically asked for. Nevertheless the work done on this paper was by the students and not by me* -- my own direct contribution to this work was positive but indubitably of a smaller order than theirs -- and the advantage to each of these students of having a paper which does not have a faculty coauthor is considerable. For me, having one more publication of a similar sort as the other two is not a big advantage to me. In fact, by not putting my name on the paper I am in fact claiming a sort of academic seniority: I'm showing that I've reached a certain point in my career where I can successfully inspire and direct projects that I am not directly involved with. So my answers come from the perspective of a faculty advisor who thinks carefully about which names to put on or leave off a paper...including his own. This behavior does not make me an unusually virtuous member of my academic community: it seems like business as usual. So I would like to extend the benefit of the doubt to the OP's academic advisor and assume that he is acting honorably until specific information comes up to the contrary.

*: In fact this third work involved computations that were so substantial that although I am, I suppose, capable of having done them, in practice I would not have been willing to devote the time and enthusiasm that my students did, and it would certainly have taken me longer to write a much kludgier version of the code than what my student came up with fairly quickly.

  • 1
    I think this is very field-specific - in EE (which is my field), it is not uncommon for an undergrad to make a very major and useful contribution to a collaborative research effort.
    – ff524
    Mar 11, 2014 at 23:03
  • @ff524: That's good to know; my field (mathematics) is rather the opposite: many future research mathematicians don't know what the objects of their future research are as undergraduates. But I'll bet it's still true that EE undergrads who do useful research do even better research as grad students and beyond. Something which didn't quite make it into my long answer is the idea that the advisor is in a much better position to evaluate the merits of the work than the undergrad, and probably also than some outside university official. Is it common for undergrads to be "exploited" by faculty? Mar 11, 2014 at 23:09
  • I wouldn't say it's common or uncommon for undergrads to be exploited. It does happen, though. If the OP's advisor says "I never credit undergrads as authors," then the OP should push back and show how his contributions merit authorship. If the OP's advisor says, "You don't merit authorship because your part doesn't meet the criteria for a significant intellectual contribution in this field," then it's worth considering that the advisor may have judged correctly.
    – ff524
    Mar 11, 2014 at 23:12
  • @ff524: "I never credit undergrads as authors" would raise alarm bells, yes. The field-specificity is probably coloring my take on the whole situation, I must admit: in mathematics 99.9% of the time when undergraduates get involved in "research", it is really a training exercise for them. I have never had an undergraduate do any calculations for me or anything remotely like that (recently I asked my own PhD student to do this -- he is a computer whiz, and I am not -- and even that was new territory for me). Mar 11, 2014 at 23:15
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    @PeteL.Clark In applied computer science (and likely many other fields closer to engineering), much of the day-to-day work of research is programming, tool-building, doing rather straight-forward experiments and evaluations etc. It is not that I couldn't do it myself (in some but not all cases faster and/or better than the student), it is just that my work day only has so many hours which might be better spent differently. OTOH, it would feel really wrong to me to not have a student that spend many, many hours on the research project as a co-author of a resulting paper.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 12, 2014 at 11:05

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