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Let me start off by saying that I am really a nobody in my field of research. Several months ago I reached out to a very well-known researcher, one of the big names, with a draft paper I was working on. I was very surprised to get an answer back from them. I originally wanted their input on a paper I was preparing for publication and thought having them add their two-cents into what I had written would really improve the paper. In exchange I offered them to be a co-author.

The researcher was hesitant to agree to my offer citing that they believed what I had was a really nice piece of work and they were concerned that by adding their name to the paper, people would end up attributing the work to them. Instead, given that my paper was theory heavy, they wanted to do a follow-up paper together that was focused on experimental verification of my theory and also bring in their PhD student to help. I can understand that they saw this as an opportunity for the PhD student to get in on a paper (who does not have any publications yet) and at the same time give me an opportunity to collaborate with them (the big name researcher). Everyone would benefit. Anyways, the researcher in question suggested the possibility of the PhD student taking the lead as first author and that we should rank authorship based on who contributed the most.

I am not sure if the PhD student was too busy, or just didn't understand the topic but for whatever reason they showed very little interest in actually doing the work to get the paper done. They did put their name as first author on the paper at the very beginning of the research effort but then did very little after that. I ended up writing at least 80% of the paper, and my collegue did all the data processing, with the PhD student capturing the data and writing an abstract and a paragraph in the introduction. I could see when they made edits to the paper and it was always last minute (the night before our meetings).

Now, I would not necessarily care too much about the author order here; however, because I don't think the PhD student understands the topic well at all, I don't want correspondence for the paper being sent to them. I wrote almost the entire paper and also all the details of the algorithm/theory used to produce the results. I know the material very well and am able to actually answer questions and discuss the work with those who may be interested.

This is an awkward situation for me. I don't know how to discuss/propose the authorship order change and also don't want to cause a fuss because I want to work with this researcher more in future projects. I saw this project as starting a relationship with this researcher and don't want to rock the boat too much. I have more ideas that I want to work with them on. Can anyone please help me navigate what to do?

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  • *Instead, given that my paper was theory heavy, they wanted to do a follow-up paper together * What paper are we discussing here? if the PhD student collected the data for the follow-up paper, I can see why they feel they deserve first author spot in the follow-up paper. However, what you are worried about is the corresponding author, which is not the same thing as first author ...
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 17, 2023 at 17:29
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    It's not clear to me whether your original, theory-heavy paper was published. Was it?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 17, 2023 at 17:31
  • @BryanKrause The original paper has been submitted for publication and is in peer review. Jan 17, 2023 at 17:35
  • @EarlGrey Yes, the PhD student collected the data for the follow-up paper but essentially did nothing else. My coworker and I did all the processing, analysis, and writing the paper (minus an abstract. Between him and I we wrote 95% of the paper. Maybe the answer is just to ask for the corresponding author position. Jan 17, 2023 at 17:42

3 Answers 3

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It's often a problem that burden of effort shifts during a project, and that initial authorship expectations should therefore be modified. However, it's far better to make these modifications along the way rather than at the end.

I ended up writing at least 80% of the paper, and my collegue did all the data processing, with the PhD student capturing the data and writing an abstract and a paragraph in the introduction.

Really, before you took on writing most of the paper, you should have renegotiated the authorship arrangement, or at least had a conversation about it. Some things you may need to consider are:

  1. Writing can be either a relatively minor contribution or the major feature of a paper. I would not necessarily consider the person who wrote the most words to be the person most deserving of first authorship.

  2. Likewise, data collection is sometimes a very undervalued part of a project, depending on the type of data; for other projects, data wrangling tasks can be just as important and time-consuming. In some cases, you really need to do an entire separate hidden research project that's nonetheless completely unpublishable and uncredited just to start data collection. I don't know whether that's the case here, and you may not either, but it's something to consider.

  3. It's not really fair to 'steal' a paper by doing someone else's work. If you start a collaboration with someone, you should expect that your project with them is not their only time commitment. If you separate the tasks, it's good to communicate about expectations of when those tasks are to be done, but if you'd like things to move more quickly and therefore start taking tasks that weren't yours, well, it's not really fair to then say the other person didn't do the work: you didn't give them a chance to.


With that out of the way, your next step really is to just have a conversation about it. Maybe everyone is in agreement on a new authorship order, and there's no real problem to solve. If there are disagreements, then you can start weighing the alternatives. Try to have a good sense of what things you value going into that conversation, rather than fixating on a solution. If your field recognizes "senior"/last authorship, maybe that's an acceptable position in the author list for you and your role. It may be useful to have a neutral/semi-neutral party help mediate. As in any negotiation, you shouldn't expect to get everything you want, but hopefully you can settle on something that everyone feels is a reasonable compromise.

I do not get the sense that the "very well-known researcher" you initially contacted will be a barrier - they already proposed a very reasonable solution when you initially reached out. If they were the sort of person who abuses authorship they'd likely have had no problem being an author on the first paper. They may also feel a duty towards their PhD student, however, but I think you really need to have the conversation first and see how things shake out before you worry too much that you're rocking the boat or burning bridges with them.

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    You make a lot of good points. I will say the data collection portion of this paper was not significant...it was the processing/analysis/writing that took the majority of the effort. When things started to shift I should have brought up authorship earlier. That is a lesson I will remember next time. At the same time, my conscience is in the background telling me I took over the project and maybe should have given the PhD student more of a chance. (+1) for the helpful answer. Jan 17, 2023 at 19:01
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    Worth considering how much real time would having to do the data collection (and any associated work) have taken from the OP if they did it themselves ? It may seem a minor contribution but it can often be a real necessity to have someone who does this often thankless grind work. Jan 18, 2023 at 2:00
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If the PhD student collected the data for the follow-up paper, I can see why they feel they deserve first author spot.

However, what you are worried about is the corresponding author, which is not the same thing as first author.

Keep the PhD students as first author (isn't it what you agreed with their advisor? did they do the bulk of the work for the paper, i.e. data collection?) and then at submission put your name as corresponding author (I guess you are dealing with the submission, so you have a certain responsibility and you deserve that role).

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    I don't think it makes much sense for OP to be the corresponding author (he could be journal contact author during submission - but that role is thankless slavery). I believe professor is by far the best for corresponding author position for few reasons: 1) he will keep that mail (PhD student and OP are more likely to move on) 2) he knows both the theoretical and practical side of the paper to some degree 3) he is the bridge between PhD student and OP so he can easily forward questions he can't answer himself. OP would need to go through professor to send experimental question to the student. Jan 18, 2023 at 7:52
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    @ZizyArcher You make some reasonable points, but I think it is all in the interest of OP to be corresponding author, if he feels he dominate the subject, (up to being the first author on an experimental paper) let him be a peer on par with the professor. More in detail: 1) there are many ways to contact a researcher; 2) nothing prevents the corresponding authors to reach back to the coauthors; 3) you do not need a bridge to get in touch with the PhD. You get directly in touch with the PhD, if he/she does not react, you get in touch with the professor.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 18, 2023 at 8:14
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There seem to be several issues here, most prominently, a collaboration gone bad.

IMHO the authorship question may now be considered fallout of this issue.

Albeit this is easy to say in hindsight, but if you have had the feeling the PhD student didn't contribute sufficiently, the proper way would have been to discuss that with the student and if afterwards your impression persists, potentially escalate that with the professor.

Anyway, regarding your question. Corresponding authors and first authors are a different concept. As you seemingly are from a field which aligns authorship roles with contribution, the first author is understood as the person contributing the most. Totally separate from that, a corresponding author may be indicated. However, neither you nor the PhD student are a good choice for this position as people may contact you in five years from now. The professor is the best bet as a person who can be reliably contacted after that time. Furthermore, since you write about experimental data, usually the professor can always provide access to that whereas you might not necessarily be able/allowed to.

Finally, to provide a suggestion: Have you discussed either changing the author order with the PhD student or the option of sharing first authorship? IMHO this is the most sensible way to proceed here with the latter providing the highest likelihood of success. This way you may indicate that you are the person most involved in the conceptualization/execution. However, this should be discussed with the PhD student before involving the professor.

If you select to go with this, this can even be done in a way that saves the PhD student's face if let's say the mutual first-authorship is brought up towards the professor by the PhD student, much rather than you. This way, the student may say he thinks so highly of you, you should be elevated to co-firsthauthorship.

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  • "Finally, to provide a suggestion: Have you discussed either changing the author order with the PhD student or the option of sharing first authorship?" I haven't discussed it with him yet. I guess I felt bad about bringing this up in the eleventh hour as the paper is essentially done now. How does one share first author? Could you explain that more please? Jan 17, 2023 at 18:55
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    If you consider A, B, and C a normal author list, one with shared authors would look as follows: A*, B*, and C. with an indication directly below the authors list in the manuscript (not whatever platform is used to upload the manuscript) that these authors share this position in the authorship list, e.g. "*these authors contributed equally".
    – VoodooCode
    Jan 17, 2023 at 19:09
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    However, if you approach the PhD student, it might be good to have a small table, on the one side stuff he/she contributed and on the other stuff you contributed, and why you feel they weigh equal. Be aware that the PhD student may not immediately (or at all) agree with you, in any case, it would be good to give him/her some time to think about your position before escalating, if necessary.
    – VoodooCode
    Jan 17, 2023 at 19:10

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