I am a senior PhD student (in electrical engineering) who has been working on a project for approximately two years with another student (call him John, same year as me) and our advisor.

It was decided at the beginning of the project that John would be the leader of the research and I would help. Over the past two years, John's research interests have drifted away from the topic of the project, and he has increasingly lost interest in the project. This has pushed more responsibility on myself (coincidentally, my interests have drifted towards the topic). We published a conference paper on the topic (which had John as the first author even though I wrote the majority of it).

I raised concerns with my advisor about six months ago that I was doing more of the work. He listened and spoke with John that he needs to put in more effort. Shortly after I mentioned my concerns to my advisor, we were invited to submit the work to a book chapter to which we agreed (with the same author order, since John was still labeled as the leader of the project).

Over the course of the past six months, John and I have been writing the chapter. John has not been putting much effort into the chapter (John's written English is very poor and he is not detailed oriented at all, resulting in many equations being incorrect), so I have taken it upon myself to undergo the (very time-consuming) task of fixing the paragraphs and math. The quality of the chapter would have been very poor if it was not for my efforts.

I mentioned to my advisor in private that I basically wrote the entire chapter to which he responded that John's work was primarily in the theory. I know that John has not contributed more to the theory than I have. Furthermore, my advisor mentioned that John needs this work as a chapter of his thesis so he must be first author.

We are now a couple of days away from submission and I am feeling like I was exploited. I am sacrificing my own projects in order to finish this. Since my name is on the chapter, I have put in a lot of effort to make sure it is good quality. It is upsetting that John will end up getting more credit than myself. Furthermore, I am questioning the ethics of the fact that I wrote a chapter of someone else's thesis.

How should I proceed with this? My advisor has already seemed to make up his mind. Should I request/demand that a footnote be added that John and I contributed equally?

  • 6
    Your supervisor may be using you to help 'John' graduate. If 'John' is not listed as the first author, then he/she may not be able to claim that he/she did the work/thesis him/herself. If your supervisor is using you to help 'John' graduate, then the said footnote will be detrimental to 'John'. I would simply go along with it and try to get a publication out of it and move far far away from 'John' in the future. Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 23:34
  • 5
    This is an unfortunate situation. In the future, if you are not first author, you probably need to restrain yourself from putting in first-author-level time and effort.
    – Dawn
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 0:03
  • 3
    It's a bit too late for the simplest solution, which would have been just to stop work on the project when you discovered that John needs the chapter for his thesis. You don't need this project at all, even if you have got more interested in it as it progressed.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 4:01
  • The first authorship should reflect the amount of work invested. I would raise your concerns now, since when you submit it will really be too late.
    – Ajasja
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 7:56
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    @Sulthan I strongly disagree. The author list should include all contributors, and all contributors are responsible for the quality of the finished paper. And your "lesson to take" seems to be to that one should avoid collaboration. That's terrible advice. Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 8:29

1 Answer 1


I personally find the "* authors contributed equally" footnotes to be supremely awkward, though perhaps you're in a discipline where they are common, in which case go for it.... And in this case you're arguing it isn't even true. I'd say you're getting a raw deal, but the time to push back was earlier, when you could have argued for the appropriate recognition and then declined the chapter inclusion if you didn't get either the proper recognition or more work from your colleague.

My advice: treat this as a learning experience, be gracious, and move on.

  • 7
    +1 for the time to push back was earlier. I think at an earlier stage you could have said, "Because I am not first author on this project, my other work must take priority. Therefore, I can only put X hours per week into the project. If you want me to put more effort in, then I would need to be made first author."
    – Dawn
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 0:02
  • 1
    Thanks, Fred. Do you think it's worth expressing my frustration further or stay silent and move on?
    – Erik M
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 4:31
  • 2
    Seems like you've already made your position clear. Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 12:02
  • Right, as @Dawn's comment, the time to push back was earlier. Now, at best passively, you'd found yourself complicit in (not completely crazy, but, still, ...) misrepresentation of contributions, as (dubiously) reflected in the author-list + order game. (Which is pretty dumb, from many reality-based viewpoints, notwithstanding that apparently some number of professionals make decisions based on this...) The real lesson is about avoiding in the future situations where people are playing such games. It's not good for science, either!!! That is, b.s. index numbers [cont'd] Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 0:21
  • [cont'd] ... are an almost entirely contrived commodified thing, hence, commodity, that for-profit entities (many publishers, whether open-source or not!) use for their commercial ends. This has a hugely corruptive influence on the behavior of grad students and post-docs, especially in situations where they're dependent on grant funding through a PI who is... inevitably... "in the game". You should be aware of all these potential corruptions, and be wary of PIs and "groups/labs" where either there's too much buy-in to game-playing, or at the opposite end, too much naivete about it... Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 0:24

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