Feelings of betrayal, confusion and outrage flooded second-year graduate student Justin Clemens (a pseudonym) when he saw that his name was omitted from the initial version of a journal article for which he spent a year single-handedly designing the research methodology. Adding insult to injury, two professors who had barely contributed to the study were listed, the student says.
"I had been promised second authorship," says Clemens. "I don't know if she forgot or what, but [in the end] I barely made it on as fourth author."
Stories like this are the stuff of graduate students' nightmares, notes Mark Fine, PhD, a human development and family studies professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"Publications are major capital-when students are not given proper credit, it is money taken out of the bank," says Fine, who authored an article on the subject in the American Psychologist (Vol. 48, No. 11, pages 1,141-1,147). Universities and even some private companies make hiring decisions based on the number of articles students have authored, with first-authorships being especially important, he notes.
The good news: Such incidents are relatively rare-with roughly 10 percent of psychology faculty and graduate students reporting they had been involved in a situation where someone did not receive enough credit on a journal article, according to a recent article in Ethics & Behavior (Vol. 15, No. 1, pages 65-80).
"It looks like people receiving too much credit is a more common problem," says study author Jeffrey Sandler, a first-year graduate student in criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany. In fact, about 20 percent of the 602 APA members he surveyed reported being party to an incident in which either a student or a professor received too much credit, he notes.
And while graduate students often have relatively less power and authority than their collaborators-especially when that collaborator is an adviser-they can do much to ensure they get the credit they deserve on publications such as journal articles and conference papers. Here's how.
KNOW THE SCORE
Because students are relatively new to academe, they may not know what kind of work generally merits credit for publications, says Simon Bartle, PhD, an industrial and organizational psychologist for Genworth Financial. Students may expect more credit than they deserve or not expect credit when they should get it, says Bartle who, as a graduate student, surveyed 135 psychology faculty members and 68 graduate students about what kind of work merits author credit.
According to the study, published in Psychological Reports (Vol. 86, No. 1, pages 771-788), faculty and students agree that the degree of intellectual contribution to a study should determine author order. In particular, coming up with the idea for the study and writing the paper were the two activities considered most worthy of author credit. The respondents rated designing the study and analyzing the data as secondarily important, and data collection and entry as relatively unimportant.
Most respondents agreed that seniority should not be taken into account when assigning credit.
These responses fit with APA's Ethics Code, which states that only scientific and professional contributions-not seniority-should be taken into consideration when determining authorship of a publication ("What the code says").
"Running subjects and data entry can be very hard work, but developing a hypothesis or a methodology for testing it-that is a different kind of contribution," says Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, director of APA's Ethics Office.
But when students do contribute intellectually to an experiment, they should receive author credit, he notes. Students may be asked to accept lower billing than they deserve so that senior researchers' names can be placed higher on the list, potentially increasing the likelihood that the paper will be accepted in a top-tier journal. But such a ploy is intellectually dishonest-and results in less credit for students, says Behnke.
NEGOTIATE EARLY AND OFTEN
The best way to avoid an issue with authorship is to discuss credit before starting a research project, says Fine. In the case of student-faculty collaboration, the faculty member is responsible for initiating the discussion, but students would be smart to bring up the topic if the faculty member lets it drop, he says.
"Most research groups have regular meetings-a student asking to put authorship on the agenda would be very appropriate," Fine says.
During such a conversation, the researchers decide the roles of each person in the project and the order of the authors on the paper, he says. This allows people to negotiate how much work they are willing to do for their slot on the author list. It also helps organize the experiment and keeps the project moving smoothly, says Fine.
Some research groups even use contracts to solidify the deal ("Prevention on paper").
However, the decisions made during this initial discussion should not be set in stone: Collaborators should keep the discussion of authorship open as the project progresses, Fine suggests. For example, the person who agreed to be second author may take the lead on a substantial paper revision, and could end up deserving first-author billing. Or perhaps a member of the research team might drop out of the project-which could merit a "special thanks" instead of co-author credit.
Such discussions can be awkward, notes Patrick Bennett, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at Indiana State University.
"It's hard to say 'I think I should be getting more credit for this amount of work,'" he says. "But most professors are open to calm, thoughtful discussions."
However difficult authorship is to talk about openly, doing so prevents problems further down the road, says Behnke.
"Problems are more likely to arise when people aren't talking," he says.
CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES
In the case that an authorship question can't be resolved through informal discussions, students must decide if the problem is worth pursuing or if they should drop it, Bennett says. Students have a doubly difficult decision when the dispute is with their adviser-someone whose support is essential to getting through graduate school, says Bennett.
In some cases, the potential gain is not worth the damage it can do to professional relationships, he notes. For example, pushing for third authorship rather than fourth is probably not worth the effort, says Bennett.
"But if it is between first authorship or later authorship-if it really is your project-that is probably a time when you want to broach the subject, because that does make a difference in getting jobs later down the line," he says.
A student in such a situation may choose to approach the university ombudsperson, department chair or a trusted faculty member to discuss ways to deal with the problem, says Behnke. Such action can lead to third-party mediation within the university to handle the dispute, he notes. Students can also call the APA Ethics Office to consult about what course of action to take or even file a formal complaint.
"But by the time it gets to that, that really means the system has broken down," Behnke notes. "You can do so much to avoid getting to that point."