I have finished three years of work in a Ph.D. program. I've published one conference paper as sole author, and have recently sent out another paper to a prestigious conference.

I started a project last October with a professor who does not have anything to do with my dissertation. He asked me early on to do a lot of work so I asked him who is the first author, and he said he would be. I've already written the full literature review for this journal paper, and came up with the framework by myself. He has only advised me on it.

Now, I have a clear idea about my dissertation, and I have to write my proposal and defend it this fall. So, the work with this professor is rather burdensome to me right now. So far, he has not worked on it at all. I've written six or seven out of the 15 pages of the journal paper. The main thing left is data analysis. He wants me to do the data analysis and write it up as well, and recently he also asked me to write introduction of the paper. At this point, I thought, he wants me to write the whole paper, which he can edit at the last moment and become first author.

Since this paper does not have anything to do with my dissertation, I do not want to work with this paper anymore. I told him I am busy with my own research, it seems like that he will wait until I finish writing the paper.

What should I do? I do not want to cut the relationship but he is asking too much which I think is unethical. Any strategic advice will be appreciated.

I talked to the professor and said there must have been misunderstanding about the responsibilities as a second author in my part and as a first author in his part. I said that I understood that writing literature review will meet the responsibility as a second author.

His brief comment on the e-mail was that he wrote a conference paper already, and this journal paper (that I'm working on) is a developed version of the conference paper. So, he did the major work already for the conference paper that is why he is the first author. And he stated that I am supposed to write a literature review and to do the data analysis for this journal paper.

OK. He has integrity in his position. I remember that he said something like this when we started this paper 10 months ago. But the problem was that his position was not re-enforced again, and the lit review I've done took off to a different terain. That means, I did a lot of creative interpretation of the framework. (Sorry, to technical folks. This is social science study using business management theories. The upfront literature review is very significant. My dissertation uses machine learning and NLP stuff. yes, this paper is unrelated with my dissertation).

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this update is to provide the professor's perspective that I've got to learn recently. So the major lesson I've learn through this experience is to keep reinforcing (in emails) about my understanding of my and his responsibilities on this project.

  • 1
    Were the data collected by this professor?
    – Brian P
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 16:00
  • 23
    Repeat after me: "Your turn."
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 16:51
  • data is from the research institute he works. I do not wish to be a first author. I just want to focus on my dissertation.
    – user37874
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 17:07
  • 4
    From everything you say, this professor sounds like he qualifies for last authorship - "senior author": did not do much of the heavy lifting, but directed and edited, and considers the work good enough to carry his name. You should fight to be first author - take it up with the university authorities. Trying to be first author on a paper you did not do the majority of work on is unethical. It is also morally wrong. Get it fixed, or get away from him. You deserve getting credit - if the way you tell it is an accurate reflection of what's going on. Is there an ombudsperson you can talk to?
    – Floris
    Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 22:33

6 Answers 6


First of all: Good call to talk about authorship issues at the beginning, rather than only once troubles started! Now authorship issues do occasionally have to be re-negotiated depending on the course the project takes.

There do seem to be potentially two separate aspects in your question:

A. What to do if I have contributed as much as I am willing as a secondary author, yet the first author keeps asking for more? - Point out that you have done X, Y and Z, and that you are only willing to do significantly more if you are the first author (fundamental reading + commenting remain unaffected of course).

B. I started a side-project, and I no longer want to work on this AT ALL. - Make clear to your co-author that you have no intention to work on this project anymore, and that this pertains to the future, too. Either give them free rein to continue the project without you (either with you on the author list or not, depending on your preferences); OR make sure you are still available for basic reading/commenting, but simply nothing more extensive.

In both cases, if the coauthor shows a significantly stronger reaction than "medium annoyance", then maintaining a positive relationship to them is futile anyway.

  • 1
    In both cases, if the coauthor shows a significantly stronger reaction than "medium annoyance" ... -- If I were the OP, I would be way beyond the level of "medium annoyance."
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 16:52
  • Thank you a lot. I sent an email to him that I have limited time availability, and implied Aug is the timeline. His response was, we can discuss the feasibility of finishing the paper by the end of this year. He does not get it.
    – user37874
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 17:56
  • 9
    There is a huge difference between "I'm not doing this now." and "I'm not doing this ever."
    – Arno
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 18:47
  • 1
    @user37874 what happens when you read your disertation? You will not longer be a PhD student, are you still employed by the institution?
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 22:35
  • 4
    @user37874 "Implied Aug is the timeline." I would not imply anything. You need to be very clear and direct. If you don't have the time or interest to complete this paper, then you need to say that and move on.
    – Brian P
    Commented Jun 22, 2014 at 12:37

Since I suppose bad language is not allowed here, I'll be restrained. Suffice to say, as an academic I think that is a basic professional principle is lacking here: if you, with existing career, wage and pedagogical duties, are writing with a student, they should be first author. Always. Every time. No matter what.

Two reasons: first, you already have all the power and privileges. Students are not there to be consumed. Second, you don't want to be seen to be exploiting someone who is vulnerable to your power over them.

Short answer: this person sounds like a dick. Put them off, finish your PhD, get a job, then tell anyone following on after you to avoid writing with them.

  • Yup OP should cut his or her losses and stop contributing to it ... the lit review alone justifies secondary authorship. Seems like this Prof can not get funding and is just hijacking students to do all the work.
    – DBB
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 17:42
  • 2
    "Aways. Every time. No matter what." is too extreme. There are fields where authors are simply listed in alphabetical order, for example. Clearly the OP is not in such a field, but the extreme nature of your statement is unwarranted. Secondly, the claim that "you don't want to be seen to be exploiting someone who is vulnerable" is also a culture-specific opinion. There are cultures that are more strongly hierarchical than yours, that would not view the situation in the terms you use to describe it. Your answer is undoubtedly correct for your own academic field and your own country's culture.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 17:03

The professor is putting it off until you present your dissertation. What happens then? Are you still employed by your institution?

If you have an position somewhere else, congratulations! Just tell him that you have other obligations, and that you will be available for comments and discussion, but your new employer would want you to work on their projects.

If you are going to remain at your institution, and don't have anything else that will pay your bills, you could use this project to improve your CV. I don't know in your field, but only two conference publications sounds on the weaker end (in technical fields in Sweden people usually finish with four first author journal papers after four years). If you don't have anything else (yet), you can ask him to hire you. If funding is not available, you may decide to work with him anyway, but letting him know that your main priority is finding a new job, and you will leave as soon as someone offers to pay you. You may also decide not to work for free, and you could tell him that.

In the case that you decide to actually continue with the project, you should discuss authorship again. You have done most of the job so far, and you have the work he wants you to do as a leverage. You could appeal to his humanity (as if professors had any!) and say that you are in a critical point in your career and need to strengthen your CV.


Practical question: How important is it to you that this paper be published?

If you don't do it, will it be?

If the answer to the first is "very" and the answer to the second is 'no", you're sorta stuck. What's right, and what will achieve the desired outcome, are different things.


I suppose this will have been dealt with in other threads, but the meanings of "first" and "second" authors do vary with discipline. For instance, in theoretical CS it is most common for authors to be listed in strict alphabetical order by last name, regardless of level or type of contribution. In the sciences it is more common for the "senior author" (who is primarily a mentor and may have conceived of the problem and the solution framework, but probably hasn't done as much hands-on work or writing) to be named last. In engineering it can be a bit arbitrary, reflecting the authors' perceived order of importance or some other understanding. (Though I work in engineering and applied CS, I personally follow the sciences' style, so I am almost always the last-named author in my papers, with my students or other junior co-author(s) being named first even if I have done a lot of hand-holding.)

On the main issue, I find it quite surprising that your professor wrote a conference paper which he now says has been extended, but you knew nothing about it. How could you not have known? In most cases the conference paper would be the first point of departure while extending for a journal, and I'm sure this is true across disciplines.


In all this mess you are suffering, I am trying to put myself at your position as I am also a researcher. As you said you don't want to cut the relationship so we will have to be polite as well as have to refuse his work also. Unfortunately I have to ask this - how much will it take to end up all his work? (Sorry to ask but what if, just be strong and complete it and end up with all mess). Next, can't you show you cannot do it efficiently now because you busy in your work. (You can do this by asking some questions about data analysis related to his work again and again and again and again.)

And if we can't do anything with him, do you have any friend/colleague who can help you with his work or what you can do is say your professor to provide you a helping source as you have your work also (say politely) and assign most of the work to source provided by guiding him/her.

If nothing actually working - than just do your work! Only your work will make your profile strong, once you done with the degree from there - nobody can do anything. If you had decided to be in this research field - you will occasionally come across these type of problems or worse. Don't worry! Just take it as a lesson for your future.

And the most important thing - when you are a professor never ever let anything like this happen to your student. I know it's not your problem's solution but this will help any other student in same trap.

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