I am an undergraduate student working under a PI in a research laboratory. My PI pushed out a paper very recently, and I was not mentioned as an author. My PI did not even notify me that he was going to publish this paper. I can comfortably say, without inflating, that I did roughly 1/6 - 1/5 of the work. 3 out of the 8 figures (quantitative figures, not just bar charts slapped in Excel) in the paper were created by me for past posters at conferences, including code I have written to do some analysis that was used as a tertiary argument/talking point in the discussions section. My PI is not very quantitative, and being a qualitative field of study, I felt like a gem asset as someone who is heavy into maths and code.

When I approached my PI, he said he felt like my work was minimal (!!!) and he would put me on the next paper, seemingly brushing me off in the process....

I understand as an undergraduate I should be appreciative of this opportunity to be in a lab in the first place, but I think it's more than fair to get credit for substance that went directly into a paper.

What can I do?

I will be applying to graduate school soon and I don't want to jump labs as looking inconsistent. This is a topic I'm interested in. I feel like I'm stuck, though.

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    While I have no way of knowing whether this applies to you or not, making figures and such might not reach the intellectual contribution necessary to be counted as an author. This is why Acknowledgement sections exist. Before deciding on how to respond, think about what your scientific contribution was. – Scott Seidman Jun 23 '15 at 0:25
  • Did you contribute to writing the paper? It is often considered an essential criteria to be listed as a co-author. – Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 23 '15 at 13:38
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    It is generally a good idea to discuss issues of co-authorship on the outset, to avoid these kinds of issues. As an undergraduate, you probably don't have much leverage, but at least you can try to avoid unpleasant surprises of the kind you experienced. A word of advice - don't expect people to be nice and fair, and watch your back. (I don't think this merits a separate answer, but if you want to follow up, I'm happy to talk.) – Faheem Mitha Jun 24 '15 at 4:00

I'll follow up on my comment, as none of the answers go in this direction, and I don't think you're getting the greatest advice.

While I have no way of knowing whether this applies to you or not, making figures and such might not reach the intellectual contribution necessary to be counted as an author. This is why Acknowledgement sections exist. Before deciding on how to respond, think about what your scientific contribution was.

You may or may not have made a contribution that merits inclusion as an author. Some labs/PI's are very generous about this, and some are not, but if your work was purely "technical", my own inclination would be to offer Acknowledgement and not authorship.

Generating figures: scientific illustrators do this every day as a living (less so these days, but they're still around) and don't get authorship. Photographers too.

Writing code: this is a little less clear, and probably depends on direct contribution to algorithms. If you are, for example, writing code that takes the mean and standard deviation and spits them out in a readable format, that's technical. If you HAD TO UNDERSTAND THE SCIENCE in the paper to write the code, that would push me toward authorship. If I could hire a contractor who knew nothing of the research to do it, I'd lean toward acknowledgement.

There's a disconnect here between the your perception of the contribution you're making and your PI's perception. Just because he feels that your scientific contribution was "minimal", that does not mean he doesn't believe your work is valuable.

You might sit down with him and ask if there's any way you can make deeper contributions to his body of work, or if there's a small project you can really make your own. Another option would be to use the experience you've gained there to apply for summer research opportunities (depending on what year you're in).

Of course, there are curmudgeons who just won't believe that an undergrad can make author-level contributions regardless of the contribution made, and that's unacceptable. As I said before, from your description I have no way of telling whether you're dealing with someone in this category, or whether your contributions were of a basic technical level that arguably don't merit authorship.

I can say that many moons ago, as an undergrad, I was doing single-unit neural recordings in spinal cords (running electrodes up and down, listening for neural activity), and building electronic lab apparatus that helped with the experiments, and doing histology. Some of the rasters I generated were used directly in publications. I didn't consider that authorship level work then, and I still don't, as any technician could have done it, but it was certainly a valuable experience that helped launch my career. Now, almost 30 years later, I'm still in touch with the PI of the lab (I was working for his postdoc), and he's been a wonderful advocate of mine throughout my career.

Your PI's recommendation, at this point, should be treated as a valuable commodity, and if you negotiate this disconnect with maturity, that letter will be even better. Also, the experience you gain now will give you something real to talk about during interviews, which is also incredibly valuable.

Directly relevent: What are the minimum contributions required for co-authorship


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  • This is a very good answer. I will only add that, if you still feel you should have been a coauthor, you should discuss the details with another senior professor familiar with your branch you can trust. Tell them exactly what you did, and they should be able to tell you if your contributions were enough, insufficient, or borderline. – Davidmh Jun 23 '15 at 13:22

Forget about the first paper, it is already done.

Be clear up front that you want your name on the second paper, and that you are willing to take on any additional work necessary to be given authorship.

Having good references is more important than a couple of papers, so don't jeopardise your relationship with your supervisors going after authorship.

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    Disagreed on the relationship part in this instance. This is how exploitation happens. This is an injustice at best and a sign of more exploitation in the pipeline at worst. – mkc Jun 23 '15 at 0:02
  • Making demands doesn't get anywhere. – user18072 Jun 23 '15 at 13:21

It's not clear from what you have written whether "created the figures" means that you generated the data, or just that you made graphs of data that the PI handed you. If you actually generated the data, then you definitely should be an author; otherwise, authorship is questionable but you should at least be mentioned in an acknowledgement.

From you you have written, it appears that your name is not on the paper in any way. This is definitely improper. Moreover, even if somehow the PI thought there was a reason that your name should not be on the paper, they should at least have come to you before publishing to talk with you about this fact.

The fact that this has not happened means this person does not have your best interests at heart, and that you are likely to be exploited in a research relationship with them. I would thus recommend:

  1. Leave the research project.
  2. If there is another PI who you have a trusted relationship with, inform that PI of what has happened so that somebody else will know and so that a record of this behavior can be established. Don't do it in an accusatory manner, just explain that the PI published a paper that included your work without acknowledging it in any way. Say that feel this is inappropriate scientific behavior, and are therefore seeking to work with a new advisor.
  3. Find somebody new, and clearly establish conditions for authorship before you begin work with them.
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  • This seems impractical to me. The asker needs strong recommendation letters and since the damage is done with respect to the publication, they should do everything possible to maintain a positive relationship even while pursuing other opportunities for future work. – Tim Jun 23 '15 at 5:23
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    I would alter (2) slightly - simply ask the other academic for advice, in an open-ended, non-accusatory manner. They might offer to speak to the PI, or explain some strange departmental rule governing undergrads in the lab, or offer to write the amazing reference letter, or simply give some great advice. However, they are in a position to actually do something, while we here can only give advice. – user1729 Jun 23 '15 at 8:37
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    These recommendations seem over the top to me. Aside from not knowing the exact situation in enough detail to see what applies here, "generating data" does not imply intellectual contribution sufficient for authorship. Tens of thousands of lab techs generate data every day, and are not considered for authorship. – Scott Seidman Jun 23 '15 at 12:32
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    I also think this is too hasty. It is not clear that the present PI has bad intentions, it would be unwise to burn bridges so early. – Davidmh Jun 23 '15 at 13:17
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    The code was not a mean and a standard deviation. It was applying a metric him and I discussed TOGETHER as a way of measuring something. He didn't approach me and say, "Hey, write code to test X". It was more of a joint discussion on what constitutes a "hit" in our case, and then me implementing it. He couldn't have hired a code monkey to do it because it required an interdisciplinary knowledge of the situation. – user36212 Jun 23 '15 at 20:31

You have been treated unfair and if you ask me you should look for a different opportunity instead of getting stuck in the same work group for grad school. Switching fields or the work group doesnt necessarily looks inconsistent but can also be considered as a broader array of interests or competences.

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    could you explain why you think it unfair? it really depends on how large the intellectual contribution in the "figures" was. you don't get authorship for drawing figures, typesetting tables or compiling reference lists. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 23 '15 at 8:04

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