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I’m an undergrad researcher at a lab. I started to work with my mentor, a PhD candidate, last year. She was nice at the first, and I learned a lot from her. Quickly, like in 2 weeks after starting my research, I became very independent and started to do experiments and collect/analyze data without her. I work around 40 hours per week for this project. I cherished this opportunity and I made huge progress. I see a positive result, but when I tried to report some updates to our PI, she didn’t let me talk, and she just pretended she found those things instead of me. In addition, I found out for that very long time, she just “pretended” to work and did her personal things in the lab while I was conducting our project and doing experiments.
Our project is ending, and we are probably going to have a paper. I think I deserve to be the first author, but as an undergrad I really don’t know a lot about academia. Could you give me some information to help me? Or do you have some opinions? I would appreciate it very much.

My contribution: 90% data and data analysis; 95% experiment; 20% experiment design

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    academia.stackexchange.com/questions/147969/… possible duplicate/defenitely related. Mar 16 at 9:59
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    To have a strong claim for becoming first author, you also have to write the paper, or at least good parts of it.
    – Karl
    Mar 17 at 11:16
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    @Karl I'd say that's field-dependent, IME in experimental physics I'd expect that whoever did most of the experimental work would be first author no matter how much input they had in writing the final paper
    – llama
    Mar 17 at 18:24
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    Even the PhD candidate might not have a claim of first author. In fact, you might not have permission to publish at all unless you have it explicitly from the PI. In some fields the lab/center director gets authorship on all papers. In some, the PI gets authorship. They paid for it, it is their data and research even if you did all the work. It is always best to establish authorship well in advance of paper writing.
    – JonSG
    Mar 17 at 18:35
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    My experience is that junior researchers often underestimate the amount that their work has relied on other people's efforts. Obviously I don't know whether this is true in your particular circumstances, but it is something to consider.
    – avid
    Mar 18 at 10:56

2 Answers 2

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You say you don't really know a lot of academia. I think what you need to learn about it for this situation is quite simple -- good academic practices are founded on good communication. It may be that the PhD candidate you are working with is not particularly good at it, which is even more of a reason for you to lead by example (of good communication) in this case.

As far as I understand, you have not yet discussed the possible paper resulting from this research with your PI. Take initiative in discussing this with your PI. Some advice for this discussion:

  • Come prepared with facts, not opinions.

    So "I designed experiments X Y and Z and contributed to the analysis by performing A B and C" is good, but "I became very independent" is an opinion which you'd like your PI to reach based on the facts you present, and not something to say.

  • Especially if you're unsure about academic practices, phrase things as questions.

    Conventions on author order differ from field to field -- a lot. But a practice that is/should be universally encouraged is discussing it before work on the paper has started. So after presenting your contributions to date, ask about the authorship conventions and discuss your place (and the meaning of your place) in that list.

  • Remember that the work is not done -- writing is a skill.

    This is the key. While discussing the authorship, ask what should be your contributions going forward, related to the write-up. While it seems like you have done a substantial amount of work to date, maybe your PhD student co-author can make up for some of it in the writing phase.

  • Be open to the possibility that you are not correctly interpreting your contributions so far.

    Being talked over is certainly not nice, as is somebody misrepresenting your work as theirs (in fact, that is called plagiarism, but that's a whole other discussion). But I still prefer to assume good intentions (while still being careful) from other people. This is why preparing for this meeting with facts about your specific contributions will help.

    However, I don't know from your question whether this PhD student had separate meetings with the PI about the project. Did they contribute to conceptualising the research direction, or experiment design (maybe even before you joined?). So be prepared to listen and change your opinion about your relative contributions if new facts are presented.

Finally, there is a possibility that you take initiative, initiate good communication, however both your PI and your PhD co-author are not cooperating. Sadly, even if you deserve first authorship, while discussing it is certainly worth it, entering an argument over it isn't. Any undergrad publication is already a huge boost to your profile, regardless of where you are in the author list -- and if you can elaborate on your contributions when asked, that's how you can really shine. If any authorship is on the table rather than first authorship, and you do not believe the discussion went well (i.e. no facts were presented to convince you the other person was the primary contributor), take what you can get and look to move away from this PI in the future.

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    Good advice here.
    – Buffy
    Mar 16 at 13:19
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    To add to this good answer (+1) - come with the draft of the paper before anybody else, with your name as the first author. Get the popcorn and look at the world burning (this sis a good experience to have)
    – WoJ
    Mar 17 at 10:56
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    @penelope: sorry if my words offended you - but just, maybe,e there is a moment where someone does not need to be crawling in front of the demi-god professor but simply state that he is the first author? Somehow in my 30 years career, it did not hurt me that much to be assertive and say what I mean, and avoided a lot of stress. OP is being sidelined because he is junior, the real world outside of academia is breaking the medieval structure of academia apart. As fro the writing part - the key word was "draft"
    – WoJ
    Mar 17 at 12:52
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    @WoJ Not offended, and have learned long ago that I don't need to agree with everybody's opinion. I was simply pointing out some further consequences of deciding to present a draft at this meeting: mostly, time and skill constraints (that's not something the OP can do tomorrow, which they might with my original suggestion). While I applaud assertiveness, nor expect crawling, as you'll see from my answer, I believe key is in good communication, so I don't take kindly to demands which do not invite for discourse either. The above are my professional opinions as a response to your comment.
    – penelope
    Mar 17 at 13:06
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    @penelope: if you belive that the key is good communication, I think that * you might not be a good fit for some advisors and teams.* may be a bit too much, no? Yo udo not know me, who knows maybe I have managed hundreds of people and keep great contacts with the ones who are not with me anymore? Or mentord people. You never know - so a direct "suggestion" such as this one is not exactly neutral.
    – WoJ
    Mar 17 at 13:10
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It is the "raison d'etre" of peer review. Researchers do not have time (and might not have the facilities) to verify other's research. They rely on field experts "testing" a paper before it is published. An academic paper offers a hypothesis with supporting evidence. So, how does a researcher identify appropriate evidence? A paper published earlier is usually part of that evidence. Selection requires testing a number of sub-questions. The provenance of the author, do they have a track record of publications in the research field is one of those questions. The presumption is that an author who has published in the field for twenty years has "more expertise" than a researcher publishing their first paper. Initial paper research is essential to test that the hypothesis is unanswered. And, this will identify the established field experts. Initially, the student is named last, they graduate, supervise their own students and rise to second name. When they hold a professorial chair, theirs is the first name. A short time span for this process suggests growing respect for their expertise. It is an effective system that reduces risk for student, department/laboratory, providers of research grants, the academic community at large.

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    In my field, being the last author is reserved for the professors / PIs, not the students. The first authors are typically students who conducted the experiments. Which research field are you talking about?
    – penelope
    Mar 18 at 9:02
  • If peer review is double blind (as it often is) your whole reasoning isn't applicable, as the reviewer never knows the names of the authors, their number and their position. Mar 18 at 9:56
  • most recent is identifying semantics from free text but the practice is wider
    – jfw
    Mar 19 at 13:06
  • as you identify identification of reviewers prior to publication may not be known but I search for the paper authors. In an initial task a new PhD student may review the relevant literature, their review may be published but is it rigorous, scientific to blinker oneself to the recommendations of a review? Surely researchers should be constantly testing. Is their experiment rigorous, are expected results valid, is comparison of actual v expected sound, are the conclusions sound, Relationship does not always mean cause.
    – jfw
    Mar 19 at 13:16

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