authorship/ethical question

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at
Sat Oct 28 10:10:18 EST 1995

Dear Biologists,

After a lot of work, an undergraduate that I have been supervising and I may 
have some promising data to write up.  I'm very happy about this outcome, but
the more I think about the authorship question, the more I can see two sides,
and I was wondering whether other people had faced this situation or a similar
one, and what would be the most fair and ethical way to handle it.

The situation is this, the undergraduate, "John," has been working with me for
a year and a half.  My boss completely ignored the relatively simpler project
that I proposed to have "John" do, and instead substituted a technically 
difficult and challenging one that I personally would have been somewhat
reluctant to begin (I'm a postdoc).  I explained to my boss patiently the pros
and cons as I saw them, came up with a plan under which it would be do-able,
and broke it down into smaller, more do-able chunks with defined goals for 
"John" to meet along the way.  I then designed and implemented the technical
approach that John is using, and spent several weeks working closely with John
to teach him how to use the technique, which is, as I said, pretty challenging,
and a number of collegues have expressed surprise that I have been able to get
an undergraduate to the level of technical competency to perform this
technique on his own.  He has recently been doing a lot of "grunt work" for
the project and moving it forward in very positive ways.  I've been proud of
him, have tried to be encouraging, and have written him a very positive
recommendation for medical school.  He has also won an award for his          
presentation of the work at a summer student symposium.  However, in spite of
all the very excellent "hands" work that "John" has contributed to the project,
he hasn't contributed very much in terms of ideas, organization, or design.
Our troubleshooting sessions consists mostly of his asking me how to solve a
problem and my suggesting a few alternatives for him to try, and giving my
opinion on which one is most likely to work.  And his writing ability is what
I would describe as "adequate for an engineering school."  I anticipate having
to basically write the final form of the entire manuscript myself.
	So, I'm wondering about authorship on the paper, which if all goes well
could be published in a prestigious journal.  My three choices are:  Me, John,
Boss; John, Me, Boss; or an outside possibility, John, Boss, Me (but I don't
know how happy the boss would be about this one, since last author position
is usually reserved for the P.I.).  Another solution that I've employed from
grad school is to put an asterisk next to two authors names, and write "these
authors contributed equally to this work."  John has spent the most person-
hours on the project, I will have designed and implemented the technique and
done most of the writing, as well as brought my boss' pie in the sky idea
down to a do-able reality.  I will be looking for a job in the not too distant
future and another first author publication could really make a difference.
There are good arguments for either of us to be first author, and I want to be
fair.  What do other people think?


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