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Yellow pencils in a container

As a beginning graduate student, Brian Ayotte got an early lesson in the importance of good communication. He jumped into an already-underway research project with two professors and spent months working on the study. He expected that he might receive some authorship credit for the research, but when the paper came out he was only mentioned in a footnote.

"We ended up having a post-hoc discussion about the authorship credit," Ayotte says. "The experience made me aware of the fact that, instead, you need to have that discussion extremely early in the research process."

Now, as a doctoral student in the lifespan development program at West Virginia University, Ayotte is developing an authorship contract that faculty, students and other researchers can use to spur that discussion.

The contract, which includes a checklist of research responsibilities, allows researchers to delineate who will be responsible for different aspects of the research and what their place on the authorship line will be-all before beginning the project.


Ayotte based the contract on a 1985 article by psychologist Roger Winston, PhD, in the Journal of Counseling and Development (Vol. 63, No. 9, pages 515-518) that suggested a procedure for determining authorship order.

The contract includes a list of all the tasks that a research project includes, such as concept development, literature search, research design, Institutional Review Board coordination, data collection and writing. Researchers use the checklist to begin a discussion of who will be responsible for each task and how the work will be shared. Then, each task is assigned a point value, and those point values are used to decide who will be an author and the authorship order.

"One of the biggest misconceptions students have is that time equals authorship," Ayotte says. "The time you put into a study is only one factor."

Ayotte, who is a member of APA's Science Student Council (SSC), plans to post the contract on the SSC Web site soon, and to use it in his own upcoming research.


Ayotte's contract has already been put to at least one real-world test. SSC member David Acevedo, a sixth-year graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Kentucky, used the contract to set the authorship terms at the beginning of his most recent research project. The study, which is developing an approach for conducting applied psychological assessments with Latinos in the United States, began this summer.

"It involves several people from my department, several people from a different department at my school and several people from a different state," Acevedo says. "So I thought it would be a great case study."

So far, he says, the contract is working well-even the researchers who were at first a bit taken aback by the novelty of the idea have come around. Tamara Brown, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the study's co-authors, was a fan from the beginning.

"Authorship decisions can be difficult because there is so much subjectivity," she says. "This didn't eliminate that entirely, but it did bring more objectivity to the process."

The contract did that by spelling out who would do which tasks by what days and what position they'd get on the authorship line, Acevedo notes. He's also compiling weekly e-mail updates from each researcher, so that all the team members can be assured that everyone is staying on schedule. At the end of the project, Acevedo says, all the researchers will vote to make sure that they still agree on the authorship positions. "The contract clarified expectations," Acevedo says. "I think it really can help your relationship with the people you're working with, because it makes it easier to function as a group and resolve disputes."