From the Science Student Council

Determining and negotiating authorship

Frequent communication and a dynamic approach can help minimize disagreements.

By Allison Gaffey

Why authorship matters to you

For scientifically minded graduate students, conducting research and publishing is indispensable for both professional development and career advancement. By engaging in this process, you acquire new expertise, develop collaborations and advance the body of work in your research area. Authorship is the primary way to recognize your contributions and those of other individuals who are involved in a research project.

Negotiating authorship as a dynamic process

As a graduate student, it might at first feel daunting to discuss the roles you would like or expect and your place as a contributing author in a project. However, this step should be approached as a learning opportunity that will contribute to your professional identity as a researcher and scholar. Advisers will usually be happy to discuss authorship and will consider such discussions to be an important aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship.

Negotiating authorship is a key aspect of conducting your collaborative research. It is important to discuss authorship throughout the entire course of a project, making negotiating authorship a dynamic exchange. Discussion of authorship order should ideally begin at the start of a research project, and involve a purposeful dialogue concerning your and your collaborators’ expected contributions to the project. Authorship negotiation checklists, worksheets or agreement forms, such as those listed below, can be used to inform this endeavor.

Additionally, because psychological research has become increasingly interdisciplinary, it is important to acknowledge that other fields may have different authorship cultures (e.g., the lead researcher could be either the first or last author). Therefore, beginning authorship discussions early in the project will help ensure that all the contributors’ expectations are aligned.

It is helpful for everyone to recognize that initial authorship and authorship order can change throughout the development of the project in order to better reflect the actual contributions of all investigators. There are numerous reasons for changing authorship, many of which may be situation-specific. Changes should be decided upon mutually after consideration of each individual’s perspective and review of each individual’s contributions.

For example, authors could be added if a project has expanded beyond the original scope or if the added author can contribute knowledge or expertise that is required by the project. On the other hand, a contributor may be removed as an author if the individual did not assist the project as initially agreed on, or if a contributor relocated or graduated and was subsequently unable to actively participate in the research.

Moreover, authorship order may be revised if the individuals’ actual contributions differ significantly from those expected at the beginning of the project. This situation could occur if an author accepts increased responsibility or delegates some of their responsibility to other authors. Open and fluid communication in this process is key to developing a respectful and professional research environment.

Disagreements over allocating authorship

Because authorship negotiation is often an ongoing discussion, efforts can be made throughout a project to minimize the opportunity for disagreements to develop, as well as to detect and collaboratively resolve disagreements before they escalate. Discussing authorship at regular intervals or at major milestones in the project can help minimize the potential for the development of a disagreement later on in the project.

Situations may nonetheless occur throughout this process that can lead to misunderstandings or authorship disputes. When they occur, those who have contributed to the project should first discuss the disagreements, possibly with the aid of contracts or scorecards such as those listed above. All individuals involved in the project should take part in these discussions in an open and professional manner. Be prepared to thoroughly explain your contributions as well as to consider the perspectives of your collaborators. Some collaborators may be unaware of the actual involvement of other members of the research team, especially when projects are being conducted at multiple institutions or are longitudinal.

As a graduate student, you might also find it helpful to consult with faculty members or advanced graduate students who are not affiliated with the project in order to gain an objective perspective and obtain suggestions on how to address a situation. If concerns cannot be resolved through these means, it may be necessary to directly consult your university’s handbook in order to familiarize yourself with the steps for formal recourse. For example, those steps may include discussing the situation with your program or department chair, who could serve as an arbitrator or could provide further guidance on how to continue with the negotiations.

Here are some additional resources for negotiating authorship:

  • Fine, M. A. & Kurdek, L. A. (1993). Reflections on determining authorship credit and authorship order on faculty-student collaborations. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1141-1147.

  • Grobman, L. (2009). The student scholar: (Re) negotiating authorship and authority. College Composition and Communication, 61(1), 175-196.

  • Leonard, L. (2010). Negotiating authorship for doctoral dissertation publications: A reply. Qualitative Health Research, 20(5), 723-726.

  • Newman, A., & Jones, R. (2006). Authorship of research papers: ethical and professional issues for short-term researchers. Journal of Medical Ethics, 32(7), 420-423.

  • Oberlander, S. E., & Spencer, R. J. (2006). Graduate students and the culture of authorship. Ethics & Behavior, 16(3), 217-232.

  • Osborne, J. W., & Holland, A. (2009). What is authorship, and what should it be? A survey of prominent guidelines for determining authorship in scientific publications. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(15), 1-19.

  • Smalheiser, N. R., Perkins, G. A., & Jones, S. (2005). Guidelines for negotiating scientific collaboration. PLoS Biology, 3(6), e217.