Is an Independent Project Required for Co-authorship?


Is an Independent Project Required for Co-authorship?

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's desk

The inquires we receive about earning a co-authorship from undergrads in the lab typically consist of a summary of their project and a request to evaluate if it's "independent enough."

In many cases, the undergraduate is wondering if they have produced enough independent work to write a thesis (most have by our account), but others wish to know if they will be included as co-author on a journal article or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we're unable to provide a definitive answer for most because earning a publication isn't always as straightforward as one might imagine.

One undergraduate asked us for advice after their well-meaning postdoc mentor assured them of co-authorship but their PI felt differently. Another undergraduate was confused when a graduate student supervisor informed them that they were ineligible for co-authorship on any publication because they were hired to wash dishes and maintain organismal stocks--not to do independent research.

There have been other inquires: some from graduate student and postdoc mentors asking for advice on evaluating effort versus intellectual contributions, and some from undergraduates trying to understand why they haven't earned a publication when a labmate has.

So, here we present an overview that covers most inquires we've received regarding earning co-authorship as an undergrad.

The good news: Collaborative authorships are common in STEM disciplines. Undergrads can absolutely be included as co-authors on publications in scientific journals, abstracts, and posters (but not a graduate mentor's thesis). So, it's possible to earn co-authorship if you're an assistant on someone else's project, instead of the student PI on an independent one.

The (potentially) bad news: As an undergrad in the lab, you can do a lot of work—planning and executing experiments, optimizing techniques, taking notes, and completing various research-like responsibilities—and not collect enough results or data to earn an authorship. Sometimes it’s due to bad luck, or not having enough hands-on time at the bench, and sometimes it’s a combination of those and other factors.

Another potential disappointment is when an editor rejects a manuscript. (This can happen upon receipt of the manuscript or after it's been through the review process.) The PI then decides if it's better to resubmit to the same journal after making modifications or send the manuscript to a different one. However, before resubmitting a manuscript, there is often a push to collect more data, controls, or experiments. So, be aware that things often move more slowly in the academic publishing world than expected.

Lastly, some PIs and journals require researchers to make an intellectual contribution to the research project to earn a co-authorship. Unfortunately, we're unable to provide a universal definition of intellectual contribution because it's determined by individual professors, or journals, and therefore isn't standard across labs.

However, some requirements might range from coming up experiments and designing them, being able to interpret the result or analyze the data, writing some of the manuscript (or contribution to editing on some level), and demonstrating a solid understanding of the overall project and its significance. So, by some professor’s and journal's definitions, especially if you start your undergraduate research experience early in your college career, you might not have yet taken the classes needed to intellectually contribute to your project.

As an undergrad in the lab, if a publication is important to you, set up a meeting with your PI to discuss the possibility. If you're primarily working with a graduate student or postdoc as a lab mentor, try to meet with them and your PI at the same time.

It's never too early to open this conversation with your PI and lab mentor, to discuss your contributions to the project, and if you’re on track for earning co-authorship on an abstract, poster, or journal publication. And before the meeting is over, ask specifically, “What do I need to do to earn a co-authorship on X?” Granted, they might not have the satisfying answer you're hoping for (guarantees are few and far between for research projects) but knowing the requirements and PI's thoughts on the matter are important to prevent a misunderstanding later.

Once you know what your PI believes will be needed to for you to earn the publication you desire, work with them (and your direct research mentor if they are different people) to set specific goals and a timeline. Then it's time to make it work, and keep them both updated during your research experience.