How Not to Suck at Co-authorship

December 30, 2014

Among the most common sources of conflict between supervisors and graduate students involve credit for authorship in scholarly papers. Although most professions have formal guidelines concerning the ethics of authorship and order of authorship, it is fairly rare for supervisors and students to read these ethical practices. Read your professional guidelines for authorship or read these solid papers: and At McGill University we have an excellent website devoted to issues in graduate level supervision. However, I am not sure how many supervisors or students read and follow the suggestions ( Most commonly, students are left to negotiate issues of co-authorship with their supervisors. Yet, the primary problems are that students do not know what is reasonable, have little leverage in negotiation, and are not clear as to the expectations of authorship.

The culture of the University and scientific field sets the context for graduate student authorship. For example, it was once extremely common for university professors to receive university credit for publication only if they were the first author or sole author of a published paper. In these cultures, graduate students rarely received appropriate credit for their work or were completely shut out of any authorship. Fortunately, most universities value student authorship and professors receive significant benefits from having students as first authors and co-authors. Most supervisors behave in the way that they were trained. As such, some supervisors have been trained in this old-fashioned model and make it extremely difficult for students to receive co-authorship. Also, different fields of study have different norms concerning authorship. For example, papers in medical journals are generous with authorship. It is not uncommon to find papers with 15 or 20 co-authors. This is in contrast to the humanities, where single-author publications are often the norm. Although there may be general professional guidelines for what constitutes authorship understanding the philosophy of the University, training and philosophy of the supervisor, and culture of the field of study are critical contexts for graduate student authorship.

What Typically Constitutes Co-authorship
I have a research lab in the field of school psychology. Most of my students plan on going into clinical practice after graduation. As such the motivation for most of my students is to become competitive for national and provincial fellowships and bursaries. Career prospects are more dependent on their clinical skills than their publication record. This culture makes for far less competitive attitudes toward publication and students are much less stressed in my lab than in other fields of study. Because I have a large number of graduate and undergraduate students in my lab, it is easiest to have general rules of what constitutes co-authorship.
• Authorship is earned by anyone who makes substantive contributions to the product.
• Data entry, line editing of manuscript, statistical analysis, brainstorming of initial ideas, data entry, and locating research to be cited do not necessarily constitute a substantive contribution.
• Substantive contributions involve design of the project and writing of the manuscript.
• Authorship and order of authorship are negotiated before the project is begun.
• Renegotiation of order of authorship can be initiated by any contributor of the project at any time. A consensus among all co-authors will be attempted before any change of order of authorship can take place. The most common situation is that someone who has planned to have a small role turns out to a larger role in the project and I recommend that that person moved to a higher level of authorship. And in these cases, consultation and consensus building with other authors is sought.
• Authorship and order of authorship are not dependent on seniority or status. Undergraduates, new graduate students, or collaborators external to the University are equal. The exception is that as lab director, my default order of authorship will be to serve as the last author.
This is a fairly new approach in my lab. Most of my previous work was with medical professionals from outside of the University. I am now in the process of developing a self-contained lab culture within McGill and within my lab. So far, so good. However, I may need to revisit this topic when flaws in the system are uncovered.

There are generally four types of projects in my lab. The first type is a Masters or doctoral thesis. For this type of project one student conducts and carries out all of the substantive work. However, they may receive administrative or other logistical support. The expectation is that any published manuscripts derived from the theses will have the student as first author and lab director as second author. The second type is an invited or theoretical paper. These are projects in which I take initiative and do most of the substantive writing and organization. I may invite students to make contributions or assist as second or third author. The third type is a substantive literature review. We tend to write one or two papers of this type each year. Although such papers are difficult to write and organize, they are good opportunities for new students to learn the literature extremely well and make an early and substantive contribution. Typically, a senior level student runs this project, is expected to be first author, selects and manages a team of co-authors, and negotiates roles and expectations with each member of the team. These papers often have four or five co-authors. The fourth type of paper are the single-study projects. These papers are typically the easiest to write. Like in the literature review paper, one student is designated as the lead student who selects the team for that project. We tend to have small group paper team meetings. This is where the 2 to 5 co-authors meet weekly to discuss progress and make plans for the next stage.

Becoming a Co-author
New graduate students know that authoring papers that are published in refereed scientific journals or presented at professional conferences is the currency that will make them competitive for fellowships, internships, postdocs, and desirable academic jobs. I have had many students approach me or an advanced graduate student and say, “Do you have any papers that I can be a co-author on?” This is not an effective method of entrée into co-authorship. Two better ways to become a co-author on a paper are to say, “I have an idea for a paper and would like to talk it through with you.” Or “I see that the lab has a paper in progress and I believe I can make the following contributions to that paper.” Initiative, preparation, and the presentation of new ideas communicate that the student is prepared to make a substantive contribution that is worthy of authorship. Earn it.

Revisions and Journal Communications
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of publishing scientific papers for graduate students is communication with journal editors. Most submitted papers receive a final decision of accept with major revisions or reject and resubmit. Both outcomes require a detailed, point-by-point description of how the revised manuscript meets the specific concerns of the editor and reviewers. This is a task that requires experience. There are cases where writing the letter to the editor is my primary contribution to the published paper. Communicating with journal editors may be the task in which I work most closely with students. We often sit side-by-side as this letter is discussed, planned, and composed. This task seems to be a rite of passage for students in my lab. When a student receives an editorial decision and says to me, “I’ve got this.” And I say, “Yes, you can do this on your own.” Then that student is ready to graduate and engage in independent research.

Communicating Expectations
I have written in previous blogs about the importance of interviewing and understanding how supervisors work before entering a graduate program agreeing to a supervisory relaitonship with a professor. I still think that the biggest mistake that many students make is selecting a supervisor based on a shared content area of interest. Although content is important, supervision style and match with student needs is even more important. Students need to research to determine how many of a professor’s publications have student co-authors and how many students have first authored publications. Moreover, professors should be asked about the expectations and supervisor support for publications. Some supervisors work closely with students, meet weekly, and are actively involved in every aspect of data collection and writing. Other supervisors may meet with students as little as twice per year. The expectation is that students will figure out how to conduct research on their own when given maximum independence and freedom to succeed. Students should know what they are getting into. A list of yearly expectations developed between student and supervisor in September is extremely valuable and is required by most universities. Revisiting these goals and evaluating the success in meeting the goals at year end is equally as important.

Quality of Work
We talk a lot about writing in the lab. Helping students to revise and improve their writing is a part of this process. I expect their work to show care, professionalism, and expertise. But I do not expect the work to be perfect. I refer to any project as the project or the paper, not your project or your paper. Keeping a distance between the work and the person takes practice. But I want the students to be open contributors to a paper and not paralyzed by perfectionism, ownership, and criticism. Students know that a heavily marked up paper is a good sign—it means I was engaged enough to meticulously consider every word. A bad sign is that the first three pages are heavily marked up, but later pages receive few marks. That usually means that I got bored. If each draft is better and more clear than the last, then I am happy with the progress of the work of my co-authors.

Conflicts and Problems
I am not a fan of drama in research. Life is too short for avoidable drama, stress, and strain. Projects are planned out so that we meet deadlines without having to do all-nighters. Cooperation rather than competition is stressed. Authorship is negotiated in advance and everyone knows what role they have to play in order to earn their authorship. The intent is that preparation, planning, and a culture of open communication will head off any conflict. However, conflict still occurs. Most conflicts occur within a project team. There is a perception that one member is missing deadlines, doing poor quality work, or trying to have other people do their work for them. I hope I have made it clear that letting down your team is among the worst offenses possible in my lab. I have had a student resign from a project because they did not feel they could meet the demands. I appreciated that sentiment. And that student went on to be successful on other projects. However, I have had students who simply did not reach the levels of work quality expected, had interpersonal problems with other members of the lab, or believe that their work merited first authorship. Meeting surrounding these problems are private. We attempt to renegotiate expectations and develop a plan for remediation. That plan is also sent to students via e-mail to provide clarity, mutual agreement, and create a paper trail. Sometimes students are asked to seek a different supervisor and other times students choose to leave voluntarily.

Students are encouraged to be open as to their limitations of time and energy. I do not mind when a student requests to renegotiate a deadline due to a conflict with exams, conferences, exhaustion, or other issues. I also encourage students to seek help or renegotiate when a task proves to be beyond their current levels of expertise (usually because such situations are due to my error). Stress and anxiety are also common for graduate students. Some students receive reduced research expectations if we agree that too many research projects may be overwhelming. Recall that I am in an accredited school psychology program with a large student class load, and field and clinical practica experiences, in addition to research. As such allowances are made for the time demands of their program.

Co-authorship does not have to be difficult. Problems are almost always due to conflicting needs and misunderstandings. Keeping students from earned co-authorship due to massive ego, power issues, or control is simply evidence of unethical and poor supervisory practices. Some old school professors have been socialized along these lines. Trying to force a professor socialized in these practices to comply with the ethics in university policies concerning co-authorship is unlikely to be resolved in a positive way for the student or the supervisor. Receiving co-authorship on a scientific paper does wonders for the confidence and careers of students. Witnessing and contributing to student success is one of the best parts of being a supervisor.

S. R. Shaw


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s