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I am a final year Ph.D. collaborating with people in my lab (Biomedical) and spent more than a year on this side project which is not part of my thesis research. My results combined with some calculations (which I also performed a bit) from a colleague (research associate) can make up a story and we decided to write the manuscript. In the beginning, we agree that I can lead the manuscript and she can co-lead to help with writing. But now, she wants something out of the project as soon as possible and feels that this manuscript may add on too much workload on me in my final year. And she would like to bring up a discussion with our supervisor that due to timing issues, she wants to lead the manuscript. It's true that she can speed up the processes as I will be busy writing other manuscripts and my thesis. The whole project does need a published paper now so that subsequential works can rely on that. However, I feel a bit uncomfortable about letting someone else lead a manuscript (I will be a coauthor for sure) when I performed most part of the analysis. I don't mind having more workload on my shoulders but I can be slow with many parallel projects. My always states that it's a decision between me and the colleague. So my question is that:

(1)is timing a strong reason to let others take the lead in a manuscript, given that I really want to lead the writing of my own work?

(2)Shall I let my colleague lead the manuscript and take the first author in favor of time? Does the authorship ranking mean a lot? I only had one paper published for now.

(3) If I want to make the conversation, how shall I start?

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  • Does this also mean that you would have been the first author on this manuscript, but if this colleague writes it up that they will be first author?
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:39
  • Yes, whoever writes the manuscript will be the first author. But I feel like I can be the co-first if my colleague lead the writing
    – shukurra
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:40
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    Why do you think that the act of actually writing down the results is so important in setting the first author. Authorship is more than about writing. Let the best writer be the writer and choose author order based on the research (intellectual) contribution. After all, you've tagged this collaboration, not competition.
    – Buffy
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:46
  • I guess that the rule most people in my field follow. It's also how people in my lad determine the author rankings.
    – shukurra
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:48
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    I'll note that doing it "quickly" serves her interests, but maybe not yours especially if she can take over first authorship. She would need to justify that. If she wants to do a lot of the writing, but leave you as first author then that issue goes away and is easier to justify the "speedy" request. Don't let yourself get abused here. The advice of @BryanKrause is good advice.
    – Buffy
    Aug 29, 2022 at 17:43

2 Answers 2

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I think it's a strategic mistake to give up first authorship on a project if you've done most of the work on the experimental side of things just to have someone else write the text. When people browse through your CV in your field, they will likely assume that the author listed first did the work, and that the last author is the primary senior person supervising the work. Any other middle author presumably had some contribution, but it's not clear how much.

It doesn't seem fair to me for someone to take over a first authorship position just by writing in order to get the paper out quicker. The balance might shift a bit if the overall time you put in to this point is not extensive (i.e., collecting data from a repository, running calculations, etc, is all important work, but may be marginal relative to doing a year of bench experiments). I think ultimately this is something you will need to weigh for yourself, as well as weigh against opportunity costs - if you're going to be writing this paper, does that prevent you from doing something else that's more valuable to you than having this first author paper?

On the other hand, I think it's perfectly normal especially in the biomedical area that the person who does the research and is listed as first author need not necessarily be the person who writes up the first draft of all of the paper. You definitely want to get some writing experience as a student, but it sounds like you're already doing your own writing, and this is just an additional project for you. You have to decide for yourself how much value you put on the additional writing experience (and mentorship that comes with revising your writing in consultation with your coauthors).

A reasonable middle ground you could propose is that you keep first authorship and draft the "meat" (methods, results) of the paper while your colleague helps with the "framing" (introduction, discussion). However, if your colleague is just trying to grab a first author paper for themselves and not acting in your best interests, this arrangement would not be suitable. Someone more senior might have a better "big picture" view of the field that is helpful in writing the introduction and discussion sections.

When discussing authorship issues with colleagues, I think it's important that you be prepared to defend your own interests - in your case, it seems those interests are 1) a first author paper is valuable, and 2) you feel it is important (perhaps especially as learning experience) to write your own work. Any negotiation should start there, and you should be careful to consider others priorities without sacrificing your own. If time is really the main concern, then maybe you are willing to sacrifice (2) but not (1).

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    Note that "time spent" isn't the proper measure of academic contribution.
    – Buffy
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:54
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    @Buffy No, certainly not, but in most things biomedicine it's a pretty good proxy of who is the first author on a paper. It would definitely be unfair treatment to a student who spent two years doing experiments to say "well, us senior people decided the direction and trained you how to do the experiments and told you to do an ANOVA, so we made all the intellectual contribution and you can be a middle author, we'll be first and last."
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:56
  • Hmmm, there is "time" and there is "productive activity" which may take time. But it is possible to spend a lot of time fruitlessly, probably even in biomedical research.
    – Buffy
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:59
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    @shukurra If it's primarily your project, you should probably be first author, whatever additional effort from you that means. "She came to all the discussions and made really good suggestions and comments while I was performing the analysis. So definitely intellectual contributions. And I will use her calculations to make a whole story for sure." - these all seem to be great marks of coauthorship, not first authorship.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 29, 2022 at 16:17
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    @shukurra Sorry, I think Buffy and I have drifted off on a bit of a tangent. My main messages to you are 1) if it's your project, you should be the first author. 2) If to be first author you need to write the whole paper, then that's what you should do, even if it takes longer. 3) It's totally fine for a coauthor to write parts of the manuscript, no matter where they are in the author order, but of course it's up to that coauthor to agree to do that work while being whatever order author they are.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 29, 2022 at 16:22
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I think some crucial pieces of the story are missing here. As far as I understand, the topic starter collected the results, and his colleague analyzed them.

  1. Who actually conceptualized the study and designed the experiments? Was it you? Was it your colleague? If it was one of you two - that person is a likely genuine first author. If the third party was involved, it is reasonable to engage this person now and get their input on the final authorship.

  2. How (non)trivial were the experiments vs. analysis? Some experiments are routine procedures usually done by assistants, and others are out-of-this-world procedures. Vice versa, some analysis is just numbers pushed through the standard pipeline, and others are unique.

  3. You should ask yourself one practical question before disputing the authorship/writing: will you ever have time to finish the manuscript yourself? You said you are in a final year of a Ph.D. So, now you are busy, but it will not get better after the defense. Will you leave academia for the industry? Go for a postdoc in another group/university/country? Neither of these places will give you time to work on the past things. So you may never actually finish the paper. On the other hand, negotiating co-first authorship now and "moving on" with other projects/jobs may be the best strategy to see some outcome. Of course, no one but the topic starter can assess the situation here.

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  • Thanks for your suggestions! To answer the questions: (1) My part of work incorporates constructing a novel model to perform the analysis of some data. The whole idea was brought by my supervisor since she is the one who applied for funding and wrote the proposal. But the detailed plan and structure were designed by me. (2) My methods and results can be a paper by its own but adding more calculations can make a better story. I also did the calculations at the beginning but my colleague took over it since she will be using the framework for her subsequential projects. (3) I plan to sty academi
    – shukurra
    Aug 30, 2022 at 17:27

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