coauthoring norms 1: assisting and junior authoring

I hope it will not disrupt the statistical discussions launched by Jeremy to launch a new line of discussion. 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.

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.

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. Or where the professor defines a project that a group of students can work on under her direction. It is NOT a model for the more egalitarian relations that develop organically.

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

14 thoughts on “coauthoring norms 1: assisting and junior authoring”

    1. Actually Peanuts was already up before I decided to post. I hope you don’t mind me stepping on you. I thought we would be doing well to have a variety of activity if we are trying to revive the blog.


      1. Ha. Yes, you are right about the variety of activity. Another methodology post from me this morning was a queueing accident–it was supposed to be something more, um, wacky.

        Are we having a timestamp problem if you posted after me and your post wasn’t put on top? I’ll change the timestamp on mine so you can have the top spot. Team blog etiquette!


  1. With your post, there are so many different issues. I mean, even just this alone:

    I have identified as one problem that many faculty consider it “exploitative” to involve students in their research if they are not being paid.

    Could set me off on a hurricane-name-study length series of posts. As a faculty member, I chronically have issues about not asking students about things because I come up with a scenario where it’s exploitative, but then it usually turns out that the students don’t feel that way at all when research is involved, as long as they are getting something out of it. What makes it weird is that I’m reticient about making requests as a faculty member that, had I been a student and a faculty member had asked me, I would clearly have had no problem with.


  2. “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.”

    Do the “meet with the RAs on my project” courses count toward a professor’s teaching obligations?

    It sounds like Olderwoman is talking about training early in the career, but a related issue is whether it’s OK for any or all of the articles in a three-article dissertation to be coauthored with a senior scholar, and under what circumstances. For students whose dissertations come out of their work as an RA on a faculty member’s project, or whose dissertations are direct outgrowths of the faculty member’s research agenda, the line between “independent work” and “coauthored work” can be blurry. This has always been true, but I suspect it’s becoming more salient as more students write three-article dissertations, and as pressures to get out of grad school quickly (but with multiple pubs) increase.


    1. In my department, this would NOT count towards a faculty member’s teaching obligation. I WOULD hope, however, to add metrics for students supervised or coauthored with as part of our annual performance reviews.

      I agree that the status of coauthored publications for theses and dissertations is also an important issue that should be the subject of a different “normative guidelines” memo.


  3. OW – I have one rather mundane suggestion: I would reorder the document so that number 5 is at the top. I think that the most important aspect of coauthorship are clear delineations of expectations early in the process.

    I had a conversation with one of my advisors when I was about 2/3 done with my graduate program. This advisor expressed a concern that she was exploiting me. I sincerely appreciated her concern, but I told her that I did not feel that way because she worked with me. By the time I left graduate school, we had two published articles together in good journals. Those two articles have opened more opportunities for me than any amount of money for being an RA would have.

    One approach that your proposal doesn’t currently address is the “workshop” model where students become involved through a research group. Although largely a quantitative approach, I do know of a couple of qualitative researchers that approach research this way as well. The biggest problem that I have seen in those situations is who “owns” the data. I think that it is important that expectations be set upfront as everyone joins the group.

    The additional problems raised by this include PI inclusion on manuscripts (do they have an expectation to be included on all publications), who “owns” an idea — if an idea is brought up by a student in the meeting do they have the right to run with it, how are analyses leading to different papers that overlap given priority to be one paper versus another, if someone “owns” an idea how long do they have before they give up their priority to research that idea, who on the group is included as coauthors?


    1. Thanks a lot, Mike. I agree that the workshop model needs some clear normative guidelines as well. Are there people with experience with such situations who can propose appropriate guidelines?


  4. I think you’re right on all of this. Yes, it’s appropriate, no it’s not exploitative, and yes it’s important to be explicit and thoughtful about roles.

    In a sense this issue arises from the uneasy coexistence of humanities-ish and science-ish work in sociology. Lots of good sociology isn’t funded research, and so insisting upon payment for grad students would further denigrate these unfunded but intellectually important areas. And honestly, a well-respected publication could be worth more money in the long run than a small stipend.

    That said, if a study *is* well funded, it seems appropriate to pass along some of that funding to involved students. And first authorhood is a substantive designation about leading the project, not about faculty status; so professors should be first author only when they actually are leading the effort.


  5. I’m copying here a comment posted over on my personal blog where I authorized anonymous comments on the post, because it raises exactly the point that is potentially contentious, in case scatterplotters are interested in engaging this issue further (supposing they ever see the comment).

    Here is anonymous’s comment:

    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.

    Here is my reply:

    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.


    1. I am not sure where this poster’s comments leave graduate students. The faculty seem to be put in a position then to: 1) find funding for a student to work on a project; 2) not work with graduate students; 3) hope that a graduate student volunteers.

      The consequences for graduate students that flow from 1) are that graduate students in certain well-funded sub-fields will have the opportunity to publish and others won’t, which will exacerbate existing inequality across sub-fields. Not only that, the graduate students in that sub-field will also develop professional relationships that will help them on their own research and leave those in poorly funded sub-fields years behind or in a position to have to build those relationships on their own.

      The consequences for 2) is that students are left to flounder without a clear sense of the nuts-and-bolts of publication. They do not have the opportunity to work with a senior advisor to see how one goes about crafting a paper; experience that will no doubt help their own career. They are also left in the position that they must develop their own research question, collect their own data, and conduct their own analysis without the benefit of any experience. That is unless they volunteer, which leads to option 3).

      But the consequences of 3) are precisely what prompted this discussion in the first place. Now the student is left to volunteer with only vague rules that guide expectations and obligations of the parties. As trained sociologists, I think that we can pretty safely assume that informal cultural norms lead to inequality along predictable dimensions: this system will favor those who come from academic families, who are persistent and don’t pay a penalty for being perceived as aggressive (i.e., men), those who end up with collaboration through informal conversations rather than a formal process for establishing codes and expectations.

      Finally, I think the poster’s analogy is apt, but not in a way that s/he realizes:

      …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.

      My salary as a sociology professor comes primarily from teaching. If I were to, say, buy out my course load for the academic year (which I would not do), I would need to pay the university approximately 70% of my salary. We can safely assume that the university expects at least another 10% of my time to be spent on service, though the actual number ends up being closer to 15-20%. Based on the university’s own policies somewhere between 80-90% of my time is reserved for non-research activities. Two-thirds to three-quarters of my tenure case, however, will be evaluated based on my research. That leads do a large bulk of my research over the summer, time not covered on my nine month academic contract.

      I get a (comfortable) salary based on my teaching that allows me to live comfortably while I work outside of my the time my employer and I negotiated for my work. I do not see how a TA job, if the hours are suitably restricted*, is qualitatively different than this experience.

      * The suitable restriction of work hours is a compelling case for graduate student unions. During my time as an officer of my graduate student local, I would say about 60-75% of grievances that we filed were related to the language we negotiated around work hours. That only includes those grievances that were submitted to the union office and does not include those that were worked out at the department level because we had a strong contract and a widespread education campaign about work hours.


  6. I don’t think this suggestion is radical at all. It’s common sense. This kind of experience is vital to growing graduate student experience, and growing their publication records. If only paid RA’s work with faculty and publish with them, the inequality of training and length of vita would be outrageous, especially in departments where most students work as TA’s not RA’s. But I think it works just as well to develop this as a normative faculty and student experience then as a formal bureaucratic set of rules….I think that this opportunity for grad students is not considered “work” as much as co-authoring and professional experience and so falls entirely out of union regulatory conditions. In the two departments i’ve worked in this is simply built into the normative expectations of faculty and student life. Why codify it?


    1. “Why codify?” I’m trying to write down norms, not create “formal bureaucratic rules.” The reason to write the norms down is because we are in a department that mixes RA and TA funding, and the normative expectations are not well defined and many students are left out in the cold with no research experience. (Also students in the RA track are left without teaching experience, so they have concerns as well. That’s another issue, I’m trying to deal with in another way.) You can tell from the comments here and on my personal blog that this is not as uncontroversial as most people seem to think. I’m finding the discussion on the blogs and in my email (I sent the personal blog link to faculty and students in my department) very instructive in terms of the range of perspectives and issues being brought up.


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