The usual recommendation I have read here is that when you publish together with a (PhD) student of yours, the student should be first author, and the supervisor will be second author. Although this is not explained explicitly, the context seems to be that the student is the one who does the major part of the analysis and writing up the article. The supervisor might have defined the research design and approach, identified relevant previous literature and might have revised the article.

My situation is a little different:

  • I occasionally have a small number of Bachelor's and Master's students who have written an excellent Bachelor's/Master's thesis. Because they have worked on topics (which I recommended) that are relevant to research efforts in the field, their results are so interesting that I feel they should be published (and I think there's a good chance they will).
  • The students rarely have any interest in publishing their results, if it involves any further work. They will most probably not pursue a PhD. Most of them will become teachers, and having published a research article will likely provide zero benefits when trying to find a job, so they don't want to invest time in publishing their results.
  • Because of this they don't want to invest any (substantial amount of) time in writing up the results in a way that they can be published. I don't think they would mind seeing the results published with their name as a co-author (and then they will have to at least read through the final manuscript), but they might also consent to not being given authorship.
  • Consequently, if I want to see the results published, I will have to write up the article. I most cases some reanalysis of the data will also be necessary (and sometimes a more substantial effort will be necessary).
  • The major contribution from the students is that they collected and coded the data (which takes a substantial amount of time), and some of the analyses they did might be usable in a publication.

Does the students' contribution merit first or second authorship even though their contribution doesn't match the ICMJE criteria for authorship? What's the ethical and reasonable thing do do?

Even if it doesn't, should I take into account that hiring/tenure committees might like to see proof that I actively involve students in my research and publish together with them? (I read this in an answer to another question here, but can't find it anymore.)

  • 7
    This will be dependent in large part on norms within your field; I don't think there will be anything universal. For instance, in my field, the student should be first author if, and only if, their last name alphabetically precedes that of the advisor (and other authors). Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 18:16
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    I'm reminded of a paper on which the first author was noted as being an NSF Fellow, and the second as a Jolly Good Fellow.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 0:43
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    There is no universal standard.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 2:45
  • I think you misunderstood ICMJE criteria. To quote: "The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to [write/revise the paper or approve its final version]". You should ask the students to read and approve the paper (which they will very likely agree as it is not much work) thus enabling them to fulfill the criteria. Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 10:31
  • Mhh, no, I don't think I misunderstood them ;) (1) I wouldn't deny them the opportunity. (2) reading and approving the paper is not the same as "Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content". If that's the standard, and I'm not saying it necessarily should be, few if any of them are going to meet it.
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 11:34

2 Answers 2


...but they might also consent to not being given authorship.

No, no and no. If it is your students' BSc or MSc thesis, they should be co-authors. Period.

...I will have to write up the article.

You are right. That is why in those cases, you may be first author on the paper (according to your discipline's norms).

Also, you should always discuss BEFORE assigning the MSc and BSc theses' topics, that ideally you want to work on the suggested topic so that you will get a publication out of it. Also you should make clear that if a student's thesis results in a paper, then the student gets to be co-author on the resulting paper and additional work might be required from him. Earlier discussion always leads to fewer disputes later-on.

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    If they don't want to be authors then they are allowed to decline it, they just need to be given the option.
    – SPPearce
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 18:14
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    @KraZug Technically yes. If a student ever declines an authorship in this situation, however, then the advisor has probably done something horribly wrong.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 18:20
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    I'd also be careful of how you word things to the students at the outset - you don't want it to seem like you're trying to use students just to make your own publications list longer. I'd put it along the lines of "If you do some really interesting work at the end of this, I'd like to see you publish it, and I'll help with that", not "I'd like to turn your work into a paper, and you can be co-author with me!".
    – DTR
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 18:23
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    @DTR. Supervising BSc or MSc theses is not paid extra in all countries, I know of. The main incentive for a professor to undertake such theses is to actually "make his publications list longer". There is nothing wrong with that.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 18:29
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    That is why in those cases, you will get to be first author on the paper. — Unless you work in a field that prefers to give first authorship to the person who did most of the work (and didn't just write about it), or to the youngest author, or to the author whose name comes first in the phone book, or something else.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 2:46

TLDR: In all cases, the student definitely should be one of the authors. In most cases, I would argue for them to be the first author, but if the work required significant extension prior to publication it becomes a gray area. First authorship also obviously wouldn't apply if there is a field-specific policy on author order (e.g. alphabetically).

You should not deprive people of authorship because they did not write the paper - I think you misunderstood the ICMJE criteria on this point. To quote:

The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to [write/revise the paper or approve its final version].

You should ask the students to read and approve the paper thus enabling them to fulfill the criteria. I think almost all students will agree to do this as it is not a lot of work.

Personally, I prefer giving students first authorship. The most important argument is that there is a huge power differential in favor of the advisor. The student is usually unsure of the academic conventions and will likely accept whatever the advisor says (if only to make his life easier). Making them the first author ensures, that the student will not feel that someone unjustly benefited from their work - and at least in terms of time spent their contribution is usually several times larger than advisor's.

I actually turned my MSc. thesis into a paper. I had no clue on how authors should be ordered, so in the first draft, I put myself as a third author of the paper (my advisor and my consultant from another department came before me). As no one had any comment, I kept it that way and in retrospect, I feel a little regret about it. From anecdotal evidence (including a few questions here: A, B) I think I am not alone.

I have recently co-authored a paper in computer science (currently under review) with my BSc. student. The student has written the software, designed and performed evaluation of the software with human subjects and performed analysis - all after relatively heavy consultations with me. I have written the text of the paper (reusing literature research from the BSc thesis), extended the evaluation and re-analysed the complete dataset. I gave the student first authorship, although the student was initially reluctant (claiming that I had written the paper and brought in ideas) and I am very happy about the decision, as I think it encouraged the student to think of himself as a scientist, although he does not want to pursue academic career.

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    Many times the BSc thesis or MSc thesis are supervised by PhD students who do a significant part of the work and also need first author publications to get their PhD. In those cases, giving first authorship to BSc student is unfair.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 19:11
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    @Alexandros I am a PhD student and I don't think it would benefit me to be first author of papers where I didn't do the core work. Further I think that who deserves credit is independent on whoever benefits from credit. Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 20:05
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    need first author publications to get their PhD — [citation needed]!
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 2:50
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    @JeffE: Four random examples from different doctorate regulations: Technical University of Chemnitz, humanities department, §9(4): Publication-based dissertations are admissible if they include at least three journal articles, for at least two of which the doctoral candidate must have been the first author. LMU, biology department, (1): At least two manuscripts accepted at peer-reviewed journals are required, for one of which the ... Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 12:42
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    ... doctoral candidate needs to be the first author. ETH Zürich, construction and environment department, amendments 5.2 and 5.4: At least three publications whose first author is the doctoral candidate are required. Justus Liebig University Gießen, joint sciences department (including math and CS), §15(3): Several publications can be joined to a dissertation if the doctoral candidate is the first author. This list could go on. Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 12:42

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