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The issue of authorship is often a thorny issue in academia, so I’d like to ask for your insight into the authorship in the following situation:

My advisee’s MA thesis is mainly and originally based on a new idea from me. We worked together to refine the idea and turned it into a thesis. I worked closely with him, spending 6 hours per week meeting with him to examine the collected data (he spent about 4 hours per week for data collection). Finally, he completed his thesis with a lot of work and graduated. After his graduation, I approached the student and asked him if he would be interested in publishing the study. He declined this offer mainly due to his availability and due to his work but appreciated this possibilities. Seeing the potential of the collected data, I decided to do this alone.

To make the study publishable, I substantially revised more than 80 % of the student's work, using a different analysis method to recode the data and revamping the introduction, literature review, discussion, and conclusion sections. In other words, the revised paper, albeit being based on the student’s raw data set, is already substantially different from the student’s original work; the rationale is different and the focus is also different (just to appeal to the scope of the journal of our interest and the readership of the journal).

The revised work was then submitted to a respected journal. I took care of all of the responses and revisions (three rounds of major revision + two rounds of minor revision), and the paper finally got accepted. Of course, I asked the student to read the paper and he liked/approved the paper.

I listed my student as the first author and myself as the corresponding author. But given my student’s contribution to this publication, is he qualified as the first author? Or should he be listed as the second author and myself as first author? What should I do so that I can strike a balance between the ethical code and the effort I have put to this paper?

  • Please clarify: "I listed my student as the coauthor and myself as the corresponding author." - while doing so, you have not yet indicated any ordering of authors, right? – O. R. Mapper Dec 27 '15 at 12:47
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    Sorry for not making it clear: I listed my student as the first author. I know my question will not make any difference to the order of authorship at this point. But, unlike many of my colleagues who do not contribute too much to their students' works, I felt that in my case I've done most of the work. I'd like to know if there is any clearcut guidelines stipulated anywhere. – NYC10027 Dec 27 '15 at 12:52
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    Perhaps specifying the discipline and the country would help you to get better answers. – Kenji Dec 27 '15 at 13:34
  • I'm in the field of education. – NYC10027 Dec 27 '15 at 13:43
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    Another point which is not clear but may be crucial is what this "data set" is and how much work it was to get it. If gathering the data alone is a massive endeavour (for instance, interviewing hundreds of subjects, or performing months of reactions and measurements in a lab), then IMHO the student still deserves to be first, no matter how much rewriting and polishing you did. If I understand correctly, your 80% figure is not relative to the total, but to the data analysis, writing and revision. So it still has to be weighted with respect to the total amount of work required for the paper. – Federico Poloni Dec 27 '15 at 14:26
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There is no hard and fast rule about what exactly qualifies a person for first authorship, which is why it is so often a thorny issue (except in those disciplines where the convention is to always list people alphabetically). It is also often highly dependent on the particulars of a given situation. For example, I have had situations like this a number of times and in some cases have ended up keeping the student as first author and in other cases ended up replacing them.

Accordingly, the principles that I would go by in making such a decision are, from most important to least important:

  1. Did you previously make an agreement about authorship order? If so, you should almost always respect that agreement. Renegotiating, even if things have changed significantly, is likely to be coercive to the student given the difference of power between you.
  2. How much work was the non-writing effort? Advisors are often much, much better at writing than students, and 80% of the writing may be far less than 80% of the work that went into a paper, particularly if the advisor's writing focuses on the "supporting" material like references, introduction, discussion, etc. If the student has put in a lot of hard work, especially if there has been significant intellectual work, in gathering the data, then I give the student first authorship even if I basically wrote the whole text.
  3. Is the student interested in continuing in academia? If authorship could be argued either way, and the student has any possible interest in continuing, it's generally better to put them first. It's a gracious act promoting your proteges and you still gain recognition as the advisor on the paper.

In the end, it is likely that it will not be clear-cut exactly who should be first author. Personally, I prefer to err in the direction of giving a student too much credit rather than too little, but others may choose otherwise.

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    Thank you very much for your response and valuable feedback. In my student's case, we did not negotiate about the authorship. But after he knew the paper was accepted, he specifically told me that he did not mind the authorship because he will not continue studying or working in academia. Furthermore, after knowing the amount of work I put into the paper, he explicitly told me that I should be the first author. Despite this, I still listed him as the first author. Would you please kindly share the experience where you replace your students as first authors? – NYC10027 Dec 27 '15 at 13:39
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    @NYC10027 What you describe sounds quite similar to one of the cases in which I moved myself to first author, since none of the 3 reasons I give for keeping the student first apply. Having explicit (and presumably voluntary) consent from the student also matters a lot. Note, however, that there's also nothing wrong with having left the student as first author as you did: since they deserve to be some sort of author, ordering is a very big grey area and mostly up to the judgements of you and the student. – jakebeal Dec 27 '15 at 13:45
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    +1 for suggesting the gracious act, and +1 to the OP for doing that. – Ethan Bolker Dec 27 '15 at 13:46
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To me it almost sounds as if you are more or less sole author of this paper but should most definitely cite the thesis as the source of the data as well as marking as citations the 20% you retained.

You make it sound like a separate pitch done without the original author's involvement even if the pitched material is the same, and the original author was not involved in any of the decisions involving this paper and particularly was not able to review or veto it. If he does not get an opportunity to agree with your approach, putting a paper out in his name seems inappropriate to me.

To me, it sounds like citation would be more appropriate than attribution. Of course, sending a courtesy copy of the paper to him before publishing and making sure that he's fine with the approach you have taken for publication would still be a good idea. He can then decide himself whether or not he considers himself properly attributed, and then he won't feel slighted and/or cause trouble later.

  • He did read the submitted paper and agreed with the new analysis I used. – NYC10027 Dec 28 '15 at 0:02
  • @NYC10027 This is more the situation I was picturing, especially if your student's dataset was included in its entirety in his thesis. If all of the data you used in your analysis was already published, then IMO a simple citation would have afforded all necessary attribution. – hBy2Py Dec 28 '15 at 3:10
  • The student clearly realises that he will not stay in academia or continue to pursue a Ph.D (due to age reason and family concerns). He pursued the M.A. mainly for personal reason (self fulfilment). I asked this question because I also played an active part in the data collection process (the student spent about 6 hours each week during the two-month data collection period; in return, I spent about 5-6 hours each week helping the student construct and interpret the data. – NYC10027 Dec 28 '15 at 3:56
  • In a case like this and given my contribution to the published work (which has also been agreed and read by the student), I am a bit unsure if listing my student as the first author is appropriate (of course, I will not rearrange the authorship order at this point; I am asking this question simply because I want/need to know if there are guidelines for me to follow in the future – NYC10027 Dec 28 '15 at 3:56
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I agree with much of what's said in other answers. I want to add a few comments:

Order of authors has different meanings in different disciplines. In some situations in some disciplines, the last author is the one who's most important. You and others in your discipline will have a better sense of the kind of meaning that others in the discipline read into author order.

Graciousness is nice, but dishonesty is not. There have been discussions about practices in which people receive authorship as pure favors, or because they are funders, or lent equipment, etc. Some people argue that such "authorship", like being listed as the "author" of a paper ghost-written by a drug company rep (this happens) is a form of misrepresentation. There is ongoing debate about this issue, and some journals have adopted new, more stringent practices that partly mitigate potential problems. Your case is different, but the need to accurately represent authors' contributions is not so different. If it's OK for an advisor to graciously give a student higher prominence than is deserved, would it be OK for a student to graciously give the advisor higher prominence than is deserved? The power relationships are different--so maybe these are not the same thing--but the potential for misrepresentation is the same. Life is complicated. I don't want to claim that there is always a clear right and wrong way to present authors, and it may be that erring in favor of the student is a good idea within limits, but I did want to raise this issue.

Why not add a note on the first page stating what each author contributed? This is what some journals now require (although often in such a vague way as to be uninformative). This wouldn't completely resolve the problem, because many people will still see the names in the citation without reading the paper.

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