I have an idea for a new approximation method. I am pretty sure that it works, but I don't know how well it works compared to the existing methods. However, I do not have a lot of time to pursue the idea.

I am thinking of asking my supervisors if they could give that idea to an undergraduate student so that they could evaluate the performance of the method on the datasets I provide. They do not need to implement anything, as I will supply the Python code of the method. They need to report the results to me and do some writing, and I will summarize the results and proofread their writing. This will probably lead to their bachelor's dissertation, and we will probably publish a paper based on the findings.

Is it ethical if I claim first authorship for the paper?

  • 28
    If it is that easy to do, seems like you could carve out a little time to just do it. More likely, there will be work to be done by the undergraduate and they will know more than you by the end. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Simple ideas often are not simple. If it is so trivial why do you even want first authorship?
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 16, 2023 at 12:41
  • 10
    I wonder why you are asking whether this is ethical. It possibly sounds like you know it isn't, but want someone to reassure you that it's OK.
    – user438383
    Oct 16, 2023 at 12:45
  • 11
    +1 for thinking about things like this before doing the work. Better than leaving this discussion to later. However, it would good to be open to the possibility that your undergrad (or your supervisor!) might add so much value that they might want to renegotiate this. Plus: are you certain that "first authorship" is a thing in your field? Enough fields always order authors alphabetically. Oct 16, 2023 at 13:33
  • 3
    You can't really "own" an idea. If you have expressed an idea as a piece of (creative) work, (e.g. a work of art of a piece of code), you that specific expression falls under copyright (automatically), and you can potentially licence it to others. On the other hand, a new invention (defined as a new process, idea, composition of matter) can be patented, but you need to take steps to get through the patenting process. In both cases, the idea (the "eureka" moment where the little light bulb went off and it just "clicked") is not protected in any way -- ideas themselves are cheap.
    – penelope
    Oct 16, 2023 at 14:19
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    Another thing you say is "an undergrad student could get their BSc dissertation from it". But you say the implementation is already done, you've already picked the datasets and completed the experimental design. That doesn't sound like a lot of intellectual work. In fact, the only part of intellectual work you seem to want to pass on to this student is writing -- and that's pretty hard if they don't need to implement or engage with your method, just run some experiments that have been prepared for them. Why do you think this will be enough for a BSc dissertation? Or interesting to the student?
    – penelope
    Oct 16, 2023 at 14:23

6 Answers 6


This is the second question you have asked this month about first authorship.

I would like to suggest a frame change. Try to think more about the quality and usefulness of the work you and your colleagues are doing, and how the paper reporting it will be better because you've talked about it and wrestled with it together. Part of that discussion can include how credit is allocated.

Of course this may be naive if you're in a field where professional advancement is measured by a weighted average of author position on published papers. Fortunately, I'm a mathematician and we just alphabetize. I tease my coauthor Catalin Zara about that.

  • until the day your coauthor discovers their grandfather was mr. Azara, with the famous and common "mute A" among mathemticians ...
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 24, 2023 at 13:26

Your reasons are fine in my view so I don't see any ethical problem with this. However this doesn't mean that nobody else has an "ethical right" to claim first authorship as well, depending how exactly the work plays out in the end. People may disagree about authorship without anyone being unethical.


Nobody owns an idea.

There are professional norms to credit originators of ideas, but you should not think you in any way own an idea.


  • 1
    I'll note that copyright gives certain rights to the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Likewise patent gives certain rights to the exploitation of an idea, but not the idea itself.
    – Buffy
    Oct 18, 2023 at 22:57

If you have an implementation and you are "pretty sure it works", then you don't have an implementation. You have an idea that has been somehow fleshed out. "They don't have to implement anything" is something I'd believe when I see it. The hard work hasn't been done yet, that's what you want to leave to an undergraduate student. Who needs to properly implement not only your work, but also other people's work that he needs to compare to. That is much more work, and much more value, than you have provided so far.


Yes, from what you describe it is absolutely fine.

Whoever does additional work to yours deserve co-authorship, but the decision on who should get first authorship is, in the end, an internal discussion between co-authors, you provide enough arguments to be the 1st author.

The not asked question arising from your question is if the work you propose would be enough for a Bachelor thesis.

The answer is no.

However, the solution is simple.

The Bachelor student can spend a couple of weeks dealing with your code (and getting co-authorships) after having spent a couple of months automating the testing against other approaches or looking for the analytical reasons behind the superior performance of the newly proposed method against the literature methods.


If it is trivial, authorship is not an issue.

If on the other hand you developed a method that is not trivial, you should implement it yourself. Designing a non-trivial algorithm in your head without missing something is rare. If you don't implement it yourself, your student will have refined and corrected your method, and would be a co-author. It would then be unethical to claim sole authorship.

EDIT: It would then be unethical to claim sole authorship. However it would not be unethical to claim first authorship in my view.

  • 5
    The OP is asking about first authorship, not sole. I don't think there is any question of not including the student, the person who will actually do the work and write the paper, in the list of authors. The question is about who should go first.
    – terdon
    Oct 17, 2023 at 12:29

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