Authorship Guidelines

(ver. 3, April 2014; ver. 4, May 2020)


Preface and some things to think about.

Academic authorship inclusion and order is not a trivial issue … it varies by discipline, and by lab philosophy.  Historically, this was not an issue in my lab in the era of single-investigator grants and primarily 2-3 author papers …. but more recently, with multi/trans-disciplinary work … it gets very muddy!  Post-doctoral students also introduce a very different dynamic, with a focus (and expectation) on trying to publish in short time frame.

I also feel that acknowledging those who help who are not authors is equally important.  

The PHASES of research publication are enumerated below, and will be discussed with 'interested parties' before submission:  

  • Conception of Ideas

  • Enabling Research



  • Writing of Manuscript / Thesis

  • Facilitating Submission & Review

  • Special considerations

PREMISES that Form Basis of Policy

CurtisLab General Premise 1:  Contribute broadly, because of passion for research - not expectation for authorship. I like to encourage collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas from different perspectives. The goal is substantive contribution to as many papers as you can. However, contributing to efforts that are 'not your own' brings with it the need to contribute efforts 'above and beyond' the typical project effort - NOT displacing that effort. While I do not prescribe to tacking on a lot of authors that are not intimately involved in the overall process of inception to submission - there are exceptions as I describe below.  

CurtisLab General Premise 2:   Publish because of benefit to society, not to build resume. Engineers in particular do not necessarily require publications to get a job; this results in competition between 'completion' and effort to publish. Having someone get material published (with you not as primary author) is far better than never getting published at all. After 6 months, the data associated with any unpublished work is fair game to be assimilated into the work of anyone else who will undertake it with the possibility of being first author.  A large fraction of data never gets published, and the likelihood it will not be published is very high if the student leaves without the final submission of the work being completed.

CurtisLab General Premise 3:  Authorship can be basis of building (or undermining) individual and lab reputation and moral - and it is critical to manage expectations for positive. If managed well, selfishness (personal gain) and selflessness (gain of others at your expense) are not incompatible toward authorship. However, what will not be tolerated is personal gain at others expense ; The signing of acceptance of authorship guidelines is required of every laboratory member from undergraduate to post-doc. A researcher that becomes problematic towards the publication process will be acknowledged rather than be an author.

CurtisLab General Premise 4:  Authorship is the result of the aggregate of contribution to the research effort, not the specific data that is published. This means that it is not only the effort that is specifically published, but the effort leading to that published data. In addition, researchers that take on the positive attitude for Lab Citizenship (organization, maintenance, cleaning, putting away ...) are encouraged to leverage that for authorship where possible.  In contrast, researchers that avoid mundane lab citizenship, whose lack of performance detracts from the lab (either specifically or broadly) is also a consideration for authorship. 

Additional General Guiding Principles

At some point during either the initiation of a project, or more logically as publishable results are obtained, there has to be an open specific discussion about authorship.  Usually,  it is not very clear till one defines the scope of a manuscript (which these days seems to be much smaller as there is pressure to create ‘numbers’ as a metric of productivity).  In some cases, work is not completed while the student starting the project ‘finishes’ … which leaves authorship wide open as someone has to commit considerable time to complete, write up, and the considerable time-consuming logistics of submission and revision.  Therefore, writing an initial draft of a manuscript, by no means constitutes the basis for presumed final author order.  

At no point in drafting should anyone other than the senior author(s) place names for authorship or their order during the drafting stage of a manuscript.

I prefer to have simply primary author // senior authors  during drafting, with the understanding at that point that even the primary authorship is not defined until the scope of the research contained, and the manuscript is actually at the submission stage.  

Authorship is defined by the scope of the work being presented ...  this is not clear till the final stage of work, and leaves the opportunity for someone to improve the work in exchange for authorship.  It can only lead to problems down the road as to presumption of authorship that is based on the whim of typing down those related to the work when at the draft stage.  

As a starting point for understanding authorship, you should read the wiki page that discusses this issue of academic authorship.  This sets the stage for understanding that authorship has to do primarily with the quantity and quality of INTELLECTUAL CONTRIBUTION and EFFORT associated with execution and analysis of the research.  .

Guidelines from PLOS1 (Public Library of Science Journal)

Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3 below to be assigned credit for authorship:

1. substantial contributions to conception and design of the work, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data

2. drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and

3. final approval of the version to be published.

Other journals such as Nature are very clear, that simply being involved in writing is NOT sufficient contribution.  Similarly, if the work is done by a technician that is largely doing what they are told’ … that is often not considered sufficient for authorship.  


Ultimately it is my responsibility to decide on authorship, acknowledgement associated with the publication of research.  If you do not contribute at least 20% to be a primary author of the work, you should not expect much input into the author order of secondary authors. Note, that if you are working with someone outside the lab that is the primary author of work, then I likely have minimal jurisdiction over what is considered authorship.  Numerous have been added that I would consider marginal or unacceptable - which might be different if the rationale were more transparent.  Therefore, you need to be proactive as noted in some of the comments below.  

I will tackle my perspective on these in reverse order:

Facilitating Submission & Review:

The process of final format for submission, and the actual process of submission can be a very time-consuming process.  If the work and submission are first rate, then usually the review phase is not as onerous.  However, the process of revisions, response to reviewers etc., can easily consume another 40+ hours of work … even if there is not additional experimentation required.  While normally this is done by the first author, it sometimes falls to a secondary author … or worse, Dr. Curtis … as his time should be better spent submitting proposals editing etc ….

Writing of Manuscript:

I think that writing should be a collective effort, not only of authors, but other members of the lab.  There is a wide spectrum of contributing to writing, some of which can be acknowledged even if not overly involved in the work.  In some cases (such as students who have moved on, or passed away - unfortunately has happened) it is not feasible to involved an author in the writeup.  Some who lack good technical writing, or English may be less involved in writing for the sake of expediency.   For those who are capable … a lack of participation in writing can result in ‘demotion’ of authorship by not contributing according to general expectation.  

If there is a paper with multiple authors besides myself and the first author, then it is imperative that as part of the writeup process, there is a written document that goes into the details of various contributions of various people.  This should be developed and circulated among potential authors (that are still actively engaged in correspondence) to get their feedback into the accuracy of the contributions.  This is not the simple statements that are now often included in paper submissions, but a very detailed description of who helped build apparatus, design experimental details, execute critical experimentation, sample, analytical, analysis, literature review … and a separate statement of contributions that should be considered for acknowledgment (access / training on equipment, general enabling laboratory contributions related to the project).  

Analysis of Data:

The analysis can be either behind the scenes or overtly part of the ongoing research discussion.  Either way, it is the responsibility of the primary research to continuously keep the senior author aware of contributions of others in the weekly reporting and discussion of work.  Be very candid about the level of time, quality of feedback both to the senior author and to those who are assisting.  It is very easy for ‘helpers’ to over-value their contribution if not kept in the loop;  it is also often human nature to take a little more credit than might be due.  

A primary venue for analysis is at research meetings and end of semester reports etc.  Failure to put in this effort to be a part of this process of analysis and documentation may result in being moved from author to acknowledgement.  

Execution of Research:

For the primary researcher involved in the work, the role of authorship is clear (documenting data, analysis and discussion).  For those who are ‘assistants’, or the lead contributor to a small component of the work, the role is less clear, and falls more to the idea of the level and quality of the effort.  Participating in experimental design is part of the execution of the research; most easily documented through discussions and experimental plans.  Contribution to the work is documented by taking of data, attending and participating in lab research meetings.

Dr. Curtis spends a lot of time around the lab … and will invariably notice your work habits and ask what you are up to etc … this is not idle conversation; it is part of the process of assessing authorship potential.  If you are looking to have authorship that goes beyond the immediate work of your own, then your level of effort has to be exceptional and beyond minimum expectations (which are high in themselves).   

The nature of exploratory research (not incremental science advance) is that 'failure' is inevitable ... where my mantra = "wisdom is the accumulation of non-lethal mistakes". Failure is a spectrum from unexpected pitfalls (Performance redirection), to poor research execution (Performance shortfall).
Performance redirection:  In contrast to basic science, where experimentation focused on 'understanding' our labs research is quite applied.  This means that there are often numerous testing cycles, and extensive 'failures' leading to the publishable result.  In this contest, the publishable data is often the 'tip of the iceberg' effort ... where the student fortunate enough to have the favorable result, will presume a dominant role for a small component of the effort. This 'my data syndrome' is precisely why the assessment of contribution cannot come from individuals that lack the total project scope perspective.  
Performance shortfall:  Unfortunately, research progress can result from performance that should have been better, or shortfalls that could have been avoided based on basic focus and ownership of project.  Performance can be either specific to the project, or broader impact of the laboratory or project.  A simple example of broad negative impact is incorrect preparation of a media stock that effects others work).  Shortcomings that fall more specifically in the scope of he intended manuscript have direct detrimental effects on the work (less to report, additional research effort by others, attenuating research conclusions, and lower impact journal targets).  
By the very nature of research, limited ‘success’ even in the context of broad failure, will become the basis of publication. Such limited success does not imply priority authorship - by ownership of that limited data. For example, failure to generate originally intended bioreactor fabrication, cloning, transgenics where that failure could/should have been avoided. The assessment of whether research failures were ‘unavoidable’ fall on the spectrum of performance redirection -- shortfall is at the discretion of the primary author and PI(s); including its impacts on authorship priority. 

Enabling Research:  

Obtaining funding, making connections through investment of time interacting with potential collaborators that have special capabilities for contributions to the work …  This is also something that must be documented in the weekly reporting etc.  Except for where it is expected as being a Co-PI etc, this is relatively thin basis for being an author (and needs support of execution / analysis), but sufficiently important that it can be be viewed as sufficient - if the engagement in the rest of the process of execution and analysis is adequate.

Some experimental work is extremely difficult (dexterity, experience etc … ) and in these cases, it is not the amount of time that is considered, but the VALUE OF THE EFFORT.  The thought of “just how important is this piece of effort” to enabling the production of publishable material.  If something has truly become routine … and not that much of a demand, then it may fall to acknowledgement, but it absolutely critical that you openly discuss this with the collaborator to understand THEIR perspective - keeping in mind some might inappropriately undervalue their work as well.     

Conception of Ideas:  

While this is arguably one of the most important aspects of research, it is also the least clear basis for authorship.  One should be engaged in discussion of your work with constant feedback from other members of the lab.  If you have a ‘brilliant idea’ that is relatively easy to implement and makes a major revelation for the work, then this can constitute a possible basis for authorship.   However, keep in mind that ‘talk is cheep’ … and arm-chair research is typically not a sufficient basis for being an author of research.  Similarly, if you have and articulate an idea, but you do not invest your time to execute the work; it can and may be usurped by someone else … in which case they are doing so with an understanding that they may ultimately be the associated primary author on that work.  

Special Considerations.

Adding Peripheral Authors:  

There are other reasons that I feel are reasonable basis for authorship that should be considered.  For a student who makes extraordinary effort on research related to the work but does not themselves generate publishable data; one can view that effort as contributing by process of elimination.  Similarly, a student who generally contributes to the research effort might at some point ‘earn’ a minor co-authorship based on that contribution to the lab.  

When in doubt, I would normally default to not including an extra author.  As a result, I might overlook your contributions.  You should not be hesitant at all to articulate your case for being a co-author, but realize that it is far better if this discussion happen well before writing of a paper … and better yet, be obvious from the effort itself.  If you are not included in the initial author list, take the time to self-evaluate based on the criteria above !   Authorship can be changed right up to the point of submission - after that, it is NOT typical to change it unless the paper is rejected and major new effort etc.  

Removing / Deprioritizing Potential Authors:  

If a researcher on a project ‘abandons; that work for others to complete, they will lose authorship seniority, with the potential to be demoted to acknowledgement only.  Characteristics of abandonment would be little to no effort to contribute to that continued effort (e.g. through correspondence, virtual via meetings).  This is not intended to penalize those who finish up without completing aspects of research … on the contrary, it is the only practical means by which to tie up loose ends where the ‘carrot’ associated with completing the work, may well be primary authorship on that uncompleted project.   


While there is probably an over-emphasis in the role of GETTING THE DATA THAT IS PUBLISHABLE, this is none-the-less the critical aspect of conducting archival research.  

The best way to assure you become an author is:

  1. Work exceptionally hard; ultimately I find a means to reward this through authorship.  If you are not the primary researcher and contributing to another work, then ‘working hard’ in my perspective is usually defined by the hours that go beyond the 40hr work week.   

  2. Demonstrate your commitment to be a co-author by ‘getting to the bench’ and being actively involved in the actual execution of the work; If you think you want to be a co-author, then it should be rather apparent during the process of research execution.

  3. Indicate your desire to be a co-author and willingness to put in the effort; work with the primary researcher toward that goal and make sure it is reflected in the other aspects of analysis, documentation and discussion.  

Do not assume you will become an author - if there is any ambiguity at all … you need to be proactive toward achieving the criteria that are outlined above.