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Students call for review of scientific paper co-authorship

Many say their work is not getting the recognition it deserves from professors.


Isabelle, a PhD candidate in sociology, finds herself in a delicate situation: being the lead author of a scientific article that was poorly reworked by one of her professors. “The article is so bad, I can’t publish it,” she says, after requesting that her identity be kept secret. Along with 20 other students, Isabelle shared her experience during a workshop about recognizing student researchers that took place during the Journée de la relève en recherche in Montreal in September.

The workshop was organized by the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas), a not-for-profit organization that promotes the advancement of science in Quebec and other francophone communities in Canada. The workshop’s purpose was to discuss ways of promoting the work done by student researchers, but a common theme soon emerged: inappropriate co-authorship practices for scientific articles.

Each student had a story to tell. One found himself relegated to third author despite a contribution he describes as “colossal.” Another said that, in his department, professors’ names are often added to articles they had no part in.

“Co-authoring practices are problematic, but no one dares say as much because everyone relies on the system in place. It’s the elephant in the room,” said Vincent Larivière, assistant professor at Université de Montréal’s school of library and information science.

Authoring is the cornerstone of a researcher’s career development. The more articles published as lead author, the greater the chances of being awarded grants, becoming a tenured professor, being appointed chair, and so on. “It’s a bargaining chip,” said Dr. Lariviére.

But students claim to have trouble raising their “chip’s” worth in the current system because of their low status in the university hierarchy. “There’s a power relationship between professor and student,” said Isabelle, “so demanding our fair share is not easy.”

Max Roy, president of the Quebec Federation of University Professors (FQPPU), disagreed. In an interview, he said that complaints about the authoring of scientific articles are rare. “There may be the occasional misunderstanding, since in research it is often difficult to determine who should get the credit for an idea.”

Lack of consensus

At the end of the Journée de la relève en recherche, students proposed various solutions: document exemplary co-authoring practices; promote discussion between professors and students regarding publications, funding and assistantship; gather more information on the mechanisms of publishing scholarly papers; seek better guidance in drafting their first articles.

But it’s unclear whether these ideas will be put into practice. Each discipline, each university, even each research team has its own approach. Generally, biomedical research articles have the most authors, while business articles usually only have two. Some laboratory managers insist on having their name appear first, whereas others systematically add theirs last. The result is widespread dissatisfaction. “There is uneasiness even between professors,” noted Marc Couture, co-author of the book Propriété intellectuelle et université and a professor at TÉLUQ, Quebec’s distance university.

At the heart of the problem lies the definition of “significant contribution,” he said. “As defined by law, for an author to have made a substantial contribution, he or she must have had a hand in drafting the text,” said Dr. Couture. “But in the scientific world, co-authors can include professors who contribute financially to a research project, students who performed statistical analyses or researchers who provided ideas. Without their contribution, the article would probably never have been written.”

Transparency and dialogue

He went on to say that students, to make their voices heard, “can appeal to their association. They can also increase their knowledge about intellectual property and their school’s policies on research ethics and scientific integrity. This would allow them to build stronger arguments to present to the research supervisor.”

Professors also have responsibility, added Dr. Larivière. “They must demonstrate transparency with respect to their co-authoring practices. Students have the right to know what they must do to be listed as lead author.”

Some students negotiate before accepting a research contract. “If I consider my work to be important enough for me to be named lead author, I say so at the very beginning,” noted a master’s student in social work at the workshop. “Professors are surprised by this, but discussions are always respectful. So far, this approach has served me well.”

Isabelle agreed that talking openly about the issue is a step in the right direction. “We need to get the word out,” she said. “Too many students are not being recognized. Some of them even get to the point of no longer wanting to collaborate with professors who are known for encroaching on their students’ work.”

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  1. Prof. Jack Miller / October 30, 2013 at 14:12

    The problem is a significant one and is very discipline dependant. In the worst cases the person who does the most work and writing doesn’t get their name on the paper. The order of the authors names varies with research group, University, discipline, journal etc., with senior author first, OR last, or authors alphabetical. I’ve always gone by the “*” indicating the author to whom enquires should be directed.

    Jack Miller, retired AVP Research and Dean of Graduate Studies.

  2. Stanley Greenspoon / November 4, 2013 at 13:46

    Co-authorship of a paper should represent a significant contribution to the intellectual content of it,not only a financial contribution, mention of which properly belongs in the acknowledgements. Relative to financial contribution by a professor,the statement “Without their contribution, the article would probably never have been written.” not only misses the above point but ignores the fact that the financial contribution is not from the professor’s personal resources, but rather from a granting agency, such as NSERC, whose resources are tax dollars paid by all Canadians. Thus, giving a professor co-authorship of a paper based only on his/her financial contribution is even less justified than giving every Canadian taxpayer co-authorship of every paper for which the reaearch was supported by tax dollars.

    Regarding the ordering of authors of a paper, professors who cheat their students of appropriate priority in the authorship list are, in my opinion, beneath contempt.