As an advisor, at what point do you decide that a PhD student no longer deserves authorship on a paper?

I am an associate professor who is very active in engineering research at a low-ranked R2 institution. Most non-top-10 institutions have a hard time attracting good PhD students, but here it is nearly impossible without deliberate, targeted recruiting. Consequently, I frequently find myself in the situation where I bring a student onto a project, only to find (sometimes a year or two later) that they are simply not up to doing the work. So, I do (or redo) all of the work myself and usually end up re-writing the entire paper. But even though I effectively did all the work, it was still a project assigned to a student, and worked on by a student for a considerable amount of time. So, in all of these cases, I left the student as the first author on the paper, with myself as last/corresponding author - even though the student's actual contribution was effectively nil.

This is not just me being non-confrontational or altruistic. As a faculty member, it is usually better to be last/corresponding author with a student as first author, than to be first author oneself. Student-first-author / advisor-last-author shows off mentoring ability as well as scientific contribution. So there's not much incentive to take the student off the author list, especially since doing so can make one come across as a greedy credit-grabbing advisor.

So my question is: at what point do I finally decide that a student no longer deserves first authorship? When I realize that I re-wrote the entire paper and generated all figures myself? When the student quits the program? When I learn that the student never did any work to begin with? When I learn that the student has not actually been dedicating the time to the project that was expected?

Or, is it better to err on the safe side, give away first authorship to undeserving students, and risk letting them take credit for something they did not earn?

Edit 1: In my field, the convention is that the first author is the primary contributor (usually a student or postdoc), the last & corresponding author is the senior lead, and the other authors are ordered roughly in accordance with contribution.

Edit 2: I am talking about removing as first author, not removing from the paper. Few students contribute little enough to warrant complete removal. However as far as how it looks, it looks equally bad (or even worse) to make myself first author, as it does to remove a student from a paper entirely.

  • 15
    The title says "remove as first author" merely positionally, but the body says "remove as author" implying they have no credit whatsoever. Further, it is not clear whether this should be considered in light of first author = key contributor/leader and first author = Aaron A Aaronsan fields, where it would be a distinct consideration.
    – Nij
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 6:43
  • 2
    How important is first authorship in your field? In some places authors are routinely listed alphabetically. I also believe that often it makes far more of a difference if there are more than to authors whereas "you and student" or "student and you" may make little difference, but that for sure depends on the field and place. Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 10:40
  • 4
    Moderator’s notice: Please respect our guidelines for frame challenges: Clearly the asker has put some thought into why these problems occur and their question is not about this. Respective comments have been moved to chat; answers focussing on this may be subject to removal.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 19:07
  • Can you remove them from authorship if they barely contributed anything and just give them a ''strong mention'' in the Acknowledgements section?
    – Tom
    Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 11:30
  • @Tom I would just leave them as authors (not first author) in that case.
    – mrp
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 12:50

8 Answers 8


I frequently find myself in the situation where I bring a student onto a project, only to find (sometimes a year or two later) that they are simply not up to doing the work. So, I do (or redo) all of the work myself and usually end up re-writing the entire paper. But even though effectively did all the work, it was still a project assigned to a student, and worked on by a student for a considerable amount of time.

This seems all very wrong and troubling to me. A lot should be happening over a year or two of mentorship on a project, and at no point should a PI be unilaterally doing/redoing a project that a student is working on.

If this is frequently happening, then there is something seriously wrong about the supervision process, and I'd be extremely hesitant to put the weight of that on the students at all, this is a mentorship problem that needs a thorough review. I'd recommend seeking your own close mentorship from senior faculty colleagues, consider getting co-mentors for your students, and find out what is going wrong that students are so lost.

For the title question about when to change first authors, the key is that this should be an iterative discussion and agreement among authors, not a "boss decides at the end" scenario. You don't own these projects, you're a collaborator on them with the students.

A change in authorship should not happen simply because a supervisor is unhappy with the writing or the figures. Before a change in authorship is even considered, an advisor should be working with the student on specific ways the student's work can be improved. It might take some specific guidance and management, not just an insistence that the student somehow finish the work on their own. If a student can't produce a particular figure, why not? Their advisor should help them organize and work through any blockers. If a figure needs revision, what steps are required? What's wrong with the current version? What are the specific problems with writing, and how can the student address them? These are all learning and teaching moments.

If directing these individual aspects of a project is not getting anywhere, it may eventually be time to have a discussion about the overall ownership of the project. A clear plan should be made between the student and the advisor setting expectations for what must be done on the project going forward for the student to remain first author, and a timeline. The advisor should be working with the student to make clear what the expectations are for someone who is first author in your field. You should build from these expectations to make a plan that the student can agree with and is fair. In case of a dispute/failure to reach agreement, or a serious circumstance that may jeopardize the student continuing in their graduate program, it may be necessary to involve a third party that has the trust of both the advisor and student and a role in advocating on the student's behalf such as a department or graduate program chair.

Even for a student who has left a program, authors need to agree about how past work is going to be credited when an eventual paper is published based on that work. Remaking figures and rewriting text does not erase previous intellectual effort towards a project.

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    +1. Indeed, the strangest part to me is the statement that: after I year, I realize they've been goofing off the whole time and haven't actually done any work! Giving this much freedom to a novice researcher at a "low-ranked R2" seems very strange.
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 22:50
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    @mrp I sense you are a bit frustrated with how things are going in your lab with your students, so it may be that your post and comments here are reflective more of that frustration than reality. But, if your comments do reflect reality, it sounds like you're giving students 2 years to figure stuff out on their own and then judging them incapable when they aren't fully formed researchers after that. Does everyone in your department have these issues? Have you asked your chair or other senior people in the department for help?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 23:06
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    I should add that it's perfectly normal to be struggling with mentorship of graduate students; you've likely had no training in doing so. Learning doesn't stop when you become a professor.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 23:07
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    More broadly, I think your core problem has very little to do with the question you've asked here: you have bigger issues than figuring out what to do with authorship. If there aren't appropriate mentors for you at your institution, you may need to find mentorship elsewhere - your own past research advisors perhaps, other schools in your region, and your broader network.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 23:23
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    @mrp All those pressures and stakes are true for everyone in academia, not just you, and not everyone is answering those pressures by doing all the work themselves once students fail.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 5:40

From a general perspective, you are (in danger of) engaging in "gift authorships", which are detrimental to the academic community, if you end up doing all the work. From an individual perspective, you might have not much of a choice, since an accusation of taking a student's work and appropriating it for yourself (whether the student has left the university or not) could be very detrimental to your career.

In general, the criterion for authorship is that an author has contributed materially to the paper and can be held responsible for all aspects of the paper. Since this leaves a lot of lee-way and also does not resolve issues such as the collaborator that can no longer be contacted or who after being involved no longer wants to have anything to do with the research group, the key is good communication before troubles start. When you accept a student, make an agreement on how publications are going to be handled. It might even be worthwhile to write a document for your lab, setting down the criteria for authorship. When you decide that you no longer want to supervise the student, talk to the student about what happens to the work.

You will not be able to avoid all conflicts. Let's say that a student is to write a simulation to lay the basis for some work, but does not provide code that you can trust or that even works, that you then reimplement the code yourself and get different results, showing that the student's work was close to worthless. Since knowing that something does not work still contributes to solving a problem, has the student contributed materially to the research work to be published and deserves to be named an author? Other difficulties arise from handiwork? If you ask a student to make an excel graph for a data sheet with your own data, is this worth authorship? (You can spend hours trying to make excel graphs look decent.) In this forum, you will find people saying that it does, but I would disagree. Then later, you create your own graph using pyplot? What now?

To reiterate: you want to avoid conflicts about authorships by being clear about the rules in your lab. Within reason, you get to set the rules, but they need to be set out before students start working for you. Treat such things as abandoning the Ph.D. and not being able to communicate. Make clear what your expectations are when you set a task for a student and how this would impact future authorships. To protect yourself, include students as authors if in doubt.

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    The example of a student effectively failing at writing a simulation code, but still "knowing that something does not work still contributes to solving a problem" epitomizes the conundrum. I agree with your last statement. The problem is that there is always doubt...
    – mrp
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 23:06

Authorship is not a reward to be bestowed for satisfactory job performance. It is about having made a significant intellectual contribution (which might indeed be small and much less than what you had originally expected).

Your expectation what the students should have done and what they have done has nothing to do with their authorship. Hence the answer to your questions is relatively straightforward:

When I learn that the student never did any work to begin with?

Yes, you can and should you remove the student. If they truly never did any work that means they cannot have contributed to the paper and they should thus not be an author.

When I realize that I re-wrote the entire paper and generated all figures myself?

No, just because you wrote every single word and made every figure does not mean the student did not make a significant intellectual contribution during the research or writing of the drafts.

When the student quits the program?

No, just because the student left the program does not mean the student did not make any significant intellectual contribution while they were in the program.

When I learn that the student has not actually been dedicating the time to the project that was expected?

No, just because the student underperformed does not mean the student did not make a significant intellectual contribution.

As others have pointed out, repeated failure of your students meeting expectations should result in some introspection on how you could possibly manage your students differently. For example, you may have re-evaluate what kind of research you can do and how much explicit guidance your students need. In the end, doing work for someone else is an extreme measure and a short-term solution that is not a sustainable long-term strategy. Good luck!


In marginal cases, you should err on the students' side, but I suggest you should at least consider making yourself first author when your contribution obviously warrants it.


  • Weak students are unlikely to seek an academic career, and industry employers probably won't care about author order.

  • You can give the student something to do to deserve their second authorship, putting you on the right side of publication ethics.

The caveat is that you should think about just how weird this will look to people in your field. And this will be rather field-dependent. Perhaps ask some other researchers you know who are not at extremely prestigious universities how they would see this, and how they've seen the issue handled.

A note about the other answers to this question: In theory, this problem would indeed be solved by more intensive/effective mentorship. But in practice, as fellow R2 faculty I can vouch that sometimes you end up supervising a student who has no business being in a graduate program in your field, but you are still expected to shepherd them through the program successfully, and if you don't it will be bad for YOUR career. This is certainly not the way things should work, but in some places, it is how things do work.

Namely, in my university, the number of PhD students successfully mentored is a key factor in tenure and promotion, but the average quality of students is very low, so in the long run there is no way around this issue. I gather OP's incentives are coming from a different source (grant funding), but the practical problem seems roughly the same.

  • 1
    Agreed. Unfortunately I think anything other than student-first-authorship looks pretty weird in my area. 100% agree with your experience: the university seems to think that everything can be solved with good mentoring no matter how bad the students are.
    – mrp
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 12:55
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    This is the only answer that treats the question as written, rather than a frame challenge that is, in my opinion, not understanding the reality of working with students at an R2. The only thing to add is that you may want to pick up some projects that are much more basic. After 4 years of working at an r2, I have started to look for some marginally related (unfunded) projects - basically replication and extension of low-skill projects - that my "typical" grad students can do with the help of weekly meetings.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 14:12

I'm a Ph.D student, so perhaps I'm biased, but I'm good enough to solo publish my own papers and ask other instructors to work with me, instead of the reverse. To me, authorship should be removed when the person who's meant to be first author isn't doing first-author stuff. Such as, taking an active role in the planning, analysis, code upkeep, and all stages of the project to the best of their abilities, including the writing process.

Note, I'm biased also because I have worked in teams of 2 to 3, so it's much much harder for a long chain of command to be messed up, but to me that's the general rule here. If no major work is happening over a year such that you need to go back and redo things, this sounds like an issue with supervison and bigger factors, as others have noted. I can't think of a situation where my mentor had to go redo everything me or my coauthor did, and if he had to, again I'd say this is a symptom of a bigger issue.

  • You sound like a good student and I am sure your advisor enjoys working with you. I have worked with several students who display that same kind of independence and drive, and it is an absolute pleasure. The problem is that students like you are born not made. So what do you do with the students who lack that innate ability? I'm not sure. If you eventually take an academic position, you'll see that it's quite different from the other side, especially if it's at a low-ranked R2 like mine.
    – mrp
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 14:52

Some students are not as smart or hardworking as others. You should set a minimum input that makes a student part of the authorship. Then set an extra for the order of authorship. Let the student know that if they can do task A, B and C they become first author. If they do only task A, B, they can be second author. And if they do none their name will be removed. This should be established at the beginning of the work. Students at that level are adults and are expected to understand and keep to agreements.


I'm going to take a somewhat different tack, and this is possibly because of disciplinary differences. When you are working with students, it is work, you have to put the time in to allow them to learn how to do things. If you are feeling frustrated with a student so much so that you think they are not capable of doing what is required, you might need to step back and think about whether you are writing people off unnecessarily.

It is almost always easier to do something yourself when you are highly skilled than to have a student do it. The student is not going to work at the level you are -- they do not have the experience.

I also think you might want to consider whether from the student's perspective they have put a lot of time and work in, even if you don't think it is good enough. Is this student still going to be upset about this loss of credit in later years? What kind of acknowledgement will you give them if not an authorship?

Would you consider a "with" rather than an "and"?

  • I have been doinh this for a while, and I have worked with enough good students to know what are reasonable expectations. Believe me, this is not a mentoring issue. If anything I am concerned about not writing students off quickly enough.
    – mrp
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 14:48
  • That's fair, it's just a thought.
    – Elin
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 1:16

To add to this excellent answer:

  1. Have a written authorship policy.
  2. Provide it to all collaborators, PhD students or otherwise, before they start work.
  3. Follow your policy.
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    Authorship is an agreement. There can only be an authorship policy if it relies on the basic policy of "I decide authorship by some set of rules" - which is a problem.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 20:09
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    @einpoklum I view authorship as a matter of ethics, and ethics are not up to negotiation. Agree with my standards of ethical behavior, or you can't work for me. (I've never had a student or colleague disagree with my standards of ethical behavior. Posters on this site often do.) Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 1:17
  • When enrolling at a university, one necessarily agrees to a set of rules provided by the university. Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 1:21
  • @einpoklum I don't understand your comment. Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 1:23

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