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Avoiding the Fight for First Authorship

Posted on August 7, 2014

Mary L. Phillips (bio) explains how she handles this sensitive situation in her lab.

 

My policy in my lab is that I never put myself first. I always say, OK, if you're the mentee, if it's your idea, or even if it's not your idea, if it's been my idea but I let you go with it, I like to give my mentees the option of being first author. But the understanding is that they write. At least they have the first go at writing the paper. And then I find that if once that is installed, then basically everything else is easier. Because there's no pressure to kind of — there's no fight for first. They know that they're the first author. And then obviously, and then we start negotiating who else might want to be involved.

And I'm usually senior author. I'm usually last but not always, depending on who else is being involved. So for me, I think that takes the pressure off. I don't expect myself to be first, absolutely. But I know that in other labs it works slightly differently. I think it depends on the person. Some people are more pushy and they expect to be first authors. Others are not. So I try and sort of break the ice by saying, "OK you go first, but the onus is on you now to produce the goods." And that said, if you can't — as a mentee if you're finding it challenging to produce and write the paper, then we'll ask someone else to take over. It's a kind of learning process. But on the subject of authorship, I mean when I was a junior person, it was kind of difficult at times. And, yeah, let's put it that way. It became a way, I guess for me it was a learning experience. Learning how to talk with my senior colleagues, my mentors, about authorship. And yeah, there were interesting discussions. But I think it's just another difficult area in research, which is why I like to be upfront about it right from the beginning.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2014 Career Development Institute for Psychiatry in Pittsburgh, PA.

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