authorship/ethical question

JAne HArrison jeb.harrison at
Sun Oct 29 22:36:39 EST 1995

In article ,  says...
>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 
>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 
>difficult and challenging one that I personally would have been 
>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 
>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 
>        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 
>There are good arguments for either of us to be first author, 
and I want to be
>fair.  What do other people think?

As someone who has been in a position similar to "john's", I 
would say the You, john, Boss is the best option.  I was over 
the moon, when as a technian who had been doing the grunt work 
to be an authour (admitiedly the bottom of the pile authour) on 
several papers.  "John" has many more years to get the 
experience needed to get the first authourship of a paper.

Congrats on getting something that sounds THAT difficult to 


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