authorship/ethical question

jcoleman at jcoleman at
Sat Oct 28 13:51:36 EST 1995

In article <46th4q$pjs at>, ravena at (Karen Allendoerfer) writes:
>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?
My opinion (I'm a grad student) is You, "john", boss. As I was taught, just to
be an author on the paper you need to understand intellectually the ideas
involved and be able to talk about it intelligently...just doing grunt work
does not apply for authorship...first author is usually the writer of the paper
and the person who had the most intellectual input into the
person who designed and implemented the project. We have had technicians who
have done alot of the technical work ...and they get on the papers but not as
first author (unless they wrote the manuscript as well). Besides, for John just
to get on a paper as an undergraduate is a big bonus for him...he still has
time in his career for a first author :-) A friend of mine got first author
while an undergraduate but he designed the experiment, did the experiment AND
wrote the manuscript (with revisions suggested by the boss). I think you should
discuss it with the boss and then the two of you discuss it with
need to explain what the "rules" of authorship's not arbitary..each
"position" has certain requirements....and you are right...boss is usually last
unless he did the actual experiments and then the next most involved person
(either collaborator or postdoc or grad student) is the last person.


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