60 / www.universityaffairs.ca / January 2014
Des conseils de carrière
Who gets the credit?
It’s time we had “The Talk”
by Adam Crymble
o one looks forward to “The Talk.”
It’s awkward. You’ve been dreading it,
and chances are so has he or she. But if
you keep avoiding it, the atmosphere at
work is only going to get worse. The
project may even fall apart entirely.
The Talk is, of course, that important but often-postponed discussion between collaborators that
outlines who will get credit for research outputs.
Typically, this means whose names will appear in
which order on the final research publication.
Students often feel particularly vulnerable
when it comes to The Talk. “There is no course
on how to be a successful graduate student,” says
Tim Bhatnagar, a PhD candidate in orthopedics
at the University of British Columbia, “only an
awareness that publications are the currency of
Without strong leadership from a supervisor,
that awareness can heighten the tension, but it
shouldn’t. Knowing how to broach the topic and
discuss it openly with both students and senior
academics can be the difference between a great
project and a mistake you’ll vow never to repeat.
There is no such thing as too early when it
comes to discussing credit. “I’ve learned from
experience it’s best to have that discussion right
away,” says Cynthia Dunning, associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering at
Dr. Dunning raises the issue when she is
pitching project ideas to potential collaborators.
With incoming graduate students, she initiates
a talk about authorship as soon as the student
arrives – at the same time as the lab tour and
other introductory proceedings about expec-
tations. By making a discussion about credit
part of your routine, you can relieve anxiety and
save yourself uncomfortable discussions down
If you’ve been asked to participate in a collaborative project, you can be the one to start the
conversation about credit. Keep in mind that
in some fields multiple authorship and even
collaboration is a foreign concept. Historians,
for example, are used to writing solo-authored
books. But increasingly there’s a shift towards
collaboration in historical studies, and many are
working with computer scientists, project managers and research assistants for the first time.
It may not occur to them to have this discussion,
so you may be the one to broach it.
By bringing up the issue you take charge of
the situation. Most people will be relieved that
you’ve addressed the elephant in the room, even
if they didn’t tackle it themselves. No matter
whom you plan to work with, and even if the
conversation degrades, the worst that can happen
is that you find out early on that you do not want
to go further with the project.
There’s no academic gold standard for
authorship and attribution. The amount of credit
a student gets for a given project contribution
can vary widely depending on the academic culture. For example, many engineers believe “last
author” is the most prestigious, while most historians would take offence at seeing their name
so close to the right-hand margin. If you are
Adam Crymble is a PhD
student in history at King’s
College London in the U.K.
working with a colleague from another field, let
them know the conventions in your area; build-
ing understanding will make it easier to negotiate
terms that can make everyone happy.
When initiating the discussion, remember
that this can be a sensitive issue. Maintain posi-
tive and open language to keep the conversation
as relaxed as possible. Instead of “Which author
will I be?” try “Shall we discuss the intended out-
puts of this project and how we will share credit?
What is your perspective on authorship?”
The International Committee of Medical
Journal Editors highlights five typical areas of
the research process. Dr. Dunning finds it useful
to revisit these when mediating authorship quar-
rels among students:
1. Project conception and design
2. Acquisition of data
3. Analysis or interpretation of data
4. Writing the article
5. Final approval of the article
Dr. Dunning’s students know they need to
contribute substantially to at least three of these
areas before their contribution can be considered
author-worthy. Not all fields are as data-driven
as medical science, but finding or conceiving a
similar set of criteria for your group can reduce
uncertainty surrounding authorship. For an over-
view of different credit models, visit FairCite
Conflicts over authorship generally boil
down to this: everyone wants to feel their con-
tribution is appreciated. Sometimes we just have
to talk about it, and the sooner the better.
“By bringing up the issue
of authorship you take
charge of the situation.”
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