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I've started work as an assistant professor recently, and my first PhD student has just started her first semester.

I'm working on a paper with my collaborators which is almost ready to submit. I am thinking of asking my PhD student to help us in the writing of the paper by drawing a graph using LaTeX/PGFPlots. However, I am not sure if this is fair to her. Here are how I see the pros and cons of giving this work to her.

  • Pros: Offloading the drawing of the graph to her would be beneficial to me because it would save my time. In addition, she would be learning skills that are useful in her academic career. Indeed, I have used LaTeX and PGFPlots in my two most recent papers and will almost certainly use it in the papers I write with my PhD student.
  • Cons: I am afraid that she might feel taken advantage of, in that I am offloading menial and tedious tasks to her, asking her to do work for a paper without allowing her to benefit by being a coauthor. In our field (a type of applied mathematics), the real work is doing math theory, formulating problems, solving them or proving math results. What I am asking her to do (drawing graphs) is sometimes an important part of paper writing, but not nearly as important as mathematically rigorous work such as developing theory and proving math results.

Note: I estimate that it would take me 3-4 hours to draw the plot, although it may take her a longer time (perhaps one or two days), given that she is fairly new to using LaTeX/PGFPlots.


Thank you all for your answers and comments. I posted what I decided to do as an answer below.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 11 '17 at 18:55

13 Answers 13

114

Preparing a graph from already-generated data, to me, doesn't merit co-authorship but would justify a mention in the Acknowledgements. However, something that takes two days out of a student's time (even if it would only take you 3-4 hours) seems like a lot to ask for just an acknowledgement.

How useful is learning the process? If it's legitimately training that's important to her future career, that might tip the balance toward asking her to do it. However, I think my default would be to do it myself.

One other part of the equation (probably and hopefully only a very small part) is that the student is female, based on the pronouns in the question, and female scientists are often expected (from unexamined assumptions) to disproportionately look after administrative work.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 7 '17 at 16:16
101

If you have to ask, then I suspect that at some level you know it's wrong.

I'm a PhD student, and I would find it extremely rude of my advisor if he behaved this way. It's not a student's job to perform menial tasks for his or her advisor.

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    Well, it kinda is, you just don't understand why yet – Gaius Sep 7 '17 at 18:26
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    Yes, but in an healthy PhD/postdoc context you will get credit for it! – 2801001 Sep 8 '17 at 7:33
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    @Gaius no it isn't, at least in any of the few universities I've been associated with. Unless you count "doing research as part of the advisor's research programme" as a menial task... As to whether the task in question is menial... that's borderline in my head, and I'm guessing that's why the question was asked. – Flyto Sep 8 '17 at 13:10
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    @Gaius Would you mind explaining why the role of a PhD student should be performing menial tasks for the all-powerful wizard? – Daniel Wagner Sep 8 '17 at 15:14
  • The number of appropriate and/or required menial tasks is probably greatly field-dependent. – Tobias Hagge Sep 13 '17 at 0:19
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I disagree with the "learning" benefit. She will have to learn it at some point, why not when writing her own paper. Learning it now won't take less time overall, in contrast, she will spend extra time drawing your figure.

I would not see a problem when you have a PhD student or postdoc who is good in preparing a special kind of figure, to a level way above yours. Then sure you may ask that student, and acknowledge the work (probably not by co-authorship, given there is no significant contribution - assuming that the paper could have been published with an ugly and harder-to-read figure).

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    An intermediate suggestion might be for the professor to spend the 3-4 hours (or more) over several days in teaching/mentoring the student in the tools while making the figure. "You need to learn these tools, I have a figure I need to make. Lets work together so you get the basics of what is required." – Jon Custer Sep 6 '17 at 20:01
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    @JonCuster Why not write that as an answer? – Tommi Brander Sep 7 '17 at 5:36
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  1. It's beneficial to you.
  2. It's not actually beneficial to the student (she could be working her own work and when writing it, she would learn the tools).
  3. She doesn't get any "science points" for it.

You can from a position of power ask her to do it and tell her she can refuse (wink wink). That means she actually can't, even if you really mean what you say. This does not feel right, you are there for your students, not them for you.

So I see three options.

  1. If she will need to do similar work for herself soon, offer her that she can prepare some template, help her with it with the condition that you (or better anyone) can use it. It will take more of your time than you doing what you need though.
  2. Just do it yourself.
  3. Pay her to do it.
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    Very nice analysis of the situation at the beginning. – Trilarion Sep 7 '17 at 13:18
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    More generally than pay could be: 'Properly compensate'. For instance by offering time/knowledge (that is clearly outside of time that you would normally make available), or arranging some budget (e.g. to register for a symposium). -- If you would want to pay for it, why not ask at the end of a lectures whether one of your students want to make a few bucks (they tend to have a lower fair rate). – Dennis Jaheruddin Sep 8 '17 at 14:31
41

Thank you all for your answers and comments. This is what I decided to do after thinking it over.

I was chatting with my PhD student over lunch to find out how she was coping with her first semester as a person new to being a PhD student, as well as new to the city and the university. I realized that this is quite a busy time for her:

  • Our department requires her to take 3 regular courses (each 3 hours/week) and a seminar course (2 hours/week)
  • The university requires her to take a half-semester English course (also 3 hours/week) to improve her English speaking skills
  • She was also assigned to be a grader for another departmental course

So even though I think it would be a good idea in the long run for her to learn how to use PGFPlots to draw graphs; for the next few months, I feel that it would be better for her to settle in to her new life as a PhD student.

Jon Custer made a good comment:

An intermediate suggestion might be for the professor to spend the 3-4 hours (or more) over several days in teaching/mentoring the student in the tools while making the figure. "You need to learn these tools, I have a figure I need to make. Let's work together so you get the basics of what is required."

What I decided to do is the following:

  • I will draw the graph on my own.
  • During our weekly meetings, I will "bring her alongside" my work on the graph, by showing her the code. The goal is to allow her to see how I am iteratively working towards the final product. This should also help her when she does have to draw her own graphs because at least she would have at least a little familiarity with the tools required.

As an aside, I felt that during my time as a PhD student, I almost always had no idea what my advisor was doing outside of his relationship with me. I think it would have been beneficial if he had told me a little bit about teaching, or admin work; but especially about successes and challenges faced when working on his other papers (i.e., not the one he was working on with me). Consequently I am trying to keep my PhD student a bit more in the loop so her eyes are more open to what life is like as a faculty member. If she becomes a faculty member in the future, hopefully this allows her to make a more gentle transition into that role.

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    "I felt that during my time as a PhD student, I almost always had no idea what my advisor was doing outside of his relationship with me." +1 to this and all remaining comments; it helps you think about your post-PhD path, and it humanizes your advisor too. Though, keep in mind that complaining a lot to your students about things other than them can lead to some irritation. – pentavalentcarbon Sep 9 '17 at 2:59
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    @pentavalentcarbon Thank you for the reminder not to complain excessively to my to my students. I'll be trying to share some information, both positive and negative, about how my career is going. At the same time, I'll also be careful not to share too much information. – I Like to Code Sep 9 '17 at 6:29
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No, don't do it. This is not fair and disrespectful in particular for a person who has just started his/her research career.

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    Too short to edit, but it's a bit confusing to refer to the student as "his" when the question states the student is a woman. – Azor Ahai Sep 6 '17 at 17:18
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    @Azor-Ahai: In fairness, the title uses "him/her", and some people do use masculine pronouns to refer to either gender. – Nate Eldredge Sep 6 '17 at 20:07
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    @NateEldredge, Yeah, but the woman in the question was much more salient than the title in my mind while reading, hence my confusion. – Azor Ahai Sep 6 '17 at 20:21
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I don't think I would be comfortable asking a new PhD student to do this for uncredited work. Specifically:

  • I don't think that "learn how to do this from scratch for a paper getting submitted" is conducive to genuinely learning - there are no intermediate steps, toy data, etc. and for a brand new PhD student, I would be quite concerned about them getting derailed.
  • It's effectively uncompensated work.
  • It puts the student in a very awkward place, where it's possible her "learning" will stand in the way of a paper getting done swiftly if she misses your estimates, etc. The idea that the paper not going out could be framed as "her fault" despite her not being an author on the paper would leave a bad taste in my mouth.
  • As noted by others, female graduate students are disproportionately asked to bear the burden of uncompensated, administrative or other tasks that neither truly advance their careers nor generate entries on their CV. Even if this is not what is occurring in this case, I think it's worth it not to help establish the notion in your lab, her perception, the department, etc. that this is acceptable.
  • "As noted by others, female graduate students are disproportionately asked to bear" - [Citation needed] – Keine Sep 8 '17 at 7:15
  • You are right that a brand new PhD student would be more easily derailed by having to learn a new tool. If my PhD student were more mature, it would make me more likely (all other things being equal) to ask her to help and learn. – I Like to Code Sep 8 '17 at 14:52
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Is it fair to my PhD student if I ask them to do … work for a paper they're not going to be a coauthor of?

No. This is absolutely not fair.

By default, any work on a paper confers authorship. There are some well-defined exceptions, but these need to be justified. And they fall into specific categories:

  • Editorial work (typesetting, proofreading etc), for which you pay.
  • “Little effort work” (e.g. superficial proofreading, suggestions, discussions over coffee1), which a friend/colleague does as a favour (that is usually returned), and which merits acknowledgement.2

Any intellectual contribution to a paper (even if you believe that it’s not a scientific contribution3) must be acknowledged and rewarded with authorship. This is doubly important when the person doing the work depends on a publication record for their career development (technical personnel might not find authorship very important; but they are explicitly paid, with money, to help out). These are simply the rules of the publishing game.

So: is an illustration an intellectual contribution? If it cannot be created automatically, chances are that the answer is yes.

But let’s say it isn’t in any way an intellectual contribution, it’s pure menial work: then you either pay somebody to do it, or you ask it as a favour.

Which brings us to the second major problem: the imbalance of power between a PI and a PhD student means that you just cannot ask favours from your student. Effectively, you are giving them orders to perform work, for free, outside of their contractual responsibility. This is exploitation. It’s irrelevant whether that was your intent or not.

In summary, asking your student to work for free is unethical, and potentially scientific misconduct: no matter the situation you either exploit their labour for free, or you steal their authorship.

This situation is, unfortunately, not uncommon in science. But that doesn’t make it right. It’s for this reason that the complacent acceptance in the replies and comments have generated no little outrage on Twitter.


1 Scientific chats over coffee can be extremely fruitful, as any researcher knows. They much more often deserve authorship than is common practice.

2 I know of some researchers that reward any kind of work on a paper with authorship, including trivial things like fixing typos. I find this excessive but it’s worth noting that this point of view exists.

3 Think about it carefully: what does that even mean?

  • While I incline towards your stance on this matter: is it really necessary to have that sentence disparaging the other answers to this question? I think most of them are actually on your side, more or less. YMMV – Yemon Choi Sep 9 '17 at 15:57
  • @YemonChoi I seriously considered leaving it out. But I’m genuinely horrified by some of the answers/comments here; the mindset is problematic. And I find it important to point out that this is a generally shared sentiment — at least in my corner of Twitter (which includes several PIs from different fields). For what it’s worth, this answer went through several iterations that were a lot more strongly worded. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 9 '17 at 15:59
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    The behavior described in your footnote #2 is absolutely unethical, and likely violates the authorship policies of the journals as to intellectual contribution. – Tom Church Sep 9 '17 at 22:59
  • @TomChurch I find it excessive as well. But “absolutely unethical“ hasn't got a leg to stand on. – Konrad Rudolph Sep 9 '17 at 23:53
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I was given such tasks by my adviser and I resented him for it. But, I think you should frame the thing differently. Make the student do the graph, and make a standard template they would use later in upcoming papers. That way some of their work will be useful for them, too.

If you want to be fair, you can explain the student what's in it for them, and tell them you understand if they don't do it. Or you could ask for the work as a favor.

I, personally, would do something else. If drawing that graph would help the student in the long run (they would learn how to do it with LaTeX/PGFPlots) they would have to do it. If it won't, I would ask for it as a favor and I'd be prepared for a refusal, which I wouldn't hold against her.

5

If the student produces the graph, she is the author of that picture. Hence she has the right to be co-author of the paper as well. It then has to be her decision to refrain from that right. Anything else (like asking her to do the work without having the chance of being co-author) would be trading of authorship which is scientifically unsound behaviour.

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    Drawing a picture is NOT authorship. She would probably be the copyright owner of the picture, unless university rules state otherwise, so would be owed acknowledgement of that. But being an author on a paper requires more. – Jessica B Sep 7 '17 at 8:46
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    A plot that takes days to create is at least data analysis, if not data interpretation (though probably not by a new PhD student). According to Science, this merits authorship: sciencemag.org/authors/science-editorial-policies – BPND Sep 7 '17 at 11:43
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    @BPND That argument might earn a lawyer his/her fee, but it makes no scientific sense. You seem to be saying that if you work slowly and/or inefficiently because you don't know how to use the correct tools, that somehow increases the "science content* of what you are doing! Someone who has never used LaTeX before might take a week to learn how to do something I could do in 15 minutes (and maybe I would do it "better" than them as well, having more experience of the tradeoffs between what is possible and what is quick and easy to do) - but so what, so far as "authorship" is concerned? – alephzero Sep 7 '17 at 20:09
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    @JessicaB I had an entire paper that could be summarized as "Drawing a picture" - I'd say it depends entirely on the picture, and what it took to create it. – Fomite Sep 7 '17 at 23:01
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    @BPND A plot drawn using LaTeX and PFGPlots could take a while to create with absolutely no data analysis if the creator has no familiarity with computer programming or anything related. (I had several fellow students who were very strong mathematically, but only had a basic understanding of concepts like "double click" and "menu".) – user3067860 Sep 8 '17 at 18:15
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Why would you waste a PhD candidates' time on that? They are the ones who could take the legacy of your ideas and work into the future. Don't you want to train them to do that the best way they can?

Don't you have BSc or MSc students who need to do a thesis or courses given at your institution which can make the miscellaneous things as part of a project or lab? Many institutes also have research engineers employed for the purpose of helping with similar "miscellaneous things".

1

If your student is working for you on a contract, then absolutely, though an acknowledgement would still be polite. In that case you are giving the student the task in the role as your (part time) employee, which is a common case.

If your student is financed by a scholarship given by a 3rd party they are not obliged to do work unrelated to their thesis.

If your student is financed by a "scholarship" given by yourself, they are officially not obliged to do any work unrelated to research for their thesis, but in practise this is still very much expected. This is a common situation, at least in my experience, to save costs such as insurance and pension, but I advise you against that as it has too many negative ramifications for the student.

0

"Co-authorship" must satisfy all of the following three conditions:

  1. Provide ideas
  2. Significant contribution
  3. Approve the final submission

You could ask your student or RA to do the job for you, if they indeed agree and are compensated. If his contribution does not satisfy any of the 3, he should not, in principle, receive a co-authorship.


PS: Many BS and BA are willing to RA for free. Why not take a part-time one? This will help both of you, your PhD, and the BA. Many BA are good at Latex, btw, and many of them learn unfamiliar things much faster than the "old" PhD and the Profs (you).

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