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Unlike the supervision style in my department (CS), I put an enormous effort into supervising my master's students. I meet with each of them twice a week and spend around two hours each week explaining what to do and how to do it.

From the first step, I propose a topic with a potential methodology and ask the student to follow it and give him or her precise instructions on how to proceed. After they successfully complete their theses, I usually push the student to write a paper but never worked out as the students find it meaningless to write papers if they move to industry. Instead, I write papers out of these theses/work and submit them to journals by including the respective student as a co-author. Since I am the one writing the paper, I put myself as the first author and primary contributor. For some journals, it is possible to specify the contribution of every author but for most of them, it is not possible.

I am wondering whether claiming that I am the principal contributor is fair/ethical, given that the student is implementing my ideas and I am who writes the papers. Being the principal contributor is important for some grant applications.

EDIT

After reading some comments, I think I did not make myself clear. My question is not about whether I should be the first author or not because that what is should be done as the one putting the effort to write the paper. In summary, there is not disagreement between me and the students. They are actually happy that they can have a paper without putting in additional effort. My question is rather about whether should I work on the paper and submit it or not (If not, the paper will never see the light of day). Note that this is done only after the student decline to write the paper and gives his/her consent (e.g. exchanging email after the thesis is completed so that I do not affect his/her decision) that I take the lead.

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    "I rewrite the theses and submit them to journals by including the respective student as a co-author" Excuse me, what?? What country is this? Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 0:26
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    @AzorAhai-him- What did you find strange?
    – Yacine
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 0:34
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    Rewriting theses and submitting them to journals by including the respective student as a co-author Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 1:22
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    Your post somehow makes me think that you did almost all the work.
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 5:28
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    "For some journals, it is possible to specify the contribution of every author but for most of them, it is not possible." Have you tried to simply include a contribution statement? I have done so several times in journals that did not require it and it was always accepted. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 10:16

9 Answers 9

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This would be completely ethical… if only you discussed the authorship order with your students and made sure your suggested order is acceptable to them before submitting the papers. Explain to them that you are planning to adapt parts of their thesis research into a paper, that this requires a lot of work, and that therefore you think whoever does that work should be listed as the primary author. Give them a chance to do the work themselves and get that primary authorship credit (as you seem to be doing already). If they are uninterested, get them to confirm that they agree you will be the primary author. (And if they disagree to that, then have a discussion about it and make sure you and the student reach some agreement on this issue before proceeding with any further work on the project.)

In other words, the ethical issue here isn’t your thinking you should be the primary author, but the fact that you think it’s okay to submit a paper without having an explicit agreement from all coauthors about the type of authorship credit they would be getting. This type of agreement is necessary with any collaborator regardless of whether they are your students.

Edit following OP’s clarification of the question: you say that you do actually discuss with your students the plan of you turning their thesis results into a publication, and get their consent to proceed (presumably also with the author order agreed to by everyone, although you didn’t state that explicitly). In that case, as I said in my original answer, there is no ethical issue — your contribution seems within the range that warrants first authorship, and your coauthors agreeing to you being first author shows they clearly believe so as well.

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To be honest, I would always let the student be listed as primary/first author, even in cases where it is pretty clear that they weren't. That is a matter of opinion, I guess, but I viewed (retired now) it an important part of my job to boost student careers.

The precise instructions you give are exactly your main job. Letting them off the hook on writing for publication was/is probably a mistake for any student wanting to go farther in their education, though not all masters students do.

In fact, I'd go further and not be listed as author at all except in clear collaborative work with some equality of participation. I was listed as co-author on none of my student theses or subsequent publications either at masters or doctoral level. Let the glory be theirs. An acknowledgement is enough, sometimes detailed.

I don't know how common my views are, of course. I will note that it is pretty common for doctoral advisors to suggest/provide problems and advice and feedback along the way. I suspect that most doctoral advisors could do the work themselves if they had the time.

As to the specific ethical question, I think it is marginal at best.

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    > "I was listed as co-author on none of my student theses either at masters or doctoral level. Let the glory be theirs. " I do not know anyone (senior researcher) who write a paper by himself. All the publications are coming from supervising PhD students (being listed as co-authors with them).
    – Yacine
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 0:34
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    That seems very strange to me, actually.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 0:35
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    That all senior researcher publications come out of doctoral student supervision. Especially in CS or similar.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 0:37
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    Right!!! Glad I'm clear, at least.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 1:21
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    +1 I think giving precise instructions and (what sounds to be) over-supervising the student is not doing them any favours - the ability to work independently is an important skill whether they are headed for a career in research or not. They need opportunities for using their initiative/creativity. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 12:24
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My remarks here merely add to the similar remarks from @Buffy.

I too would prefer to have the student as the primary author because I consider my promotion of my students to be one of the most important things that I can do for them, whether they ultimately end up in industry, academia or somewhere else.

I also recognize that the sense of urgency about publication is frequently driven more by my priorities than by theirs. It isn't that students don't care about publishing, but they often have other things to consider: completing their applications for multiple graduate schools, finding a job to pay of their student debt, or finding new accommodation for example. Publication might have a more immediate pay off for me than for the student; I can chalk up publications against my employment KPIs!

So yes, I'd write up the paper, put the student as first author, and feel good about the whole deal.

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The key here is to be explicit with your students when they start. In my first meeting with students I now routinely explain that 1) I want them to publish, 2) if we think we can publish then either they, or me, or one of my post docs will need to turn the thesis into a paper, and 4) whoever does that will usually be first author. If we agree on that, I then put it in an email to them, and it saves hassle in the long run.

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  • After the battle, everybody is a general. You cannot predict and secure all possible scenarios that might arise in a cooperation. That's not realistic. And useless to the OP at this point.
    – Tomas
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 13:53
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    You can predict some of the scenarios though. OP describes their current (ie ongoing) approach, and I have suggested a tweak. Up to them if it is useful or not. But thanks for the attempt at constructive criticism. Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 11:44
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In some research areas in some journals there is no primary author. Authors go in alphabetical order by "family" name. I prefer that, but it's just my bias.

About these rewrites. It seems the student has been doing ample work to require their name on the paper. So they should be quite closely involved in the rewrites. Whether editorial or technical, their name is going on the paper. So they should have something to say about what goes in the paper. Rewriting without involving them, even if they wind up approving of the paper, it's at least inconsiderate.

Also, rewrites were for me a way to learn a lot about what makes a well written paper. From mundane details like acceptable style for a journal, to fundamental technical details, I learned a lot having my prof drag me through the process.

I'd be surprised for a prof to do much of the mundane work themself. Markup on a draft, sure. And meetings to discuss things, especially if there are technical issues. But I'd really expect the student to do the "pounding a keyboard" type work. Again, so they can get the learning benefit. And also so that the prof can spend more time on other work.

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    I don’t share your surprise. A lot of students don’t really want to think about their thesis ever again after submitting, especially in a professional MA program (vs a PhD program or a research MA).
    – Dawn
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 16:06
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I can just speak for my case. But I supported while writing my Ph.D. thesis bachelor and master students as well. Same with you, I put a lot of time, also my free time, into supporting students. So I planned their experiments with them, helped them evaluate their data, and so on. Each of them enjoyed staying with me for their thesis. In the end, I used their experimental data to write papers. The thing is, none of their thesis has enough data for a single paper, and also not the quality of references and so on to be published alone. So I combined most of the time 2 bachelor's thesis or a bachelor's and master's thesis to write a research paper. Also because I combined the experimental Data and evaluated it with a new perspective everything I wrote was new, except for some information from the students. But this information mostly is known before and published in papers. I am so always the first author and each of the students is my co-author. Nevertheless how small their contribution was. In my institute, this is also a common way. First authorship is given to whom the writing was of the paper. So and this is me. Also most of the time the figures in the thesis of a bachelor's or master's need to be equalized. So I make all figures new. It also takes me most of the time 6-8 weeks to write the manuscript.

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Your department seems dysfunctional; it is not uncommon. You should be considering a broader scope of the issue.

That is, students do not really care about research, but you do. Their goal is to get their diploma as efficiently as possible (which means not putting any extra effort in). Given the university is happy to give those away without publications - which is also perfectly sensible - there is absolutely no incentive for them to do anything about these papers after they have completed their thesis. Further, if the thesis committee sets the bar far below that of a decent publication, there is practically nothing you can do with respect to students actually writing papers. Ergo, as Dan Romik points out, you should just sit down with your students and agree on authorship in advance.

Also, if the work your students do is essentially limited to working in the lab, running experiments, getting familiar with frameworks and tools of the trade, you may be well-entitled to the first authorship by any reasonable standard regardless. Still, you have to develop a shared understanding of contributions and publication strategy, because it is, essentially, just your whim right now; students do not have any skin in this game.

This situation - again, not uncommon, especially in weaker departments/universities, - has other implications for your career. If higher up the management chain there is motivation to rework the existing system, make students more competitive, including academically, build a scientific school, you could leverage it to slowly (!) shift the evaluation standards and normalize paper-writing-related assignments. If not, your efforts there would be futile. And if so, consider how much time/effort you should keep putting in into supervision and what to focus on: your students might need less research-focused subset of skills that you are giving them, you are likely doing less-than-optimal also when it comes to the project scale and continuity.

Bear in mind that categorical imperative or, more practically, "fake it until you make it", is often not the most optimal approach.

In good departments, many students write papers

In good departments, some students continue working in academia

In good departments, professors are productive

All of the above is not a function of a single person's work. There is an entire system supporting it, and attempting to change it alone, without a substantial administrative power, is doomed to fail. I know it all too well; you can change things when you are a dean or a research rock star, but at the earlier stages of your career, pick your battles wisely. Limit the scope of your ambition to what you can realistically achieve at the time. Maybe your university/department is a wrong place to push MSc students towards novel scientific contributions altogether, and its social role currently is limited to pumping out new hires for the ever-hungry industry. I have taught in one such place, and it was miserable.

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    You are not answering the question. You are solving something the OP didn't ask about.
    – Tomas
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 13:47
  • Yet I feel that this answer explores questions that OP ought to be asking.
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 14:35
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    I don’t agree: there are multiple types of graduate programs. Some are explicitly professional prep programs vs academic prep programs. In such a program, it would not make sense for a student who is interested in research or academia to enroll. I actually think these students should be exempted from a thesis requirement, but such things are hard to get rid of.
    – Dawn
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 16:08
  • I disagree! "In good departments, some students continue working in academia" This is a big problem everywhere. We cannot offer higher salaries than industry and with a master's in CS, the student can find a good position in the industry within a week after defending the thesis.
    – Yacine
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 12:08
  • I am happy that my department is giving the researchers the freedom how to supervise. Some supervisors prefer to give the student complete freedom and I prefer to closely work with my students. There is nothing wrong with both approaches but a good department -in my opinion- should allow this diversity.
    – Yacine
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 12:10
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To answer the question, I think it is ethical in individual cases described.

But there is a growing cumulative problem when you find this happening again and again.

Unlike the supervision style in my department (CS), I put an enormous effort into supervising my master's students. I meet with each of them twice a week and spend around two hours each week explaining what to do and how to do it. From the first step, I propose a topic with a potential methodology and ask the student to follow it and give him or her precise instructions on how to proceed.

You are doing far too much work for your students.

While I appreciate the importance of research management and publications for your own academic career, they are graduate students now and they really have to be self-motivated enough to make the most of their master's program. You should discuss methodologies with them - not dictate a particular methodology. Neither should you be providing them with bi-weekly spoon-feeding sessions: let them come to you (or you check up on them) as and when they need to with one review session say per 2 weeks approx.

Is it not astonishing that if you can extract a paper from the work of an MS student that that student cannot be motivated enough to put it all together themselves ? Industrial organizations, government labs and all sorts of other employers will always be more impressed when seeing a CV with publications (even one) on it than one without any.

Naturally, you will feel that having put your own name to so many papers involving your MS students' work that you may be seen by peers as a lazy researcher - or even a scavenger - rather than someone implementing their own ideas. And given your time expenditure this must feel so unfair.

I feel you need a whole new approach to your MS supervision so that you don't just work hard at it - but supervise smart.

  • Minimize "straight through" MS candidates, i.e. students who had been your undergrads the previous year. Students in this category usually see PG work as an extended version of a final year undergraduate study, which it is not. Select mostly undergrads from other universities, students with ~ 2 years work experience from wherever and only highly-motivated straight-through local students with no ulterior motives, e.g. girl/boyfriend finishing their course at your university.

  • Select only those candidates who demonstrate understanding and acceptance the importance of publications to their future career.

  • See your HoD or research dean about organizing classes in common postgraduate skills like literature searches, note filing systems, experiment planning, statistical analysis, presentation practice, paper writing, etc. All students must take this and show evidence in their engagements with you of having done so. Don't you go around hitching up their academic trousers like a departmental Mommy.

  • Remember that only MS work done by well-motivated students is going to be of benefit to your own career: don't let students see from your extravagant commitment that you in a sense "need them" however sloppy their attitude may be and however easy it is for them to get well-paid jobs in the industry. Let them all know that you cut them loose if they don't maintain a good work ethic.

  • Check out the university student counselling service to see about real (not professed but untested) supports available for postgraduate students. While you will be one of the first to notice something wrong with your PGs, you must be the last to get involved in their personal issues: that's one for the pros.

  • Realize that MS students may be physically mature (and talk big!) but they are still in their early 20s and still needing assurance from adults now and again. As a senior professional colleague it's okay to provide this now and again when it's merited but do so detachedly and rationally: no hugs just a strong eye-to-eye, a tap on the arm and a "we all have awkward days / take a break / well done / etc".

  • Research is not everything in academia. Education is what it's really all supposed to be about. Get to know other young academics in other departments and listen to their ideas - however loco - on education, research and supervision.

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  • I agree on a lot of this, but selecting only students who want to publish is tricky. If we all did that, then who supervises the students who don't want to publish? I reckon, just be realistic that a student's thesis will not always lead to a paper, and that is fine. Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 14:42
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    @Flaming Ducks All MS students (i.e. by research) should be willing to publish where their work is worthy of it in their supervisor's view. Those who are doing say industry-sponsored research that carries no obligation to publish or no matter of interest is unearthed - these candidates would have to be shared around fairly among the whole faculty, not just dumped into the arms of junior associate professors like OP. The Feynmans among the faculty won't like it !
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 2:00
  • Great advice! Never looked at it like you are describing.
    – Yacine
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 12:03
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Often the principle idea comes from the supervisor and the steps to achieve the goal are small, also helped by the supervisor. If the student has no big idea of its own, I think it is okay to be the first author.

To me, it is very important to talk to the student. Offer them writing the paper with them as the first author. If they are not interested, offer them to write the paper and list them as a co-author. If they don't agree, you are not allowed to list them as a co-author!

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