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My predecessor did all the experiments and included them in his thesis but he didn't have the complete analysis done and there were some mistakes in his analysis. Now that the paper is ready after I spent multiple months working on it and correcting the analysis, my advisor put me as a first author. I feel bad for my predecessor because I know he really worked hard on it.

So is this common thing and accepted in the academic community? Am I overthinking this?

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  • 2
    What is your predecessor now doing? There’s a difference depending on if they’re still in academia, or have taken an industry position.
    – RLH
    Commented Jan 13 at 2:14
  • 1
    @RLH Why? Shouldn't the contribution be the only factor? Or at least it should be about the work of the person, not the person themself.
    – Mihail
    Commented Jan 13 at 17:16
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    @Mihail: In this situation, we’ve got two authors with a reasonable claim to first authorship, based on the work they’ve done. If the original author is still in academia, they may still have some “ownership interest” in the work; if they’ve gone to an industry position, they’ve most likely abandoned this interest, and the question of who gets first-authorship becomes much less tricky.
    – RLH
    Commented Jan 13 at 18:26
  • What they currently are doing should not influence their claim to authorship. Commented Jan 14 at 19:06

4 Answers 4

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There seems to be enough evidence here that your advisor is making the right decision. Perhaps not obviously so, but enough ambiguity about primary authorship that it could well be right.

This might be especially true if the original idea about the research came from the advisor.

You could talk to the advisor about their reasoning and your doubts, of course.

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Although I completely understand your position in relation to your advisor, it seems contrary to generally accepted ethical behavior that your advisor should determine the order of authorship. Authorship order would usually be a matter for a mutually agreed decision among all those who contributed to a paper. Many journals make that idea pretty clear in their submission guidelines. My institution used to make it mandatory in their own guidelines for staff and students.

It also seems a bit strange that neither your supervisor nor you has actually talked to your predecessor about the issue. Perhaps you might consider raising that possibility with your advisor.

There are numerous places on the web that offer guidance about authorship and authorship order (some contradicting others), but here is one from the American Psychological Association.

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  • In many experimental fields, the generally accepted ethical behavior is that the manuscript comes out of the lab group, which is headed by the lead PI who retains corresponding authorship. The advisor directs the students and gets final say on what the publications coming out of that lab group look like.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented Jan 15 at 17:23
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This is not uncommon - and in the best case scenario your supervisor will have the experience and expertise to estimate if you "deserve" first authorship. Often, one of the things to be considered is not necessarily how much work was put in overall, but how much of that work actually ends up in the final manuscript/paper and who wrote the first full draft of the manuscript.

Of course this isn't black and white, and this is ideally something that is discussed openly between all authors. Everyone decides on authorship differently, although there are some best practices and I find that I keep refining how I do this as well, trying to adhere to those best practices (using some rational measurements where possible).

First of all, did you ask your supervisor how they arrived at this conclusion? What were their considerations? Is the former student still on the paper? You could graciously offer to share authorship with the former student? This all depends on your exact situation. Maybe your supervisor has some arguments/things to consider that you are not aware of?

Depending on the answer you get from your supervisor (or better yet, in preparation), there are a couple of things you can do (and this will also be field dependent):

  1. Read up on authorship rules and when you qualify for authorship to begin with (for example, an author needs to be able and willing to take responsibility for the paper and especially the parts they contributed to - and at least one author (main, either first and/or senior author) needs to be responsible for the work as a whole, for years to come. The grey area here is often encountered with students or technicians, where some labs or universities/institutions try to give them authorship and others are very strict because technical/practical execution of the work may in and by itself not be considered to be sufficient.

  2. Try to use the Credit system (https://credit.niso.org) to score the different contributions and roles. Who came up with the idea? Who did the actual work (experimentation/coding/analysis)? Who did the actual writing and editing? Try to put percentages to this if the tasks were not allocated to one individual.

  3. Does the manuscript contain an author contribution section? You can write this too based on the Credit system, or use other definitions (look in papers in your field/area to see how this is typically done).

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  • Your point about work in the final product is important. Significant efforts that do not make it into the final paper for whatever reason just don't really count. I took on a collaborator once to do data analysis and their mistakes were so grave and widespread it was decided they shouldn't remain an author at all since their work needed to be completely replaced by work done by someone else. Besides this, worth taking into account that not all work is created equal in terms of intellectual contribution.
    – commscho
    Commented Jan 15 at 16:09
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Raise the possibility with your advisor to share first authorship / equal contribution. With today's large scale studies often integrating numerous different experimental approaches and experiments, this is commonplace. Nearly all journals allow it.

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