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This semester I participated in an independent study with a professor and one of his/her PhD students. In this independent study, I spent a very substantial amount of time building (coding) things to facilitate the research being performed by the professor and his/her PhD student. However, I did not perform any actual research (though without my work, their research likely would not have been possible).

A few weeks ago, I asked this question: If I work on a project but don't do research, should I be included as an author on a paper?

It seems that the general consensus was, "it depends, but probably yes". Unfortunately, though the professor has told me that I did excellent work and that s/he is very pleased, s/he did not offer to include me as a co-author on the paper (the topic never came up).

My question now is, is it within the bounds of etiquette to ask this professor if I can be included on the paper? If so, what is a respectful and reasonable way to frame the question? I don't want to be imposing or assuming (especially because I did not actually conduct any research myself), but realistically I put in a very significant amount of work this semester (far more than the professor was expecting) and I think it's reasonable to at least be considered for co-authorship given that my work greatly aided in their research process.

For what it's worth, the professor is a reasonable person, i.e. this is not a case of "I'm being excluded unfairly!". Rather, the possibility of my being included as an author on the paper has not been brought up by the professor, so I'm wondering whether is it acceptable for a student to ask a professor to be included on his/her research paper?

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    If you did not contribute to the research, you can ask, of course, but it would be unusual to be included in the author list. However, your work should be acknowledged. – copper.hat May 2 '16 at 2:53
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    In my field, it's usual in this kind of situation (someone did a lot of work but didn't contribute to the novel ideas) to see an acknowledgement section or a footnote in the paper saying something like "The authors thank Mr. 110100101110101 for doing the measurements and providing valuable technical assistance." – The Photon May 2 '16 at 16:29
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It's fine to just ask.

But if you feel uncomfortable asking straight out "Can I be considered for authorship on this paper?" an alternative approach is to have a conversation about authorship that (1) makes it clear to the professor that you're interested in authoring a research paper, and (2) helps you understand the shades of "it depends" for your specific kind of research.

For example, you might bring up in conversation:

In our field, what kind of contribution are students expected to make in order to merit authorship on the paper that comes out of their work?

Then you can ask,

On this project, what additional work could I have done in order to have sufficient contribution to be considered an author?

and then, if you want very much to co-author a research paper and plan to continue working with this professor,

I'm interesting in being a co-author on a research paper. On the next project we work on, can I have a role that (if I do it well) merits co-authorship?

Ideally, if you had just asked straight out "Can I be considered for authorship on this paper?", the ensuing discussion would also cover the points above.

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Your question is a fantastic example of why the best time to have these discussions is BEFORE you start to work on a project with a professor or a grad student (I'm assuming you are an undergrad). Now, you are in an awkward situation where you did a ton of work and you feel as though you should be rewarded for it, but you don't want to jeopardize the relationship with the professor. Chances are, if you ask for authorship, the professor will say no, and you may feel slighted, and they may feel put upon by the question (although probably not). The point is, it's just discomfort all around on what should be a high note for what sounds like a successful project.

I am not saying this to scold you in any way. You really could not have been expected to think of this beforehand. But in the future, you'll know to have the talk before doing any work, so that expectations are clear. I think that people who mentor undergraduates that participate in research should do better in preparing them for these situations so that they are neither exploited nor put in a position of feeling exploited when they were not.

As to your particular situation, I don't know what the authorship norms are in your field, but in my field (natural/behavioral sciences), your work does not constitute authorship. You did not design the project, get funding for it, conduct analysis, etc. You were a tech. That doesn't mean what you did wasn't important or valuable. Techs are often indispensable, but they don't get authorship for that. I know that may seem unfair when sometimes people are given authorship simply for allowing the use of their lab without being involved, but...them's the perks of being the PI, kid.

Now, you should absolutely be included in the acknowledgements section of the paper. If you're not, that's really an oversight. If you want to give your professor a nudge to make sure you're included there, that would be perfectly fine.

  • Thank you for your feedback (and welcome to Academia SE), but I feel that I should point out that this doesn't really answer my question (though it does answer my last question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/67006/…). My current question is really getting more at the etiquette of approaching the professor with such a question, rather than whether my getting included as an author is justified. – 01010110011001 May 2 '16 at 20:18
  • Thank you! I was trying to answer your question, but I'm guessing it wasn't a very satisfying answer. Stripping away the niceties, my answer was essentially "it's too late, the work's been done, the appropriate time to raise these questions is in the beginning, and trying to have the discussion now is a recipe for awkwardsauce." I'm assuming that you are likely to find yourself in the position of helping a senior researcher again and I'm trying to save you a headache. – A Kat May 2 '16 at 20:33
  • No worries at all, I appreciate the input either way, I just wanted to let you know for future reference :-) – 01010110011001 May 2 '16 at 20:34
  • Part of the problem here was that I did work that was outside the scope of our original agreement, so for the "initial discussion" it wasn't the right time to ask. That being said, I probably should have broached the subject when I agreed to take on more work. – 01010110011001 May 2 '16 at 20:35
  • I appreciate your feedback as well! As you correctly noted, I am brand new to Academia SE, and every community has its own norms and expectations, so I'd like to get up to speed quick as I can. – A Kat May 2 '16 at 20:37
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Is it acceptable for a student to ask a professor to be included as a co-author on the professor's paper?

The literal answer to this is sure, it's acceptable. Though I think that typically if you have to ask, you probably shouldn't... This isn't a universal rule; just a generalization. In my experience, professors really do want the best for their students and so if a student genuinely assisted with the research, professors will rightfully include them as a coauthor. In other words, the likelihood of a professor just "forgetting" to recognize you as a coauthor or being ignorant to your research on the project is slim to none.

However, I did not perform any actual research

If this is the case, I find it quite difficult to justify why your name should be on the research paper. But, if the following is true

though without my work, their research likely would not have been possible

then I don't see it as unreasonable to be asked to be mentioned in the paper itself when they described the unique software that they used to get the research done. I highly doubt that they wouldn't mention you in the body of the document if your software is as pivotal to their research as you say- but to credit you on their research as a coauthor is a bit too generous (as well as nonacademic) if you genuinely didn't assist with the research process.

Did you push the boundaries of modern computer science in the pursuit of writing the program that they used? Did you yourself perform ground breaking research to make the program function? If so, then you deserve to take the time to draft your own research paper. (I'm being serious. Contact a CS adviser immediately.)

If not, then the idea of crediting you on their research is analogous to the programmers of LaTeX requiring their authorship by anyone who uses their software to draft research papers.

  • This seems like an answer to the OP's first question, If I work on a project but don't do research, should I be included as an author on a paper?, not the question of "how to ask the professor about this." – ff524 May 2 '16 at 18:34
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    If I wrote "unique software" that was needed to "get the research done", I would insist on authorship, even if the code doesn't "push the boundaries of modern computer science." It's exactly analogous to a situation where someone trains a rat or purifies a protein, using standard techniques from those fields, but applied to an unexplored situation. The LaTeX analogy is fatuous because LaTeX wasn't written specifically for this paper. Also note that many packages (e.g., R, scikit-learn, psychtoolbox) do ask you to acknowledge their authors. – Matt May 2 '16 at 22:43
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    @Matt Authorship of a research implies that you, the author, did research mentioned in the paper. For example, if your name was penned on the paper titled Beyond DVFS: A First Look at Performance Under a Hardware-Enforced Power Bound, I have every right to ask and expect you to answer questions pertaining to every detail in your research. If you go, "Oh, I didn't know the answer to that because I just made a program so the researchers could do the research", I'd consider you a fraud. But that's just me. – 8protons May 2 '16 at 22:53
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    @Matt You know what, that's a fantastic point. A really, really good point. So with that in mind, do you honestly think that someone who admit's to "not [having] perform[ed] any actual research" actually has "a relatively good understanding of the paper"? You yourself wrote that you'd "expect every author" to have such an understanding. You see? – 8protons May 2 '16 at 23:07
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    @8protons "If not, then the idea of crediting you on their research is analogous to the programmers of LaTeX requiring their authorship by anyone who uses their software to draft research papers." That's not even relevant to the question I'm asking. It's also a completely facile analogy. Research often requires a lot of "heavy lifting", and just because you don't draw out an equation on a chalkboard doesn't mean you're nothing more than a leech on a greater man's ideas. – 01010110011001 May 3 '16 at 3:45
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If you don't ask you don't get. I think you could ask for co-authorship but it seems to me that your work on the project, albeit necessary, is not authorship. Rather I would expect, in this instance, to be specifically thanked for my contribution. Something in the foreword perhaps.

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    "If you don't ask you don't get." Writing this as an answer to a question about a student seeking authorship seems to imply that students who don't specifically ask for authorship on academic papers never get it. As a faculty member with many student coauthors, I can tell you that whether a student asks for coauthorship does not have anything to do with whether they get it in all but the most borderline cases. And I must say that I somewhat resent the implication that the default state for people like me is to take advantage of our students. – Pete L. Clark May 2 '16 at 0:04

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