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I am a Ph.D. student. I recently have an issue with authorship on the paper where my advisor was the first and the corresponding author, I was the second, and our Dean was the third. I felt very frustrated and would like to have your ideas. I am not sure in such a case I could claim being the second author of the manuscript.

My advisor constructed the idea and we developed all the materials for the project together. When we started our project, we decided that he was the first and the corresponding author, and I was the second author. After we have completed data collection, my advisor invited our Dean to be the third author, responsible for data analysis. At this time, I initiated the idea that the we needed to be clear about our responsibility to the manuscript writing. In my private meeting with my advisor, I told him that I would write the methodology, data analysis and result sections of our manuscript to fulfill the role of the second author. He agreed.

Then, I learned from my advisor that the Dean would write the data analysis and results sections, which makes sense as he worked with data analysis. However, my advisor suggested I should write the literature review but I refused as I believed that, him, being the first and the corresponding author should make the most contribution to the manuscript. This means I assume that he should write the literature review and dicussion, the two sections central to the manuscript. So, I told him that I was more than willing to write the introduction, implications, and conclusions. However, after I told him my plan, I got this reply:

"Thanks for letting me know you that you are unwilling to write the literature review. I have other plans for the sections you mentioned." "As you did not contribute more than the third author in the manuscript writing, you are NOT the second author".

Later, my advisor told me "the other plans" we had was asking some of his students, possibly the RAs to write the rest parts of the manuscript. This makes me feel very uncomfortable, as I felt that he was trying to claim the first author without making the first-author contribution to the manuscript writing.

Following is the information about my role in the project:

  1. My advisor conceptualize the project, and I constructed the experiment materials for project by working with my advisor.
  2. I played a leading role the data collection by working with 2 undergraduate RAs and 2 postgraduate RAs. I assisted all the 4 RAs in the course of data collection as they are still new to our experiment. Apart from that, I independently collected 50% of the data.
  3. I have written the methodology section of the manuscript.
  4. I cleaned all the data and coded the data for the Dean's analysis.

My questions:

  1. In general, does the second author have the right to choose which sections he writes for the manuscript?

  2. We have agreed the sequence of the authorship but my advisor is inviting more people such as the RAs who did not made much contribution to the experiment (expect for data collection) to write the manuscript. This means he will only need to write the abstract and the discussion sections of the paper. Is this ethical that he still claim to be the first author?

  3. I will not write the literature review but I have agreed to write some other sections of the manuscript. However, it seems that I could not be the 2nd author unless I write the literature review. May I know how to solve this issue?

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  • As a PhD student, I suppose you are in training to become a researcher. So your advisor is an established researcher, and you chose to be trained under his supervision. It's not wrong to work as he said. Generally, advisors usually put their grad students up front to support, but occasionally, some will put their names first (which I admit is not a good practice). Your options are limited: either do as he says or change your advisor (I suggest the second one, it looks like your team dynamics are not going great.)
    – kensaii
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:31

2 Answers 2

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Based on your description of events, I don't think your advisor has followed good practice here. Authorship is something that should be negotiated based on project contribution (as you did at the outset) and changes in the contributions give rise to legitimate opportunities to renegotiate authorship. I do not believe it is fair for one author to make a unilateral decision to "demote" the authorship order of another author simply because they refuse to take on more work than was initially negotiated.

What should have happened here was a discussion between you and your supervisor (and possibly also the Dean) to reallocate work on the manuscript and determine whether the reallocation of work justifies a change in the order of authorship. This is something that ought to be done by negotiation in the first instance, with some kind of outside adjudication in the event of insoluble disputes. If you feel that you have been hard-done-by on the authorship of the paper, and you want to take this further, you might consider telling your supervisor about your concerns and asking that they be resolved by adjudication by an outside party (e.g., another academic in the Department). It is reasonable to expect that if you undertake the work that was negotiated at the outset then you should receive the authorship credit that was negotiated at the outset, unless there is some compelling reason to the contrary.

This situation is complicated a bit by the fact that it occurred within a supervisory relationship. In general, it is normal for a supervisor to allocate work to a student, even including allocating additional contributions to a project beyond what was first anticipated. Part of this occurs because in addition to writing a paper, you are also in training for research work, so your supervisor probably wants to ensure that you have practice in all aspects of research. It is generally not good practice for a research student to refuse to do the work allocated by their supervisor, since the latter will generally have a good idea of how to effectively train their research student. The interaction between this and the authorship question is somewhat complex. I don't think that either you or your supervisor have covered yourselves in glory here, and both of you should rethink your approach to matters like this in future.

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  • thank you for your reply. I agree that as a doctoral student, I am still in training for academic research under the guidance of my advisor. While I completed the methodology, my advisor did give me some feedback to improve it (This justifies him being the corresponding author of our paper). What I am concerned about is whether he makes a direct contribution to our paper as the first author.
    – T Song
    Jun 29, 2022 at 11:27
  • I assume that a general consensus in academia is that the first author writes 75% or at least 50% of a manuscript. If a Ph.D./Master supervisor could claim to be the first author without writing a reasonable amount of the manuscript, then he could invite 5 -6 students to write his manuscript, one for each section (if there are five sections in the manuscript). I think this is unfair to all the co-authors. This is why I felt unfair and upset.
    – T Song
    Jun 29, 2022 at 11:28
  • This is a complex issue as I am both collaborating and working for my advisor. Still what he did was a huge disappointment to me. Thanks for your advice. I will not let this happen when I work as an independent researcher in the future.
    – T Song
    Jun 29, 2022 at 11:28
  • I don't think things are quite as formulaic as that, mostly because the actual writing is just one aspect of the contribution. There are circumstances where it might be justifiable for an author to be first author with only a small writing contribution, but ultimately it comes down to a holistic assessment of the contributions. Again, these are issues that should be negotiated at the outset, and renegotiated when necessary.
    – Ben
    Jun 29, 2022 at 13:51
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In general, there are no special privileges associated with being a second author.

The ordering of authors and their contributions follow conventions of the field and of the culture. For example, in pure Mathematics, all authors are in alphabetical order. Computer Science has developed some customs according to which the most important student author goes first. You are not giving your field or your country, so there is nothing I can tell you about whether this ordering is unusual.

(1) As a second author, you do not get to decide which sections you get to write. This is a collaborative job, and in academia, your advisor is the one who calls the shots. (A smart advisor will listen to the collective wisdom of the rest of the students.)

(2) Anyone who makes a substantive contribution to the paper can become an author. A first author has not necessarily done most of the work or written most of the article. If you advisor thought of the project and supervised you, there is a point to be made that he was most instrumental in getting the paper written and therefore has a right to be the first author. The data collection you supervised might or might not have been of a technical nature that a lot of other people could have done as well. An advisor is supposed to let students write parts of an article so that they learn how to do it. The advisor is supposed to supervise them closely.

(3) If you do not write the literature review, then you will not be the second author. If you want to be second author, you write the literature review.

The literature review is after the introduction the most read part of a paper for review. It shows that the authors understand the field and are not re-inventing the wheel. If you are asked to write the literature review, then this means that your advisor judges you capable of writing it, meaning that your advisor thinks that you have mastered the literature.

It might very well be that in a more just world, you would be first author or the second author contributing according to your wishes. However, when you entered academia as a student and when you picked your advisor, you agreed to be supervised and guided. This means that you might have to defer to their judgment. Also, you seem to be trying to pick a fight with the very people (advisor and dean) who will referee this fight. Do not expect to win this one. I cannot tell for sure whether your advisor is acting unreasonably or not. It seems to me however that you are underestimating your advisor's role as a guide and decision maker, and more importantly, the rest of the faculty in the department might see it this way as well.

Too long to read: Not knowing the field and country, we cannot tell whether your advisor or you are acting unreasonably. It does not matter, because if you fight your advisor, you are not likely to win, but will destroy the relationship with your advisor and make a reputation for yourself as a difficult student. Difficult students make it through a program if they are brilliant (or very close to it). Are you brilliant?

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