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Background: A little over a year ago, I wrote a paper for an internship (during high school) at a major university medical center. My contribution to the paper was basically everything except conception and some editing/revision (mainly phrasing, not content). The author list, in order, is: immediate supervisor, me, other intern, senior person in group, and PI. The other intern put in about 3 hours of work which were not used in the final manuscript before disappearing to another country and not responding to my attempts to contact. My immediate supervisor, frankly, had very little contribution and is not giving the paper the attention I would like; they took a year to submit the paper (rejected the first time by a reach journal), is taking excessively long to resubmit or get back to me about it, and is usually radio silent.

I have a pretty good relationship with the PI, who seems somewhat aware that my immediate supervisor is not being responsive or attentive. It's from work done during high school, so I don't have very much experience with these politics.

  • Can and should I ask the PI (or someone) about changing the order of authors?
  • and what actions would be appropriate for me to take to try and get the paper finally submitted relatively soon?
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    Who came up with that author list in the first place? – ff524 Sep 27 '16 at 18:13
  • I think it was my immediate supervisor, but I'm pretty sure the latter two signed off on it. – user3769181 Sep 27 '16 at 18:24
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I think you should talk to the PI about the order of authors. Don't frame the conversation as a demand/plea/request to change the order: phrase it as a question from a very new researcher who put a lot of work into a project and wants to be shown the ropes about why author order is the way it is. This is not a cover story: I really think that virtually no high school student could know the conventions of author order in the publications in a specific academic field. So although it is possible that you deserve to be first author or come in some other place, I don't see how you can reasonably know that without gaining a lot more information about the conventions of the field.

Here is another question to ask your PI: what are the consequences for your career of the author order on the paper? This is not my neck of the academic woods, but I would guess that a high school student being an author on such a paper is already getting about the maximum amount of credit without being first author. It may well be the case that the ordering of the other authors has something to do with their academic career...and they may or may not be doing it in what we would agree is a totally ethical way, but unless your contribution was really exceptional, it may in fact turn out to be worse for everyone involved to make a big fuss about it.

I want to end by saying that academic politics really only matters for academics. I'm not (at all) saying that you don't have the right to engage in the jockeying for authorship position...but you may have the luxury of not needing to worry about it. That is a luxury, by the way...

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I agree with Pete L. Clark's first paragraph in that you should be first sure you understand the conventions of author order, especially in regard to paper contribution, before you suggest any changes. It would be a great start to a conversation with your immediate supervisor or PI.

You say you've done almost everything, but I would suggest thinking about and listing each of the contributions you made. When authors are ordered, it's not necessarily the amount of time they've spent but the type and quality of their contribution.

  • Did you come up with the original idea?
  • Did you design any of the experiments?
  • Did you suggest any changes to any involved experiments/prototypes?
  • Did you run any of the experiments?
  • Did you analyze the data?
  • Did you interpret the data?
  • Did you write the paper?
  • etc. ...

Since I don't know the specifics of the situation or the field it's difficult to give you my personal opinion on whether you deserve first authorship or should ask for it. If your involvement comes down to essentially following specific instructions (running already designed experiments, writing up the already interpreted results) without any or with little creative input from yourself, then I don't believe you do. Since this paper has already been submitted once, the time has passed for you to ask unless you personally make significant changes or additions.

Asking for first authorship (or an authorship in general) without a good understanding of conventions can have a negative impact on your relationship with your immediate supervisor without gaining you anything. In my personal experience I've heard interns ask for an authorship when their contribution was pressing the start button in a series of experiments because 'it doesn't affect the other authors,' which is both laughable and ridiculous.

Another note of caution - the paper review process often takes months, and can extend to over a year in some cases just for the first round. Since this is again your first work, make sure you understand where the delay is coming from before getting too anxious. If the delay was in fact on them, was it because significant changes had to be made? With the current rejection, I would not ask your supervisor why the re-submission is taking so long, but how you can help address any of the reviewer comments to make it suitable for re-submission or submission to another journal. Ask for a copy of the reviews if you don't have them already; it may be very clear why it is taking so long if there are large issues to be resolved.

  • So it would make sense to ask about order of authors, at least to better understand the process behind it? The field is nutrition/medicine. Also, if it's of note, my contribution specifically was: methods design; execution/data collection; data analysis and interpretation; drafting the manuscript. PI conceived the concept and asked me to do everything between conception and finalizing the manuscript and send him the draft. The revisions, according to MS Word revision tracking, were mainly syntactic. The figures/tables are exactly as I made them. PI periodically advised me on direction. – user3769181 Sep 29 '16 at 4:22
  • I think it's worth asking that question, if only for your future papers. I'm in engineering/robotics so I couldn't tell you what is normal in your case. I was surprised at first how conventions can vary across fields so i would never consider it an unreasonable or unexpected question as long as it's asked politely. – user58322 Sep 29 '16 at 8:03

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