Why does my lab head want to be first author on MY research paper? — R Voice

Why does my lab head want to be first author on MY research paper?

Jayashree Rajagopalan
Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 262 admin
edited October 2021 in Self-care & Wellbeing

Anonymous question:

My lab head just dropped a big hint that I MUST add his name as the first author for my paper - which he has had nothing to do with. How do I deal with this? There's no easy way of saying this, but he had nothing to do with my research or the writing part of the paper. Yet, he emailed me to say that he would like me to add him as first author of my paper. I don't think this is normal or right. Is there a way for me to find out? Is it okay for me to ask around in my lab? Will I be guilty of something if I ask others about whether this has also happened with them? Can I complain about my lab head to someone? Also, I am trying to look at this/address this without feeling frustrated - that eventually not matter what I do, I may have to do what he asks. 😣 I feel really frustrated about this. Did I add that this is the first ever research publication of my life!


  • chris leonard
    chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 156 admin
    edited February 2021

    Happened to me on my first paper, and also with a patent. I was young and just wanted to get them both 'done' and 'out there' so I went along with it, knowing in my heart it was probably not right. There are ways to acknowledge contributions to papers where the person doesn't qualify for authorship. You might want to suggest that you adopt the CREDIT model to your paper to spell out exactly what each author did - and that might shame him/her into backing down: https://casrai.org/credit/

    ICMJE have some great author guidelines too: http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html

    But ultimately, it's a politic decision. You have to work with this person for the next X years, and they will be the official first line of help for you, so it's not a decision to take lightly. I would explain that you're not happy about it, suggest CREDIT, but ultimately it may be a necessary evil :-(

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 262 admin

    Thanks for sharing this, @chris leonard Although it doesn't seem great that you had to go with it even though you knew this may not be the best course. The CREDIT model is an interesting one. I understand that this could vary across research groups but I do hope we move towards a place in academia where this stops being a necessary evil.

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭

    This is an unnecessary evil in academia.

    No, it is not right. No, it is not supposed to be normal. But it is normalized unfortunately.

    Thanks, @chris leonard for bringing up the credit model.

    Unfortunately, as pointed out before - there is very little you can do about this given the power disparity, bearing in mind your own future. If you can, you can try to negotiate a middle ground - how about being co-first author? Or "equal contribution"? Try to get the most out of this situation for yourself and your future.

    I would recommend you to avoid talking about this with your labmates - unless, you trust them - also for your own wellbeing. I am unsure if yours is a functional workplace with healthy interactions given what seems to be lax ethics at the leadership level. If you trust people, go ahead. But...there is always a risk of a dirty situation precipitating out, which might be an unnecessary extra burden for you. Please ensure however, you talk to someone - the university counselling services/pastoral care. But I would strongly recommend you to choose to not continue to work with this supervisor - once you get your degree or complete your stay. If you can, perhaps - write an article about this in science worklife column. The column accepts articles even written anonymously - if you wish so. Somewhat like this one.

    This would put it on record and spur conversations around such topics on a much wider level.

    [This is why training and sensitization in ethics - especially for leaders with power - is vital in academia. Sadly, this is something that is changing at a snail's pace. But there are changes here and there].

    For your personal frustration - most of us here understand with what you are feeling. Having also shared similar experiences. Please use this platform to vent. As I mentioned, please do talk to someone - friends outside lab/university counselling services, etc. But please dont let this bog you down for too long. This is not going to be your last paper. What has happened is not right - but the onus of dirt is on the other person, not on you. May this experience also help you choose better bosses (or even people in general) later in life.

  • Dahlia T
    Dahlia T Member Posts: 93 ✭✭✭✭

    (Some) universities/faculties/departments/labs have written guidelines regarding authorship. Do you know if any such thing exist for your specific 'faculty or department or lab'? These may differ from university to university, from department to department, and even within departments. There may be variations and different expectations in who gets listed as author and in what order they are listed. There may also be unique differences based on the field of study. Nevertheless, there should be some common statements, explaining how authorship works etc etc. When your manuscript is accepted by a journal, normally all authors have to submit an authorship agreement which specifies each person's contribution, whether they 'conceived of the concept/idea', 'performed the data collection', 'wrote the first draft', 'provided feedback and guided the writing', etc etc. If you say your supervisor " had nothing to do with my research or the writing part of the paper", perhaps now is a good time to safely pretend ignorance and ask if he could explain how authorship works in academia and in your lab. To get a sense of his reasoning behind this request and also to provide you with some clarity/peace of mind for future manuscripts. I know it may be challenging but when you do, try to ask the question using a vague/curiosity tone ... not a confrontational/defensive one. Perhaps you could also reach out to your school's 'ethics board'.

    I am purposefully driven to water the soil to grow the seed that is already planted.