Graduate students occasionally encounter conflict with an advisor who does not accord them the authorial credit they believe they deserve. This problem can emerge in a number of ways.
Sometimes a student feels that their original idea, data or written work is taken by an advisor who then presents the work as his/her own, or who gives credit to another student, without adequately acknowledging the first student’s contributions.
A student may have in inflated or misguided notion about the extent of their contribution, which also puts them in conflict with an advisor or peer. At other times it’s a challenging to try to clearly determine who contributed what to a research product, especially when there are multiple contributors over a lengthy period of time.
There are also situations involving multi-authored papers in the sciences where disputes arise about what order the authors should be listed in. An advisor has wide discretion to determine how a paper for publication will be presented, and a student may feel that their role is not fully noted in the final product.
In more extreme cases, a student may feel that they are held hostage by an advisor who threatens their future recommendation and professional future unless they agree to accept unfair treatment regarding written acknowledgments of their contributions. This may happen to a student who is especially gifted, and whose ideas are valuable to the advisor for promoting his/her career ambitions.
Written publications are the currency for career opportunities in academia, and it’s to be expected that everyone involved in research writing will have a desire to have it serve their career, as well as to advance the discipline they are involved in. Graduate students generally have to achieve well with their writing to be successful in their program and job search, but they frequently have limited power in the decisions that are made about their written work.
The authority regarding evaluating a graduate student’s work lies with their advisor, which is appropriate and right, unless the quality of that mentor’s moral fiber and character is compromised. A graduate student’s future is highly contingent on receiving a good recommendation from their primary mentor, especially in academic careers, and consequently it’s often highly risky for the student to openly confront perceived unfairness around authorship.
A student may also find it hard to write if they feel their work or ideas will be exploited by their advisor. They may feel they will be damned if they write, and damned if they don’t write. Changing to a new advisor is theoretically possible as a way to resolve such a problem, but this option is fraught with difficulties, especially in the sciences where funding constraints and difficulties finding faculty knowledgeable in a specific area of research limit the possibilities.
When there is enough good will among all parties, a negotiated settlement is usually possible, sometimes with the help of a mediator or ombudsman to assist with the discussion. If something less ethically palatable is going on and negotiating is not possible, an advisor generally does have considerable authority to make final decisions about research and authorship, and there are many ways to be punitive to a student who mounts a challenge.
Next blog entry: What can a graduate student do to advocate for themselves in an authorship disagreement with an advisor?