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In a cover letter to apply for an assistant professor job in the Western US, I want to refer to one of my publications in particular:

Indeed, this theme is the topic of my 2016 paper in Journal XYZ on the relationship between _____. I used the such-and-such scale to examine _____.

My coauthors were a faculty member with whom I have a excellent relationship and her former adviser; neither one would dispute that I did about 95% of the research (except for the original dataset collection) and perhaps 80% of the writing.

It feels cleaner and intellectually honest to call it "my paper," rather than "my first-authored paper," but of course anyone can see on my CV that I was the first of three authors. Is it wrong for me to use the singular? What would be a preferable way to refer to this publication in a way that rightfully claims substantial ownership of it?

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Use the plural when referring to the paper and its content. No exceptions. "Our paper", "we used", etc.

I have never seen a multi-author paper referred to with the singular. Readers will either think that it is a mistake, or that you are referring to a different solo paper; if they realize it is intentional it will come across as extremely arrogant and disrespectful to your coauthors.

Before using a plural pronoun, it is a good idea to make it clear who your coauthors are, so that the pronoun has a clear antecedent. "In a 2016 joint paper with A. Smith and B. Jones, we showed that..."

You may certainly point out that you were the first author. "In a 2016 joint paper with A. Smith and B. Jones, of which I was first author, we showed that..." But you may not write as though your coauthors don't exist. They must have made significant contributions to the paper; if not, they shouldn't be coauthors at all.

If you have space in your letter or other application materials, then after you summarize the content of the paper (using the plural), it is fine to describe in more detail your own specific contributions using the singular. "I designed the experiment, analyzed the data, and wrote the majority of the text of the paper." Note carefully the (sometimes subtle) distinction between the results and achievements of the project as described in the paper, which are collective and take the plural ("we showed that X", "we performed a placebo-controlled trial of drug Y", etc), versus the specific work you did in order to help accomplish those things, which illustrate your personal skills and take the singular ("I analyzed the data").

If you think it is starting to sound like you did everything while your coauthors did nothing, you can clarify briefly: "...while my collaborators worked mainly on gathering the data and developing the statistical methods, and wrote the corresponding sections of the text".

However, the very best way to "claim" your contributions is to have a recommendation letter from one (or more) of your coauthors, in which they explain how the paper was primarily your work and they just contributed bits and pieces, and then go on to praise your capability as an independent researcher. This saves you from having to brag too much, and serves as verification that you really did all this work and aren't just lying.

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    Your first advice (Use the plural; no exceptions. "Our paper", "we used", etc. I have never seen a multi-author paper referred to with the singular.) would seem to completely contradict your last advice (If you have space in your letter or other application materials, it is fine to describe in more detail what you personally contributed to the paper. "I designed the experiment...")... are you sure you have a consistent position on this? It almost seems to me like you change your mind at the end. I don't have experience with this but it seems fine to me. – Mehrdad Aug 27 '17 at 4:08
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    @Mehrdad: Use the plural when referring to the paper, its contents and its results. Use the singular when referring to the specific actions you personally took in contributing to the paper. You can clarify further: "My contributions to the paper were to design the experiment, analyze the data, and write the majority of the text." – Nate Eldredge Aug 27 '17 at 4:24
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    The thing is, that example sounds more arrogant to me, not less. i.e. if someone said "In my 2016 paper on X I used Y to prove Z" it would come across as far less arrogant than "My contribution to our 2016 paper was to design the experiment, analyze the data, and write the majority of the text". That's because in the first case they're merely mentioning they had a paper to do X/Y/Z, whereas in the second case they're making it an explicit point that their coauthor(s) didn't contribute substantially to the research, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth (eyes?). – Mehrdad Aug 27 '17 at 4:59
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    @Mehrdad: Perhaps I chose a poor example. I didn't intend my example to be one where the writer did so much that the co-authors couldn't have made any substantial contribution. (In my example, they still could have performed the literature search, gathered the data, assisted with ethics approval, written a significant minority of the text, etc, etc.) I have edited to try to clarify what I mean. – Nate Eldredge Aug 27 '17 at 14:09
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    No ad hominem attacks, please. Keep comments related to the subject matter only. – aeismail Aug 27 '17 at 15:03

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