We had a master's student working on our project. He set up a database for us, and wrote some of the initial code with me in a pair programming session. At one point, he had more commits to the repository than any of the other students working on the project. Then he went to do an internship for the summer, and after that my advisor did not want to keep him on the project for some reason, even though I thought he was friendly and easy to work with.

My advisor chose not to list him as a coauthor, and put him in the acknowledgements section instead. However, there was another guy (a professor) who didn't write any code at all, and wasn't there throughout most of the project, but he wrote the introduction and related work sections for us, and he got listed as a coauthor, even though he probably did a day's worth of work on the project (maybe two). In fact, my advisor gave him the coveted last author position, even though my advisor came up with the idea and directed the whole project.

What determines who gets put as a coauthor, and who gets put in the acknowledgement sections?

  • You meant to say first author is coveted, not last, correct? The first author is considered to be the person who drove the project.
    – Mukherjee
    Jan 30, 2017 at 3:22
  • 3
    @Joe the last author is also coveted since it sometimes indicates you were the Principle Investigator on the project. For instance, my advisor, who was the PI on all grants I was under, was always listed as last author.
    – f.thorpe
    Jan 30, 2017 at 3:51
  • 2
    @farrenthorpe Only some fields give first or last authorship special importance, and only some fields consider being a PI sufficient for coauthorship. (My field does none of these things.)
    – JeffE
    Jan 30, 2017 at 11:01
  • I think a research contribution to a paper is necessary to be listed as a co-author. It is unclear (from the post) whether coding constitutes such a contribution.
    – user2768
    Jan 30, 2017 at 13:17

3 Answers 3


Usually, the key indicator for co-authorship is the contribution of creative content. Did the student have own ideas that improved the paper? Was the program/database he wrote just a technical thing, or did it contribute scientifically? These are some questions that can help make/understand the decision.

There is a fine line to walk sometimes. Especially between different subject areas, there can be discrepancies who gets to be co-author. Sometimes everybody is counted, sometimes only the first author and his advisor(s) without any students.


It's complicated.

The norms for co-authorship are across the board and highly field dependent. Generally two big ones seem to be pretty consistent though:

  1. Wrote or edited the manuscript that is submitted.
  2. Made a significant creative contribution as noted by ian_itor.

The idea of if software development is a creative contribution is still hotly contested. One norm that seems to be developing is that developers are typically only credited as a co-author if software development is a significant aspect of the publication. For example, chemistry papers may mention an "internally developed tool" used for analysis and may only credit the developer in the acknowledgements.

Personally I belong to the school of thought that software development is at least in part a creative endeavor. As such, I would suggest the following:

  1. If the software is the point of the manuscript, the person should be included as a co-author or as part of a development team.
  2. If they software is not the point of the manuscript, but the research is dependent upon the software, they should be included if they were involved in design and architecture.
  3. If the research could not have been completed with out the assistance of the person (ex. they optimized an algorithm to run on a distributed cluster) they should be included as a co-author.
  4. If the software is incidental to the research (ex. chemistry paper, but a tool was written for analysis) then the development team should be individually recognized in the acknowledgements.

Generally I feel it is also rude of the manuscript authors if developer contributions are not acknowledged at all.

  • As a side-note with regards to item number three: when it comes to optimizing research algorithms, it really should be a non-question for these people to get a co-author credit. This can be extremely complicated work that in and of itself could justify a manuscript in some journals.
    – anonymous
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:28

I've worked with people on projects that I thought should've been coauthors, but was told not to include them. Part of the reason was that they were not one of the official collaborators on the project. They helped, but in no way contributed to the actual manuscript.

In general, if someone is a co-author, they will be given the opportunity to make revisions on the manuscript as it goes through the peer-review process. It is advisable to keep this list to a minimum, so that only the core group of contributors are listed as authors. Otherwise, the revision process can take too much time and publishing the manuscript gets difficult.

If someone helped to write the grant proposal that funded the project, they will almost certainly be listed as a co-author. Another thing to keep in mind is that a co-author will be a representative for your manuscript, so it is advisable that they completely understand the scope of the project and research material. And, sometimes its just good to have someone well-respected in the field as a co-author, even if all they did was "write the introduction", because they have experienced insight. So, if they can get involved after most of the research work is done, they can contribute to the manuscript nicely in just a few hours. This is in contrast to a student who did weeks of coding on the project, but may not be able to contribute any real substance to the manuscript.

  • 6
    If someone helped to write the grant proposal that funded the project, they will almost certainly be listed as a co-author... sometimes its just good to have someone well-respected in the field as a co-author --- No, no, a thousand times no. Coauthorship requires direct intellectual contribution to the paper.
    – JeffE
    Jan 30, 2017 at 11:05
  • What is an "official collaborator on [a] project"? Jan 30, 2017 at 11:09
  • An official collaborator is someone listed on the grant proposal but not part of the funded research team.
    – f.thorpe
    Jan 30, 2017 at 16:08
  • @JeffE In my field of work we have community computer models that have had hundreds of people contribute either monetarily, intellectually, or through coding. It requires that you pick and choose who will be an author on the paper and who has time to go through the peer-review process. In my experience, the students and post-docs do all the heavy lifting for the specific paper and then the professors/collaborators that are connected to the grant proposal get involved with the manuscript. And yes, sometimes someone can get involved for a short while and contribute intellectually.
    – f.thorpe
    Jan 30, 2017 at 16:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .