That Authorship Talk Though...


In every STEM graduate student's career there comes a point in time where an awkward conversation is not just necessary, but critical to the future of that student's scientific career. I'm talking about "The Authorship Talk."

This is a conversation that you may need to have with a principal investigator (PI), postdoctoral researchers, collaborators and/or anyone else that contributed to the scientific work in question. Why is this conversation awkward? Because, unfortunately, the order in which your name appears on a publication impacts each scientists future endeavours... A lot. Even if you don't want to be in academia, the difference between having two first authors and two second author publications is staggering, and could quite literally be the difference between you getting a job or not. Fighting for that first author position, and the corresponding authorship, can often get ugly... fast, especially in large collaborative scientific endeavours.

The publish or perish culture of academia strikes again, and has unfortunately brewed an environment that can be especially toxic during these sorts of already difficult conversations.

Sometimes, graduate students can completely lack any sort of control over these situations. This lack of control is just part of the graduate school experience. However, (hope is not all lost!) there are steps that all graduate students should and can take to have a successful authorship talk. And yet, many graduate students completely butcher this conversation, as did I in my first graduate school publication... but that's a story for another time.

There are two main mechanisms by which graduate students can completely foil this crucial authorship conversation: (1) through avoidance or (2) through the ego.

Let's start with the more obvious one,... avoidance. By and large, graduate student's won't touch this conversation with a ten foot pole, and often defer to what their PI's say. To those of you reading this who agree with this "I'll do whatever my PI wants" mantra, I have a few choice words:

To quote the formidable Karen Kelsky from "The Professor is In," STOP ACTING LIKE A GRADUATE STUDENT! As I said above, no matter how inane it seems to care about where your name shows up on a publication, it actually does matter a lot, most especially if you want to stay in academia and become a professor. So, buckle up, be your own best friend, and do have this conversation.

But how should you do this and not upset your coworkers, boss etc? You have a lot of options here. The best thing to do is to initiate this conversation before all of the experiments have been performed. Do not wait until the figures are finalized and the introduction is written to make your case. In fact, before you start on a project, you should meet with you PI and straight up say, "I would like to get working on my first 1st author publication, here are some ideas I have, what do you think." In other words, take initiative! Start this conversation early and have it often.

Perhaps you have not had this conversation early, but you feel that you have done enough work to merit first authorship. Make a list of all the tasks that you did versus all the tasks that others performed in order for this publication to take shape. Did you design any of the experiments? Did you outline the paper? Did you produce any of the figures? What about troubleshooting and performing the experiments. If after making this list, and checking it twice, you are having a hard time figuring out what author you should be, this is now an ethical concern, and you should either seek ethics counseling from a school ethics official or you can request ethics counseling from us at STEMing through one-on-one mentorship.

Perhaps you have not avoided this conversation but instead you have run into issues and started having arguments with coworkers or your PI regarding your authorship. It is very likely that you are now facing concerns of the ego, either yours or theirs (or both). This issue is slightly more difficult to combat, as it requires an incredible amount of self-awareness. You need to start with the heart (shout out to the life changing book "Crucial Conversations" for this advice), and ask yourself:

Why do I want this authorship in the context of my longer term goals?

Will you settle for nothing else besides being a professor at an R01 university with a huge lab and copious funding opportunities? Or are you really happy doing research but not necessarily sold on this academia thing? Will you suffer in the long run from not achieving the authorship your currently aiming for? Or is there something else short of the authorship that you are seeking that would make you equally as happy? Be creative here, usually there are other things to be gained in these circumstances that enable you to maintain a positive and healthy interpersonal relationship with your coworkers and PI while also earning what you deserve. When in doubt, also come back to making a list and checking it twice.

Yes, it is difficult to have "The Authorship Talk." But burying your head in the sand or sticking your nose in the air only makes it that much harder. Do yourself a favor, look your PI in the eye and face the conversation head on, with honesty and clarity as early as you can in the writing process. Do this, and you will find your time in graduate school will be that much easier.


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