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Career Advice

Whose name should go first?

It’s time we had “The Talk”.

BY ADAM CRYMBLE | DEC 04 2013

No one looks forward to “The Talk.” It’s awkward. You’ve been dreading it, and chances are so has he or she. But if you keep avoiding it, the atmosphere at work is only going to get worse. The project may even fall apart entirely.

The Talk is, of course, that important but often-postponed discussion between collaborators that outlines who will get credit for research outputs. Typically, this means whose names will appear in which order on the final research publication.

Students often feel particularly vulnerable when it comes to The Talk. “There is no course on how to be a successful graduate student,” says Tim Bhatnagar, a PhD candidate in orthopedics at the University of British Columbia, “only an awareness that publications are the currency of academia.”

Without strong leadership from a supervisor, that awareness can heighten the tension, but it shouldn’t. Knowing how to broach the topic and discuss it openly with both students and senior academics can be the difference between a great project and a mistake you’ll vow never to repeat.

There is no such thing as too early when it comes to discussing credit. “I’ve learned from experience it’s best to have that discussion right away,” says Cynthia Dunning, associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Western University.

Dr. Dunning raises the issue when she is pitching project ideas to potential collaborators. With incoming graduate students, she initiates a talk about authorship as soon as the student arrives – at the same time as the lab tour and other introductory proceedings about expectations. By making a discussion about credit part of your routine, you can relieve anxiety and save yourself uncomfortable discussions down the road.

If you’ve been asked to participate in a collaborative project, you can be the one to start the conversation about credit. Keep in mind that in some fields multiple authorship and even collaboration is a foreign concept. Historians, for example, are used to writing solo-authored books. But increasingly there’s a shift towards collaboration in historical studies, and many are working with computer scientists, project managers and research assistants for the first time. It may not occur to them to have this discussion, so you may be the one to broach it.

By bringing up the issue you take charge of the situation. Most people will be relieved that you’ve addressed the elephant in the room, even if they didn’t tackle it themselves. No matter whom you plan to work with, and even if the conversation degrades, the worst that can happen is that you find out early on that you do not want to go further with the project.

There’s no academic gold standard for authorship and attribution. The amount of credit a student gets for a given project contribution can vary widely depending on the academic culture. For example, many engineers believe “last author” is the most prestigious, while most historians would take offence at seeing their name so close to the right-hand margin. If you are working with a colleague from another field, let them know the conventions in your area; building understanding will make it easier to negotiate terms that can make everyone happy.

When initiating the discussion, remember that this can be a sensitive issue. Maintain positive and open language to keep the conversation as relaxed as possible. Instead of “Which author will I be?” try “Shall we discuss the intended outputs of this project and how we will share credit? What is your perspective on authorship?”

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors highlights five typical areas of the research process. Dr. Dunning finds it useful to revisit these when mediating authorship quarrels among students:

  1. Project conception and design
  2. Acquisition of data
  3. Analysis or interpretation of data
  4. Writing the article
  5. Final approval of the article

Dr. Dunning’s students know they need to contribute substantially to at least three of these areas before their contribution can be considered author-worthy. Not all fields are as data-driven as medical science, but finding or conceiving a similar set of criteria for your group can reduce uncertainty surrounding authorship. For an over-view of different credit models, visit FairCite (faircite.wordpress.com).

Conflicts over authorship generally boil down to this: everyone wants to feel their contribution is appreciated. Sometimes we just have to talk about it, and the sooner the better.

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  1. David Fernandez / December 6, 2013 at 07:37

    I’m glad that in my field (pure mathematics) there’s no need at all for “the talk”: the concept of first, second, …, last author doesn’t even exist, and always without exception the authors are listed alphabetically in papers.

  2. Zubin / December 7, 2013 at 07:34

    To David Fernandez.

    I don’t think you should be glad for how Mathematics functions regarding authorship. In fact, several other disciplines also have practices resembling what you mentioned. Authorship credit should be based on giving credit where credit is due. There are several research integrity books that similarly state this principle. What you have outlined is what I would consider an unethical practice because the person whose last name is Smith, or if my last name were Zubin, I would be screwed always receiving a lower authorship. This simply goes against the principle to some degree. If I did more work than someone, should I not deserve the higher authorship rank? If for some reason in Pure Math there is no ranking between authors in a multi-authored paper meaning the field looks at a first author the same way they do as a second, third fourth, then I would say sure, perhaps the authorship talk isn’t necessary. But I suspect that ranking authors in pure math is important. So perhaps there should be reason to talk about authorship in your field. Food for thought. Contact me directly please if you want to chat more. Zubin Master, Alden March Bioethics Inst, AMC

  3. Adam Crymble / December 8, 2013 at 03:45

    Hi David,

    Disciplinary conventions are helpful, but there are many people now working between disciplines. If you and I collaborated we’d certainly have to have a discussion, because your idea of what is natural and best isn’t the same as mine.

    I’d also suggest there may be people who feel they should be included as authors on your work, who you may not consider including. Again, that depends on disciplinary conventions, and having a chat with your collaborators may challenge your conviction that it’s something you’ve already got sorted out.