I'm an undergraduate who recently was involved in writing a paper where I did most, if not all, of the work writing the manuscript. The PhD student basically "dumped" his project into my lap after a year of sitting on the results, and asked me to write it. I wasn't really involved in the project, except for a few small things in the beginning.

I'm currently listed as third author on the paper; the second author is completely out of the picture, and has not contributed at all to the paper (the PhD student has at least provided some edits). Should I argue that because I wrote the paper, despite not doing all of the research that the second author did, that I should be listed as second author?

As the deadline grew nearer, I found myself picking up more and more of the responsibility of the paper. I was initially happy to be third author, but when I found myself writing the entire paper, I think that my contributions are a lot greater than I had initially anticipated.

However, I've never been involved in writing a paper before, so I don't know what the etiquette is for these types of scenarios. Should the second author be listed on the paper at all, or should we swap places in authorship? I don't think that the second author will even read the paper before it's published anyways. Should I talk to the PhD student that I think I should get more recognition for the work I've done on this paper, because I feel like I honestly should be first author considering that if I didn't write this paper, it never would have been written, or should I just be happy where I am?

I'm not really sure what to do! Any advice would be immensely helpful.

  • I guess your mentor is under external pressure to put that other guy on place two. Anyway, unless the journal has some editorial space under the paper where they say who did what (rare), it doesn't make much difference: Everybody assumes that the first name did the scientific work, last name is his boss, and everyone else was involved in some way.
    – Karl
    Oct 1, 2016 at 13:37
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    What did you actually do? Did you take a data dump and really for the first time analysed it, compared the results to literature values, and drew the conclusions? Or did that PhD provide you with the results and conclusion, a stucture for the paper, and an extensive literature list?
    – Karl
    Oct 1, 2016 at 13:49
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    In my field (physics), the actual writing of the paper is a fairly small fraction of the total work related to the research (<10%). Perhaps the second author played a large role in the original crafting of the experiment/research program (~30%), the PhD student did most of the work to execute it (60%), and you did most of the work to write it up (~10%)? In this scenario the authorship list makes a fair amount of sense in terms of time. Mar 11, 2017 at 19:55

2 Answers 2


Unfortunately, the time to decide these kinds of issues is well in advance of publication, and preferably in advance of doing the work and writing the paper!

The answer to your question is "it depends". Authorship on academic papers isn't so much about writing text, but about scholarship. Writing text is a part of that, but scholarship is much bigger than simply writing up results. In the guidelines I link below, scholarship is defined as:

Scholarship: Contributes significantly to the conception, design, execution, and/or analysis and interpretation of data.

If your primary contribution is mainly writing the paper, then I would tend to think that you would not be the primary author. If you have substantial contributions above and beyond writing the text of the paper, for example if you were primarily responsible for designing the investigation, or primarily responsible executing the investigation, these put you on much stronger ground to claim primary authorship.

Beyond that, there are special considerations for lead authorship. Though all authors are responsible for verifying the accuracy and integrity of the work, the lead author is the person who is primarily responsible for this. They are the one responsible for obtaining publication approval from all co-authors for publication, and then responsible for certifying the accuracy and integrity to the publisher / journal / conference / etc. Practically, the lead author is the corresponding author who interacts with journal / conference editors and reviewers. They are also typically the person who is responsible for defending the work publicly if it is to be presented at a conference.

The person primarily responsible for conducting investigations and experiments is typically the lead author for these reasons. They are the person who is most able to certify the accuracy and integrity of the work. They're also the person most familiar with the actual investigation that is being written up, and most able to discuss the details.

I have a few practical suggestions for you:

1) Most schools have specific authorship guidelines that can help with these kinds of decisions, for example:


2) Relevant publishers, professional organizations, journals, conferences, etc. may have their own authorship policies.

Again, if your primary contribution has been writing the paper, that would not seem to indicate to me that you would be the lead author. Unfortunately, in your situation, it sounds like this graduate student has been somewhat exploitative. It makes sense to involve undergraduates in the writing process for many reasons, but it's unreasonable for you to write the entire thing. The primary scholar on a project (the lead author) should be the one responsible for drafting most of the text.

  • 6
    "the time to decide these kinds of issues is well in advance of publication, and preferably in advance of doing the work and writing the paper" - that sounds like a good plan, but it should probably be handled in an adaptive way (by deciding about rules for author ordering rather than a concrete order): Over time, I have come to realize that it usually becomes clear who has written most of the paper only after finishing writing. Oct 1, 2016 at 4:25
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    "Writing text is a part of that, but scholarship is much bigger than simply writing up results." - true, although it should also be noted that writing text can be quite a bit bigger than writing up results (when it comes to presentation, connection of different parts of design rationales, highlighting the important parts, conveying the appropriate amount of background knowledge, picking the most suitable references for the way a particular argument ends up being worded in the text, etc.). Oct 1, 2016 at 4:31
  • "Beyond that, there are special considerations for lead authorship." - lastly, while that is indeed the convention, most of that paragraph can probably be ignored in the OP's case. For instance, I have repeatedly supervised Bachelor theses that ended up as papers mainly authored by the Bachelor students (who were thus primary authors), but still I took over all the organizational chores and the coorespondance with the conference chairs in my paid university worktime rather than having an undergrad student without any experience in these matters deal with such issues in their spare time. ... Oct 1, 2016 at 4:38
  • ... (And, just to add: Even if enthusiastic avout paper-writing, undergrad students typically have no interest in attending a conference in my experience.) Oct 1, 2016 at 4:40

I happened to stumble over this post only now, so I'm late to the party, but let me add an important point.

I fully agree with @David's comment "the time to decide these kinds of issues is well in advance of publication, and preferably in advance of doing the work and writing the paper!" and @O. R. Mapper's point that these things sometimes change anyway.

But one thing you didn't say is whether this paper is for a conference (as is common in, say, CS) or directly to a journal (as is common in many other fields). If going to a conference, you also have to decide early who will present the work. I ran into an issue once or twice when that question proved contentious later on.

As for the case here, I agree that it is really weird for the person who did the technical work to drop it on the questioner essentially to ghost-write. IMHO writing the paper is at least as important as doing the work and the author should be first or second in the list -- perhaps by alphabetical order.

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