This post is an opportunity to work out my thought on a couple issues. It is inspired by a dialogue that came about organically from a posted comment by a reader.
The misconceptions I address here are loaded with feelings about what is right and what is wrong. These cannot be avoided because scholars and early scholars bring different perspectives to the act of doing research, but as Marshal Poe writes, our perspectives on right and wrong are very much tied to the times- the way we communicate and who gets to communicate to whom about what and how often (2011). Had this issue arose at my workplace, I probably would not find out about it because of the nature of the issue; some topics can be discussed on a blog at another university that would not be welcome at one’s own institution. That’s one area where the blog excels. It creates a fruitful venue to discuss topics outside of one’s own institution.
This discussion started as a comment to Publishing as a graduate student and developed into something worth a little more space than the comment trail, I think. What follows is the email discussion with a few headers added in after the fact. Eric Hufford, the author of these questions and the unfortunate graduate student in the pickle described in this post, is a senior software engineer in Maryland with 10 years of experience in the field of software engineering. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science and is pursuing a Masters in Software Engineering as well as an MBA. Eric’s words are in italics.
Eric: Thank you for this fantastic information. I do have one question for you though, as I am struggling with this before I submit my paper. I wrote a paper for a graduate course. The paper I plan on submitting is exactly as I turned it in to the course with absolutely zero input from or collaboration with the professor. In fact, his entire involvement with the paper was approving the topic (it was a term paper) and grading it. Yet he is telling me that since I wrote it for his course, he needs to be listed as an author. I strongly disagree with his statement. Is this something I should be concerned about? Do I really need to add him as an author?”
Craig: Wonderful question and thank you for submitting it. I will use headers to organize and emphasize my points, because this response is lengthy.
Know the conventions of your field
The instructor quite possibly expects you to know the authoring conventions for your field, and may not deem it their responsibility to teach you these conventions if you do not know them. There are a few things that need to be clarified prior to saying that your professor is outright wrong for claiming and authorship role on your paper. First off, this blog post was meant for graduate learners in Instructional Technology, but might also be broadly applicable to social science research in general. I don’t know your field of study. Much depends on the conventions in your field. If your paper was developed from someone’s course which included access to a lab where data was collected, it is very likely that authorship listing the lab leader is the most appropriate convention. His comment may be a direct result of a convention of the field.
The convention may also hinge on his input in your writing process prior to submission. If the paper topic was developed iteratively with the professor, that in itself may very well constitute input worthy of authorship. Your professor might also be refereeing to content in the paper that was derived from teachings in the course, in which case the professor would be making a legitimate claim. Both contributions and conventions should be discussed prior to any submission of the article anywhere. Graduate students should inform themselves of some of the more general conventions using authorship guidelines published for their appropriate field. There are guidelines out there for determining authorship. In my field, Instructional Technology, AECT has some, but more generally, there is an APA guide online. Read it closely. Knowing these conventions will help you learn more from your discussion about authorship with your professor. This is a key learning step in graduate school and one often overlooked in the process from admission to graduation, and possibly the root cause behind the uncomfortable feelings expressed in the comment.
Course papers are not journal articles
Course papers are never journal articles, they are, at best, first drafts of journal articles. There’s still a long way to go. Secondly, one phrase in your question strikes in me a note of caution, “The paper I plan on submitting is exactly as I turned it in to the course.” This strategy runs the risk of getting a swift and straightforward rejection, needlessly uses the time of an editor at the journal you submit to, and moreover, runs you the risk of sparking a negative image of your work in the eyes of the editor. No paper should go to submission raw. Now that the course is over, re-read the writer’s guidelines of the proposed venue, and make sure you are familiar with the prospective journal’s most recent publications on the topic you cover. I expect there’s a fair bit of editing to do. I have heard students complain that established professors can submit less polished drafts than students and get away with it. I am not fully convinced this is true. Scholars that have been dealing with a topic for many years may have a battery of key phrases and can use shorthand to express concepts and other ideas. A learner’s text faces the formidable obstacle of being a relatively new topic, and without the crafted language at the tips of your fingers, it must be well crafted though scrutiny and revision. You haven’t been reading/writing for enough years to know them all the phrases you need, and a facility with them only comes with extended exposure.
Collaboration might be viewed very differently by you and your instructor
Collaborations must be mutually beneficial, and he may be seeing the submission as roping him into work. More strategically, it would be wise to rethink your take on collaboration in the field. From the perspective of the student, credit for a single-authored publication might be paramount. However, from the perspective of scholars in the field, it is likely not so. The co-authored paper is worth more, not less. When a potential candidate’s cv evidences multiple collaborations that resulted in publications, it sends a far stronger message of competence than a cv with a few single authored published papers. Scholars publish dozens of articles over their career, and their co-authoring relationships evidence the breadth of their participation with topics of interest to others doing work worthy of publication. There is much to gain from collaboration and showing that you work well with your professors, even if this particular professor does not spur in you the desire for a long term identity of association. You have far more to gain from the professor’s name being on the byline than you have to gain from being sole-author, even if you plan on never co-authoring with this professor again. Your paper is also more likely to be read because inclusion in the professor’s online archive may draw readers surfing your professor’s publications, and it may also heighten your rank in internet searches if your professor is more published than you are—which is more often the case than it is not.
Having the conversation is smarter than not having the authorship conversation
Strategize your work here. The goal right now is still to learn, and this is a learning opportunity. At this point, your task is to get yourself informed about the appropriate conventions for authorship, make strides in the development of the paper for publication, and bring the draft back to your professor to have a more informed conversation about the draft and target venue. It may feel like eating humble pie, but it’s not. Even if you are vastly more experienced and it is a junior faculty member you’re dealing with (which does happen as grad students come from all walks of life and faculty can come straight from successive years of schooling) what you do not want is to publish the paper without the professor’s approval, especially with verbatim sections from the paper you submitted in the course. That runs the risk of you being marked as someone who does not give credit where credit is due, could alienate you from other scholars in the future, and potentially endanger your completion of the program where you are now. Expulsions for plagiarism do happen.
Eric: The paper in question was an end-of-term paper for a Software Engineering course, and I have scoped out a few different journals and honed in on two that I feel may be a good fit. I plan on re-tooling the paper to fit within the journal guidelines, but other than that, I plan on submitting the same basic paper. That is to say, I do not intend on taking any input from the professor’s review before I submit it. It sounds as if he is attempting to take credit for his student’s work even though he had no involvement in the process of creating the paper. [He only taught the course in which the paper was submitted.] Do I really need to add him as an author?
Craig: Yes, but more importantly, why fight it when the outcome (s)he proposed actually favors you? Nevertheless, the issues you raise here are endemic to graduate school, and actually, really important. Every year this issue pops up somewhere- often between a junior faculty and a senior doc student. I really think pushing this to a richer discussion might uncover something valuable for other grad students and those who teach grad students. So, let me ask you this– do you think it was something in the classroom dynamic that lead you to want to publish the paper without his name on it? Is there something the unnamed faculty member didn’t do that s/he should have done? What brought you to so fervently want to publish it without his name on it?
Eric: I’ll answer your last question first before going back to your first two. “What made me feel like I didn’t need to include him as an author?” I suppose it is relevant to provide some background information on myself. I am a professional software engineer with about 10 years’ experience in the industry. I finally decided to pursue a masters’ degree and an MBA. This particular course was entirely online so I never really developed a rapport with the professor. While he is a senior faculty member and appeared to be a fairly competent fellow, the course content was nothing new to me. I never opened the book, nor did I ever have any conversations with the professor beyond those required to complete the course (like approving my term paper topic). In other words, the class was a breeze, I received an A and moved on with my life. With that said, I felt that it would not be necessary to add his name as an author because he and I had a very minimal amount interaction, and it was only ever via email. There was never a relationship or any sense of loyalty. However, I try to remain open minded as best I can, which is why I came across your post and asked my question. I simply didn’t want to do the wrong thing and have it come back to bite me later. I was also under the impression that if I shared authorship, that my involvement in the paper would be diluted, which I assumed would reflect less upon me. In your response, what convinced me to include his name on the paper regardless of how little he did, was your argument that it looks better on me to have a co – authored paper. You mentioned that it would make it look like I perform well with others and, more importantly, if he is well published, my paper will get more visibility than it ever would under my single authorship. This may sound heartless and blunt, but these are the things that matter most to me about publishing my paper. Your answer surprised me, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but it made a ton of sense.
Craig: The online dynamic raises lots of curious questions.
Unspoken information may be lost in the lean media you employ
The default tone of email is negative. There is a lot of communication and broader message lost in your choice of communication tools. Low-interaction online courses can be a breeding ground for conflicting perspectives, especially if they appear early on in the program of study. In order to create a smoother pedagogical experience for both learners and the instructor, some programs require foundational courses that may fall below what an advanced learner is expecting. In such cases, the indebtedness of the learner to the knowledge of the professor is a stretch for advanced learners to recognize, and surprisingly often, that lack of indebtedness is completely justified, especially in online classes where the direct instruction is limited. In some online classes, it’s not hard to imagine just anyone teaching the course if it basically runs by itself with little instructor-student interaction. A close working relationship is implied by a shared byline, but in a course where the interaction has been so little, it is bound to feel weird to share credit. At the same time, it is difficult for the instructor to recognize the insights did not come from the course, especially if those insights could have been inferred from the materials assembled by the professor. I wonder if such a misunderstanding is the case in your context.
The lean media of online instruction often limit users to text interactions. This often requires a seasoned online instructor to recognize insights that break from course materials into new ground for the learner. Junior faculty with limited online experience, and even seasoned faculty who are new to the online format, may be relying on cues that simply are not there in online interactions to recognize when a learner is breaking from simply what they have been taught, into original research. He may well have thought you were simply building from the given materials. Having not opened the book puts you at a significant disadvantage when arguing that you didn’t learn x or y from a course of study, and at the same time, sometimes it takes a seasoned online teacher to recognize truly original work.
Lack of clear expectations can kill a research project
It sounds like there are differing expectations, none of which are written down. On top of this, instructors may be working with a hidden curriculum that is never made explicit to the learner. Online faculty may have tacit expectations of a set of rules of interaction leading to co-authorship with grad students, and at least in my experience, rarely are these understandings made explicit in a course syllabus or other materials that the online learner is exposed to. With online learning we generally default back to the face to face rules until people figure out a better way to proceed and new conventions are adopted, but we rarely make it as explicit as it should be. Who wants to read, nonetheless write, a set of conduct rules? In graduate programs, for all the documents we produce, there are still topics navigate via intuition instead of explicit guidelines. How often do graduate students read the handbook anyway? I know I did not labor of over such a document until an issue arose. While I would say it is the responsibility of the instructor to make those rules transparent as best they can, the large number of exceptions makes that goal pretty far reaching and arguably infeasible, especially for someone who is not used to teaching online where there is far more emphasis placed on documenting procedures.
Advanced students may also not be aware that in the context of the professor, they may feel they are working at a disadvantage to their peers. If a professor teaches exclusively online, working relationships with students may be very challenging to construct. I know that in my experience at Texas A&M, it was definitely a challenge. In many schools, professors are expected to publish with their students, and for a faculty member teaching a significant portion online, I could foresee a claim that a paper resulting from a course they teach is a byline they “deserve.” But I am not so sure that the claim is warranted, and I am not so sure professors who teach exclusively online do in fact uniformly feel this way. But, this perspective makes sense to me.
The discussion of roles in a research project is part of the scholarship
The more important thing here is your intuition to go out and run the idea by somebody else who has grappled with the topic before you jumped to a conclusion as to right and wrong ways to proceed. That’s wise, and actually says a lot about your instincts about how scholarship works. Everything is discussed. But the discussion does not stop with the third party.
While you’re not wholly wrong in your assumption that there’s something diluted about the nature of co-authorship, understanding how authorship is credited in your field is what’s paramount here. The authorship discussion is an assumed part of scholarship and one that the publication venue trusts that you have completed. (Institutional Review is another research component that publishers often handle on an honor system.) For a scholar, this authorship discussion appears in other locations as well. In education, each tenure portfolio contains a document where you list a percentile authorship for each work on your cv for which you are claiming is evidence for tenure. Thus for each article, there will be percentage numbers next to each author’s name. I think it is assumed that the tenure candidate checks with the other authors that the numbers jive with how they felt. I have been asked this in the past — did you contribute 25 or 30%? Absurd, yes, better that other alternatives, also yes. In truth, I find that even the most diligent scholars are somewhat lax about this trivial task because it is hard to actually figure out who did what percentage when each person is working as a team, but they don’t skip the discussion altogether.
The important part is that the discussion happened, not whether 29% or 30.5 % was in fact the most accurate representative figure for authorship/research contribution. Reasonable scholars know that authorship is hard to quantify. For example– how would you and I divide credit for this blog post? I wrote more words, but you wrote the important questions. Word count is not a realistic reflection of value here, nor in research, but that’s how it’s done, along with a little negotiation. The percentile contribution is a make-shift fix for a problem we haven’t figured out how to reliably solve, and I don’t see a resolution coming apart from the fact that the discussion is required. I predict that as collaborations become ever more prominent, the percentile distribution document will become more of a guestimate, and at the same time, more important for professors to show they are in fact, working collaboratively with their peers.
Eric: My only response is a more personal one in that I do not intend to enter the academic community professionally any time soon. I quite enjoy working on products more so than research. However, I would like to have an academic body of work to fall back on 30 or so years in the future. Someday I’d like to get out of the development game and “retire” to academia. I am currently unpublished so it seems to me that adding him as a coauthor is my best option. Seeing that I have plenty of time (30 or so years) to build this, getting my foot in the door and putting my name out there is all I am looking to do.
Craig: This is an easy answer, but one you would be wise to note, and note quickly.
Falling back on an academic career is unlikely
The numbers do not favor your assumption. I don’t want to burst your security bubble here, but the chances that you can simply pick up a scholarly position late in life without decades of investment is low. Of those who go to graduate school, only a small fraction enrolling PhD programs. Of those who enroll in PhD programs, only a fraction complete the PhD program. Of those who complete the PhD programs, only a fraction will find wok in academia. Of those who find work in academia, only a fraction will find tenured work. And sadly, even at that stage, of those who find tenured work, not all are tenured.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the misconception that professor job are easy to fall back on. Contrary to popular opinion outside of the academe (those that know about it), an academic career to fall back on does not exist. Of course adjunct work abounds, but just read the Chronicle of Higher Ed to understand just how below slave labor contingent faculty suffer. The only people who ever “retire” to academic positions are intellectual celebrities. For example, Henry Kissenger, now at John Hopkins University, entered his post after a long career in politics, and there are occasional superstars from each field who find they have something to say that schools are open to hear. In their role, these celebrities in their fields do not necessarily do the work of typical professor either. I don’t know how they are paid, but I imagine it is worked out on an individual celebrity basis, and they are doubtfully paid as typical professor. I am not saying it is impossible to enter the academe after a career in another field, but these individuals are not falling back on an academic career Some may argue that such people are actually not entering the academe. Rather, they have something to say to members of their discipline earlier on in the career and the faculty is giving the celebrity an opportunity. For a detailed discussion of the struggle it takes to move from even the best PhD programs into a professorial position, read The Professor is In blog moderated by Dr Karen Kelsky.
While the hiring value of a publication generally dissipates into oblivion after five years, publication does hold a lot of value for professionals not intending to enter the professoriate. Publishing is concrete evidence that someone is up to date in a field of practice and can collect their ideas in a coherent and persuasive manner. The skills to put forward a polished argument are a very attractive feature for anyone looking to be recognized as a professional. So I would say it is darn good goal to have, just not for the reason you stated.
Acknowledgement: I thank Eric for humoring my excessive questions, writing frankly, and reviewing the final draft of this post prior to its publication on this blog.
Reference: Marshall T. Poe (2011). A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. xi + 275 pp. ISBN 9780521179447.