Ask us anything: undergraduate co-authors

Our next question in our ask us anything series comes from Liz: For undergraduate researchers, what is enough of a contribution to merit co-authorship versus acknowledgements?

Jeremy’s answer:

In general, I expect undergraduate co-authors to earn authorship in the same way as anyone else. The general principle is that you need to make an intellectual contribution to the ms, not simply collect data as instructed by someone else. Merely collecting data as instructed by someone else gets you acknowledgment but not authorship in my view. More here and here.

In practice, the deal I typically offer summer undergraduate research assistants is that, if they collect the data as directed and make thoughtful editorial comments on a draft ms reporting those data, that earns them co-authorship. That is a slightly lower standard for co-authorship than I apply to myself. If, say, a graduate student comes up with her own project, with only modest feedback from me, and then writes it up with only editorial suggestions from me, I wouldn’t consider myself to have made enough of an intellectual contribution to have earned co-authorship.

Brian’s answer:

What Jeremy said. Although I note that sometimes collecting the data can involve an intellectual contribution (e.g. if the initial pilots come up short and modifications have to be made and the data collector is integral to that). I would also note that rigorously defending the integrity of authorship when undergrads are involved made a lot of sense in the days of one to two author papers, but when most papers already have 4-5 authors and one undergrad has done all the data collection for the paper even if they added little creative value, that would earn authorship in my book. Odds are they put in more work than one of the other co-authors.

16 thoughts on “Ask us anything: undergraduate co-authors

  1. I think it might be different in Europe, I’m stating that based purely on my belief that European academia is more relaxed than what you would see in the USA, and what I’ve experienced. I assisted a post-doc in Germamy with field work over the summer, I didn’t really need to get creative only until after 10-15 days I guess, but the work was really physically demanding and the weather conditions during the time period of our work were something I had never experienced.

    I remember pitching a lot of new ideas and methods to my guide, along with my devotion in the field. But even before I came out of my shell after being really homesick my first few days in Germany, she told me that I’m going to be a co-aurhor on the paper, that’s something that his/her Phd guide does, all undergraduates get a co-authorship. He joined us at the field for a while and I remember the whole team looking at him as a father figure. I guess he has this policy so that students work harder? Maybe. But anyways I think he does a great job by giving his students something that other profs don’t.

  2. Via Twitter:

  3. I should add that I think all undergrads who collected the data should be given the opportunity to provide substantial feedback, write a piece of the paper, and/or do something creative with the data. If they chose not to, that is fine and no co-authorship needs to be given. However, not providing them with an opportunity to make a substantial contribution (especially if the PI isn’t paying them) is morally sketchy in my opinion.

    It is also the responsibility of both the PI and lead author to check to make sure that no creativity/novelty was required in the data collection (or other tasks, e.g. what may appear to be very routine analysis) before excluding authorship. I know of a few nature/science papers where an RA who did some technical GIS work actually had to do some novel things with the data to make a figure and do some analysis, and the PI didn’t include them as an author, probably as an oversite. Undergrads, students, and RAs aren’t always going to ask you for authorship, or emphasize how creative the thing they did was. We may think something is routine that actually wasn’t.

    • “However, not providing them with an opportunity to make a substantial contribution (especially if the PI isn’t paying them) is morally sketchy in my opinion.”

      I disagree (and I say that as someone who does give them the opportunity you suggest). They’re getting experience, and either wages or course credit, in exchange for their work. They’re not being exploited unless they’re given the chance for co-authorship. And they’re not being cheated out of a co-authorship to which they were entitled. It can be (and is) a good thing to offer undergrads the opportunity to earn co-authorship without it being morally sketchy not to offer them that opportunity.

      • As stated above, I agree with the case when they are getting paid (the especially bit is a typo), but the value of course credit and experience really depends on a case by case basis. I’d argue that in many cases neither of these things is of much more value than alternative things the undergrad could be doing with their time. This will depend on a lot of factors. In the USA, at least in the UC system and Cornell, general course credit rarely has much value, most majors don’t have many free units to spare anyways. If the data collection is intellectually stimulating and the undergrad is still learning a lot near the end of the data collection period, then the experience is highly valuable for experience sake. But many data collection tasks performed by undergrads, after repeated a few times, have big diminishing returns as far as experience goes.

  4. What about this situation: some undergrad students (or anyone, really) spend a good amount of time and carry out a substantial amount of work on a project. But, through no fault of their own, their work does not make it into the final paper (perhaps because the results were negative, the experiment didn’t work out, whatever). Does that deserve authorship?

    • I’d say no, and I think that’s pretty clear-cut. But I’ve never worked in a lab in which this scenario might come up. So perhaps my opinion reflects a poor understanding of on-the-ground realities in labs where this scenario might arise.

      • An example would be something like this: I had an idea for a new way of analyzing data common in my field. Over a summer, I developed the idea with a couple of undergrad students, who helped refine the idea and implement it in R. (This was a new methodology, so implementing it in R was not just a matter of calling a few existing functions.) As it turned out, the idea didn’t work for this project, and we scrapped it and went in a different direction. So the students did a fair amount of work, but none of it will appear in the final paper. I think my inclination is to list them as authors because without their work, the project would have been stuck in a dead end, and what they did contributed to the progress of the project.

    • I’d be inclined to give that person a chance to edit and otherwise contribute to the paper that is going out. In short make sure they have a chance to earn authorship.

      • I should clarify that I agree with Brian. As I said in my previous comment, I don’t think you get to be an author for work that doesn’t end up in the paper. But in the scenario you describe, the student should be offered the chance to earn authorship some other way.

    • Although, excluding negative results of an experiment from a paper brings up other issues (in terms of open and reproducible science, so perhaps the results should be in the paper 😉 … although agree with w Jeremy & Brian here in general.

      • Agreed about including negative results. In my case, though, it wasn’t a negative result (I just used that as an example). Rather, the methodology turned out not to work properly, so there was no possibility of using it in the paper.

  5. Pingback: Reblog: undergraduate co-authors | breathing, blood and brains

  6. I think in many ways this should break open the conversation of co-authorship in general. As Brain indicated, many publications have a list of “hanger on” professionals with limited contribution but you cannot leave them out as they actually have influence over your funding. I equally look at the contribution of other co-authors in this regard. I am not sure we can create a rule book here. It is merit, helping with career etc. I have put people on papers as an incentive. I see subsequently that they do not put in the work for any potential second paper (the incentive did not work) and I leave them off, while for others it did and they get on it again. I have not found a specific formula.

    • I think this very subjective nature leads to lots of incompatibilities with academia as a merit-based system too. Almost everyone I work with has different standards for authorship, some being quite extreme on various sides. Many Universities have reasonably clear-cut rules regarding these things which typically include doing substantive design/science, as well as writing and editing, but in practice I see many co-author papers where it is clear a distinct subset of authors did editing or oversight at most, and I know of some people who did essentially nothing for papers except (at most) turning up to some meetings. In contrast, I know others who dutifully ensure that they tick every box before adding an author in terms of contributions to the science, writing, etc.

      I wonder if this massive heterogeneity is (among many others) part of some of the current crises/problems in academia in general.

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