Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring

My goal is to improve the culture of publication and coauthoring in my department. Although some of our students do great on this, others languish, and many of our students complain that they do not get enough mentoring about publishing. I have identified as one problem that many faculty consider it “exploitative” to involve students in their research if they are not being paid. Another problem is wide variation in opinions about the level of involvement that merits a coauthorship. What I want to do is to develop a set of normative guidelines for apprentice-like experiences that do not involve payment, as well as guidelines for those that do. I am working up a draft of this and would appreciate comments and reports on good and bad experiences and practices in other programs. So here is my draft. Comments, please. NOTE: This is explicitly a model for the hierarchical situation in which a professor takes the lead in defining a project and the graduate student is an apprentice. It is NOT a model for the more egalitarian relations that develop organically.

1. It is legitimate to offer independent study or research practicum credit to a graduate student to work as a research assistant on an unfunded project where the professor is the first author and controls the research agenda. Such arrangements are particularly appropriate in the first few years of a graduate student’s program when they are still learning basic skills. Students in such arrangements may be expected to do routine work of research as closely defined and supervised by the professor, including library searches, data collection, data coding, data entry, running tables, etc. Per accreditation guidelines, the appropriate translation of work to credits is at least 3 hours per week per semester credit-hour. It is entirely appropriate to involve several students in a project under this model, but in this case a course number needs to be used, as under new regulations an “independent study” can only involve one student at a time.

2. Graduate students involved in such arrangements should be expected to learn about the background and design of the research project from the supervising professor and assigned readings.

3. The supervising professor should designate one or more publications for which the graduate student will be a junior author on the basis of the work done on the project. The graduate student should be asked to contribute to the writing of the publication through drafting sections of it and/or making comments on drafts, but it is understood that the level of participation is likely to be unequal.

4. The process of writing and revising for publication will generally continue after the completion of the student’s semester of research assistance. The student is expected to learn about the process of revising for publication and responding to reviews.

5. There should be an explicit discussion at the beginning of the process of the desired publication product and the student’s proposed work role and authorship on it. This understanding should be revisited at the end of the semester in light of the actual experience in the project, or whenever actual experience seems at variance with the initial agreement. The professor should not unilaterally remove the student from authorship; if the professor feels that the student’s performance is sub-par, there should be explicit and timely feedback about performance in the course of the semester, with suggestions for remediation. If the student is more proactive and involved in the research design and writing than initially expected, this may entail a shift in authorship order, and it is appropriate for a student to raise questions about this, but in general, students should assume that the professor will remain as first author on the project if that was the initial agreement.

6. As appropriate given the student’s level of performance and experience, professors and students should look for opportunities to define a project on which the student will be first author or for which the student’s level of involvement is independent enough for the project to become a master’s thesis, even if the professor remains first author. However, this is not a requirement for this kind of apprentice experience, especially for a first-year student or the first time a professor and student have worked together.

7. Projects that are most appropriate for this model have well-defined limits that can lead to a fairly rapid publication. However, some faculty could use research assistance for longer-term projects and book projects, and students can learn a great deal from assisting with such projects. In these cases, there should be a clear discussion the possibilities or lack thereof for coauthorship. If possible, the professor should seek to identify a smaller spin-off project that might go to publication more quickly.

Comments appreciated.


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

13 thoughts on “Coauthoring Norms 1: Assisting and Junior Authoring”

  1. Are there suggestions of ways to identify students for projects or will this be at the faculty member’s discretion?

  2. I am deeply concerned that this would formalize and normalize the practice of unpaid graduate student labor. Course credit is of little use to graduate students, because a) they invariably graduate with more than the maximum number of credits anyhow, and b) they can sign up for reading and research credits on an almost unlimited basis.

    I suggest it is fundamentally inappropriate to substitute paper authorship for actual compensation. Consider this from the faculty point of view: suppose the university somehow promised to give faculty members additional publication opportunities, and in exchange it would stop paying their salaries. I doubt a single faculty member would take that offer. Faculty, like graduate students, have to eat and pay rent. Graduate students who do work on a faculty-directed project that is substantial enough to consider co-authorship should be receiving BOTH pay in the financial sense AND co-authorship. Those faculty who think unpaid graduate student labor is exploitative are right.

    One might object, what about these students who aren’t getting picked up on paid assistantships – shouldn’t they get a chance at some C.V. building too? Yes, of course, but it should be paid. If a department has more graduate students than it can fund, and neither the university nor outside funding agencies are picking up the slack financially, then the inevitable solution is to admit fewer graduate students. There are already far more Ph.Ds. graduating than academic jobs available. It helps no one to bring in large cohorts that can’t even be employed during their time in the program. Notice I’m not saying anything about the criteria in the admissions process – that’s a separate discussion.

    Now, I am not saying graduate students can NEVER volunteer on a faculty project, nor am I saying faculty can never give co-authorship to a graduate student volunteer. I am saying there should not be a policy about this. These arrangements should be rare and exceptional, not a matter of rule. It should be a student genuinely volunteering, not a formalized process that risks growing into a de facto expectation or requirement in the future. I think the author of this proposal values student labor and sincerely wants to help. But this proposal is likely to create bigger problems in the future than it solves in the present.

    1. Thanks for your comment. At least in my department, there is no departmental funding at all for research assistants; all funded RAs are paid on external grants. All departmental funding is for TA positions. This is true more often than not, that universities fund TA positions only, not RAs, although there are exceptions. It is a fact of life in sociology that some subfields are more able to get external grants than others. So I wonder whether your position is that faculty working in areas that do not get external funding should simply do their research without research assistance and not try to train graduate students in an apprenticeship/coauthor model? That is pretty much our status quo, and students have been complaining about it. Supposing you are in a department where all grad students are funded as TAs? Is your position that none of them should ever do work on a professor’s project for the training experience? At the same time, it is reasonable to worry that it could become normative to expect students to do this whether they want to or not.

    2. Graduate student apprenticeship is great, but it should be characterized by basic fairness, including minimal living conditions for graduate students. Externally funded RA-ships absolutely qualify, and I am definitely not trying to discourage them. Get as many as you can, even if they only go to demographers (that’s a national problem, not solvable locally). What I mean to discourage is the norm of an un-funded assistantship.

      It may seem unfair for TAs who, perhaps because they do qualitative work, aren’t hired for RA-ships or PA-ships. But even with a TA-ship, students are supposed to have time and resources to develop their own research agenda. Otherwise, they are trapped and they’ll never finish a dissertation. If this is what’s happening, then they don’t have time to volunteer on faculty projects either. The issue seems to be this: are the forever-TAs really shut out of publishing unless they do additional unpaid labor? If the answer is yes, there really is a structural problem, and I doubt this proposal will help it much. I suggest letting them volunteer their time at their own discretion rather than formalizing it. At the risk of overstating, I hope some way can be found to let them eat and do research at the same time.

    3. Again, thanks for your comments. As I’d never imagined students being coerced into this kind of situation but rather seeking it for the training, I draw from your comments the importance of making it clear that this should be an optional, voluntary arrangement where both parties feel they are gaining something.

  3. This all sounds fine, with a couple of caveats. First, criteria for authorship vary widely across disciplines, and as more and more of us are being pressured to publish in interdisciplinary spaces, we should explicitly tackle these variations as part of the conversation. Students should understand why contributions to different papers that are targeted for different journals may have different conventions regarding number of authors, order of names, etc. Making this part of the discussion up front will help increase the transparency around authorship, so that decisions don’t seem arbitrary. Second, students should understand that authorship is never an entitlement of a collaboration, regardless of whether it’s paid or unpaid. While standards of authorship vary across disciplines, most have a common expectation that authors have contributed *substantially* to the analysis and the writing, and that they’ve approved the final manuscript that is submitted. Admittedly, the decision about what’s a substantial contribution can be a gray area, but it should mean more than grammatical and stylistic comments or data collection/data cleaning. This is especially important for papers or projects that may have a long gestational stage. If the student leaves the project or is unwilling or unable to continue to contribute at a level that warrants authorship, it is the right (and obligation) of the faculty member who’s directing the research to make a final call on the paper’s authorship.

  4. “I suggest it is fundamentally inappropriate to substitute paper authorship for actual compensation. Consider this from the faculty point of view: suppose the university somehow promised to give faculty members additional publication opportunities, and in exchange it would stop paying their salaries. I doubt a single faculty member would take that offer.” (Anon)

    I am kinda in this position right now although I’m neither faculty nor student. I am working full time as an RA to build my CV for graduate school but because of a rule of my PI’s that I wasn’t aware of before I was hired (if you want authorship, you are only paid half your time on the project and have to volunteer the other half, at least), I find myself sometimes working some 50-60 hours a week and/or 7 days a week so I can fulfill all my financial obligations and still keep on track of my academic goals. There are days I am still told it’s not enough hours. My PI doesn’t consider it exploitative. She says she’s doing me a favour by giving me publication because “other PIs don’t give authorship to those they pay.”

    1. Good grief, this sounds terrible. I have never heard of anybody claiming to substitute authorship for salary. I was talking about a situation where the professor has no money. And it is definitely NOT true that people who are doing paid RAs are not given coauthorships. What IS true is that there is a lot of variation in how much intellectual involvement in a project earns a coauthorship. Some people think coauthors really helped to write the paper, or at least played a major role in the direction it took. I do not, for example, offer coauthorships to the undergrads who collect and code data on the project but are not involved in planning the project, analyzing the data, or writing the paper. I did offer coauthorships to the grad students who helped design the data collection and analyze the data, with varying levels of involvement in writing. Not all the grad students who worked for me (for pay) got coauthorships, but getting paid did not prevent the coauthorship, nor was coauthorship a substitute for pay.

      I’m sure hoping this isn’t my department you are in. . . If so, I guess you’d better come talk to me. You know who I am.

      It is also true that grad school is always potentially exploitative because of the apprentice-like nature of the work and the dependence of grad students on a small number of (sometimes one) mentor. I would recommend talking confidentially to other students and faculty in your program to find out what they think the rules and norms are and what the practices are among faculty researchers in your area.

  5. Dear (Prof) olderwoman,
    Thank you for your speedy response. I actually don’t know who you are–I stumbled upon your blog by accident while taking a break from work on one of my late nights catching up on hours owed and found comfort in reading that there were faculty who saw things differently. For an RA busy ploughing away on work on Boxing Day instead of out celebrating, shopping, or resting, know that your words were immense comfort and were very much appreciated.
    As for me, in order to answer the rest of the stuff above, it would involve giving detailed info about the “unique” position I have landed myself in. That might give away my identity and/or my PI’s on a public forum so I would rather avoid that for now (I would be happy to tell *you*, just not for all of the internet!).
    I hope you have a wonderful holidays!

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