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A Ph.D. student at institute A recently graduated and left the field. They had been working on a project in the last ~2 years of their programme, as part of a wider research group, but did not publish it. It did, however, constitute a significant chapter in their thesis, and represents a lot of work.

This student's supervisor, Professor X, picked up the project after the student left. They have done a lot of work over the past 4 months to bring it up to publication standard, and as a result have decided to change the first authorship to themselves, and plan to submit soon. In this field, first authorship is desirable.

I (a former student of Professor X at this institute, now working as a postdoc at another institution, and a member of the research group) am a bit uncomfortable about this, for the following reasons:

  • Whilst the Professor has clearly done a lot of work, it's arguable whether this constitutes the majority of the contribution. The student did much of the less visible but often difficult work, such as data compilation, exploratory analysis, and literature review. They also produced the first draft of the paper. This contributed as much to the current content of the paper as the subsequent analysis by the professor.
  • The paper is an important and exciting contribution, but it is not a key paper from the research group. Professor X does not need another first author paper. Arguably, it would reflect better on Professor X, and the research group as a whole, if the work was (correctly in my opinion) attributed to the former student.
  • Part of what makes me quite frustrated about the situation is that if Professor X had expended the same level of effort on the project whilst the student was still at the institution it may have been published in a more timely manner. Much of the additional analysis done since the student left was suggested by said student, but they did not receive the support they needed to achieve it at the time.

I do not believe that making the student first author would violate academic integrity due to the significant contribution they made to the research. The corresponding author would, however, be Professor X.

I'm not sure how to handle this. At one extreme I may remove myself from the paper in solidarity with the student. Alternatively, I could just let it go, and not jeopardise my relationship with the professor and the wider research group.

Another way of posing this question: at what point would it be appropriate for the professor to claim first authorship, and has that threshold been met in this case?

Edit: To be clear, as pointed out by @Ben, none of the reasons listed above are themselves any justification for changing authorship order. But in the marginal case where either author could reasonably be considered 'first-author', I think they provide important context.

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    Was the actual paper already drafted while the student was still with the group? Mar 23 at 7:24
  • @MisterMiyagi yes, a draft existed which the student was working towards submission. The paper that exists now does, however, include extra analysis
    – temp_res
    Mar 23 at 7:29
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    @Job_September_2020 It is relevant, but I believe the details are significantly different, in particular my own relation to the Professor and student
    – temp_res
    Mar 23 at 7:49
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    So you are co-author? (Better write this explicitly so that it is clear.) Have the former student expressed that they are unhappy with this situation? If they are fine with this I don't see any point for making a fuss. Mar 23 at 11:54
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    How closely tied to the student’s progress was the professor in the first place? They may actually have done the lions share of the work.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 23 at 14:40

3 Answers 3

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To answer this question, we need to discuss what does the first authorship mean first. However, the meaning differs across research areas and places. For example, in pure mathematics authors are commonly listed alphabetically, hence the first authorship means nothing except the surname of the 1st author started with A, B, C or D.

In other fields, e.g. physics, medical research, biology, the authors are listed in order of contribution. However, it is now more clearly appreciated, that "contribution" is not a one-dimensional measure. It is often not easy to compare who did the "most important" work: person collecting the data, person analysing them, person writing the paper, or person who did nothing particular about this work but whose grant is paying for the whole lab. There is no universally accepted rule. Everyone values the contribution they best understand. Everyone has their own opinion. It's healthier to list contributions in the paper, rather than encode the ill-defined importance in the order of authors.

Finally, the first author is often someone who is the "face" of the work, who is most responsible for the results in this paper and who can be contacted first about their developments. With this meaning in mind, if one of the co-authors left academic field and is no longer participating in further development, it is justifiable to move them down from the first authorship.

Having said all that, it is always a bit greedy for an established Prof to claim the resources or appreciation away from their student to themselves. I can see the reasons behind it, and it is justifiable in this case (depending on the norms of the specific research area), but this is still a bit of a shame that Prof could not be more generous and gracious in this case.

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    Agreed on explicitly stating contributions, we use the CRediT system, but in this field first authorship still counts for something. I think your final point hits the nail on the head
    – temp_res
    Mar 23 at 10:12
  • This answer's conclusion is that the professor may be a bit greedy, but how does that answer OP's question?
    – sourcream
    Mar 30 at 15:37
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All of your concerns are irrelevant to authorship

Each of the dot points you list as your causes for concern are irrelevant to authorship and reflect a complete lack of understanding of the purposes of authorship attribution. Authorship is a recognition of substantive contribution to a written work. It is not a gift for trying hard or putting in hours (I'm sure an undergraduate could have taken even longer to do the same work). It is also not a thing that is handed out on the basis of "need" or on the basis of what a person might counterfactually have done if they had had more support at a previous time. In cases where the order of authorship even matters, the only questions that are relevant relate to the substantive contributions made to the paper.

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    I agree, but in this case author-order is valued in the field, and the substantive contributions are, for the purposes of this argument, equal between the two individuals. I have edited the question to clarify
    – temp_res
    Mar 23 at 10:10
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    John contributed onions for the soup, and Jill contributed stock, salt and pepper. Whose contribution is more significant? Who should come first in the list of authors? There is not right answer to this. Contributions can not always be compared in a fully objective and transparent way. The order of authors often reflects nothing but the balance of power in the team. Mar 23 at 23:52
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Having been a data analyst on many papers, I will say that I've never been first author if all I did was data compilation and analysis. On many papers that I worked on, the people who did the most actual work (in terms of number of hours) were field workers who did all the interviews or focus groups -- they usually only got acknowledgements but sometimes were in a list of authors.

First authorship is, in the fields I know about, usually given to the person who came up with the idea and supervised the writing of the paper.

That said, if a professor already has a lot of publications and has tenure, it's nice for them to put a student first, at least if the contributions are roughly equal.

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