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When I did my Master thesis, I discovered a new physical phenomenon and realized a novel technique in our prototype device. However, due to the rush of graduation, I didn't have time to collect enough data for the formal publication.

After I graduate from the master's degree, the work was handed over to the Ph.D. in the group with other master's students to finish up. Using exactly the same technology I developed, they formally collected data from the standard device in use and going to publish the paper on that technology. However, I will be listed as the nth (n>3) author in the publication (the front are several PhD and Master students who is participating in the follow-up).

So the problem is, on one hand, they collected data for the publication and wrote the manuscript, so I understand the issue about first author. On the other hand, I almost individually developed the technology that is being published, but only named as a nth author. Is it a proper author arrangement?

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    Did you actively participate in the publication preparation? "they formally collected data from the standard device in use " you do not know how many practical issues they may have had in the -formal collection of data-.
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 3 at 10:01
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    You need to give the field, really. Ordering conventions are both complex and very localized to subject. I co-wrote a paper in physical chemistry. A friend and I worked out a model for something, and his student did experiments to obtain a parameter using that model. The experimenter came first, then me, then two people I don't know who were included for some reason, and then my friend last. I just let him order the names correctly. Jun 3 at 10:02
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    The text of the paper should acknowledge you as the discoverer of the technique, rather than the order of names. Even if your name didn't appear, you should be explicitly credited.
    – Kaz
    Jun 4 at 14:09
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    I have never seen a physics paper that specifically said in the text that "Person X developed this technique." If the OP wasn't listed as an author at all (for example if the OP's work wasn't actually substantial), then such a phrase could be put in the acknowledgments. Jun 6 at 20:44
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    A minor additional note; it is more important to your career that the people you did work with in your masters like you and write good letters of recommendation than that you were n=8 vs n=4 author on a paper. Jun 6 at 20:49

6 Answers 6

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I hope you describe your discovery in your master thesis. And you gave it enough space and emphasis of the novelty and impact of your discovery. It could even be an appendix, if it would not fit into the overall story line of your thesis.

Then you could ask the authors of the paper, to cite your paper. Then it is obvious you did the discovery and the paper is meant to spread the word to the wider community and provide data to "prove" the discovery.

You are the sole author of your master thesis. Everybody would know, that you received according help from your professor or advisor. The right ordering of the authors in the paper is less important compared to this, as the master thesis predates the paper.

Probably it is too late for this, but others might profit from my answer.

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I have had this conversation multiple times with my supervisors. It really depends on a few things and the order is usually agreed upon by the authors. You can put the order of the authors:

  1. Alphabetically
  2. By Seniority
  3. By Reverse Seniority
  4. Who contributed the most

However, usually the first author is the one who contributed the most AND is the corresponding author. I think the best practice is by order of contribution.

My supervisor once told me that two authors decided the order by playing a game of croquet.

If it really bugs you, ask the lead author why you were placed where you were.

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    Note that in some fields, certainly in biology and related ones, the convention is that the person who carried out the research is first and the one who supervised/directed it is last. Both first and last positions are, therefore, prestigious and the closer you are to either, the greater your contribution. So usually, the first author will be the student who did the work and the last author is the PI and corresponding author.
    – terdon
    Jun 3 at 17:10
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    @terdon same deal in physics (with some exceptions like the huge LHC collaborations which are mostly alphabetical)
    – llama
    Jun 3 at 17:42
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    Same in physics and engineering, you ideally want to be first author or last author. First author means you contributed the most in terms of workload, last author means you were the director for the project essentially.
    – Tom
    Jun 3 at 17:55
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First of all, there's no such thing as a proper author arrangement. There are no laws or regulations about this, and there's even no universally accepted meaning of the author positions, so the authors are arranged as agreed between themselves, and that agreement or understanding is usually reached early on, in the very initial stages of the research to be published. That is, when researchers want to do some research together, they negotiate who does what and who gets which position on the author list. If you are not happy with the proposed position, you are free not to participate in the project at all. In short, the position on the author list is a result of a negotiation, and your leverage in that negotiation is your ability to contribute to the project.

It looks like you did your work without having negotiated your position on the author list. This is pretty usual for MS students, and they don't have good negotiating skills and leverage anyway. You are thus entitled only to be listed as one of the authors, not to be in any specific position on the author list. You get what you negotiate, not what your work is worth. The earlier you learn this the faster you will adapt to this harsh and unfair world.

A few other remarks:

(1) Be happy you are listed at all. The thing is that if you develop some technique and then this technique is used to do some study, you are not necessarily entitled to be listed as a co-author of that study. It's a grey area of ethics and there are no rules about this. Albert Einstein developed the relativity theory, but he isn't listed as a co-author of each and every paper in which that theory is used.

(2) Your co-authors may value your contribution differently and consider your position to be fair. The thing is that MS students are usually heavily reliant on advice, ideas, and mentoring by their supervisors and often do only relatively low-skilled work.

(3) It looks like you were not shown the manuscript before its submission to the journal. If so, it's a research misconduct. When you submit a manuscript to a journal, you have to check the box or declare in some other way that all authors were shown the final version and agreed with its submission to the journal. However, even if you had been shown the manuscript, you could not have done anything about your position on the author list. Your only leverage would have been the ability to say no to submission of the manuscript with your name on it, in which case they could have simply removed you from the author list, see Remark (1) above.

(4) As long as you are not the first author, it doesn't really matter much which position you are in. The thing is that when you apply for academic positions, what people count in your CV is the number of first-authored papers and the number of co-authored papers. I have seen people negotiating the first position, but have never seen people negotiating other positions. People don't bother fighting over such minor things—so neither should you.

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  • It need to be clarify that, the proposed publication is exactly discussing the technique itself, but not a study which uses that technique. But this is a very rational answer, I like it!
    – David
    Jun 4 at 7:38
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    @David +1 Be happy you are listed at all
    – Miguel
    Jun 4 at 8:20
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    "It looks like you did your work without having negotiated your position on the author list. " the need to do this is an indication of a toxic collaboration where you are likely to be exploited. Generally the contributions to a research project (where you don't know the outcome a-priori) are only known at the end, not the start. I know from experience that this is common in some fields, but the publication culture in some fields is toxic. I suspect the prospect (or absence of) patents is a useful indicator. Jun 4 at 14:37
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    "The earlier you learn this the faster you will adapt to this harsh and unfair world." and ensure that it continues to be a hard and unfair world, but now it is your fault as well. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated in their position. In my experience people lose more by exploiting other than they would gain from proper collaboration. IMHO Jun 4 at 14:40
  • otherwise completely agree though! (+1) Jun 4 at 15:24
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It depends.

If the publication is about results using your method, then certainly you cannot expect to be first author, especially if you did not participate in the collection and/or analysis of the data.

If the publication introduces your new method and includes practical use in data collection, then you should probably be higher up in the author list.

You cannot expect to be part of papers by others who simply use your technique.

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Congratulation for your publication! It is always nice to be part of a productive group and being able to contribute toward the progress of science&technology.

Regarding your reward for giving a fundamental contribution: it looks like you would be a succesful researcher, if already at the Master level you were able to develop such a technological feature. Since it was not a stroke of luck, it seems you are fit for R&D activities.

Why do you care so much about the order of authorship? Since you are speaking about a technology you developed, I would be much more concerned about patenting it: did you (ever) speak with your former advisor? It may be that you gave up intellectual property on whatever was published in the Master thesis, so if you published your core diea and the demostration, you basically give it out for free to the University and to the Department.

Anyhow, please ignore the fact that you were listed as n-th co-author: being co-author is already an important step, even more if you did not contribute to the publication (equally smart people with equal access to publications will develop the same idea ... but the difference is the one concretizing the idea, even if it is through menial formal data collection).

Since you are so sure your contribution was so relevant, when you will be interviewed you can present yourself as self-confident (but please do not overstate your capabilities). Good luck!

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Consider it your mistake not to have realised the magnitude of your accomplishment, and to have secured complete ownership of your intellectual property in the public domain. Claiming sole authorship of publication was quite approriate in this case where you can acknowledge your sponsor and supervisor's name in passing (if you so choose).

In this case though, an explicit (indexed) reference to your dissertation needs to be cited within the preamble of the publication's text so that the reader is in no doubt as to the paper's origin and basis. It is not necessary to add you as one of the authors since you aren't an author of this particular (derived) work. If you want deeper credit for your contribution, submit a publication under your own name.

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