Letter/Observer Forum

Authorship Battles: An Outsider’s View

Linda Bartoshuk Ubel

She had worked long and hard analyzing the data, drafting and re-drafting the manuscript, all the while receiving insightful help from her adviser. She did 90 percent of the work, but her mentor provided crucial guidance. It was a good partnership.

Then, on the final draft of the paper, he insisted on one more change, and all of a sudden she questioned their entire working relationship. He told her that he wanted to be first author of the manuscript and insisted that she move her name to the second position. Devastated, but powerless to deny him, she grudgingly made the change. What once was an ideal mentor-mentee relationship never recovered.

As a physician conducting behavioral science research, I have had the great pleasure of collaborating with many wonderful psychologists. I consider psychological science to be my true intellectual home and have been a proud member of APS for several years. I have even had the pleasure of introducing a dozen or more young psychologists to the exciting field of healthcare decision-making.

But I’ve also had the unfortunate opportunity to witness several stories much like the one above. I’ve seen months of teamwork crushed by ambition and ego. The mentors in these situations often have their excuses. Some need to garner more first author publications to achieve tenure. Others had assumed that their mentees understood how these situations usually work — that the senior author behind the research must be rewarded for his efforts.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the medical world, we have a strong tradition of senior authorship. In academic medicine, it is understood that the last author of a manuscript is the senior author. This position carries equal cachet in academic circles as does the first position, which is often reserved for the more junior author who has done most of the hard work.

Early in an academic medical career, we physicians are expected to be first author on a substantial proportion of our manuscripts. Only later, when running a laboratory or mentoring junior investigators, do we earn the right to move to the last position, to become the senior author of manuscripts.

Tenure committees and medical schools typically look for evidence that investigators have begun shifting towards this senior author position in their publications. If an investigator has too many first authored publications and not enough last authored publications, she will have a hard time getting tenure.

If this senior authorship system had been more universally embraced in psychological science, many of the conflicts I have witnessed would not have occurred. Mentor and mentee would have been able to work together, aware that each would be rewarded with just the type of authorship that each one needed at that point in her career: first author for the up-and-coming researcher, and last author for the eminent mentor.

Such a simple solution. Don’t psychological scientists deserve to work together without junior and senior investigators battling each other over authorship? 


I could not agree with you more. I am a psychologist in an academic medicine setting. We do need this opportunity for mentee-mentor to be receive merit.

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