Don't erase undergrad researchers and technicians from author lists

Written by: Emily Fogarty
Published on: Oct 18, 2021

woman with large pencil eraser
Image credit: Robert Neubecker

"While I recognise that she thinks she had a major contribution to the project it will be difficult to show that she did more than a technician's job." This was the infuriating response I received in a long email thread with former colleagues about work I had done as an undergraduate researcher. During my 7-month internship, my colleagues in the lab told me I would be an author when they wrote up the work. A few months ago, I was shocked to learn that the resulting paper had already been accepted for publication—and that my contribution had been relegated to the acknowledgments section. This was my wake-up call about the need to speak up for myself regarding authorship, and to speak out against the unfair convention of diminishing the contributions of undergrads and technicians to scientific research.

As an undergraduate, I was just excited to be involved in science and making discoveries. I was oblivious to the true currency of science: publications. I dived into my assigned project to develop and optimize a cell culturing system, then collected as much preliminary data as I could. In a conversation with the principal investigator and postdoc I worked with, they mentioned that I would be the first or second author when they published the work, but we didn't get into specifics.

After leaving the lab, I was in contact with the postdoc and the graduate student who took over the project, eager to be a co-author on my first paper. Then, I got some bad news: The cell lines I had been working with were contaminated. The graduate student had repeated my experiments—based on the protocol I had written, methods I had taught him, and observations and interpretations I had shared—and he was able to replicate the phenomena I had observed. He assured me that my contributions were still recognized and that I would be third author on the eventual paper.

I went on to start graduate school myself. I occasionally checked in with the graduate student and postdoc about the project and offered to help write the manuscript. When the student told me that he was postponing submission for personal reasons, I decided to back off, expecting that they would reach out when they needed my input.

Eventually, after not hearing anything from them for more than a year, I emailed to check in. That's when I learned that the paper had already been written, submitted, and accepted for publication—and I had been excluded from the process and the author list. Instead, I was acknowledged "for preliminary studies and technical expertise." When I insisted that I should be an author, as we had discussed, they told me I had "just" been a technician.

Most journals' policies state that authorship should be based on making a significant contribution to the conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of the data. Authors may also be required to help write the manuscript, but guidelines from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors—which the journal that published this paper adheres to—state that this requirement is not meant to disqualify individuals who otherwise meet the criteria. Based on that definition, my contributions did merit authorship. I was hurt to see my work being trivialized—in large part, I believe, because I had done it as an undergraduate technician.

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"When I insisted that I should be an author … they told me I had ‘just' been a technician."

I now work in a different discipline, so I hope I can share my story without jeopardizing my future career. In retrospect, I should have initiated explicit conversations about authorship from the beginning, with all members of the project. Before I left the lab, I should have written up my results and methods in a format that could readily be included in the eventual paper.

But the community needs to address a broader problem: the convention of excluding undergraduate students and technicians from authorship lists. A researcher's title doesn't make their contribution any less significant. Junior researchers are often critical to a project's success, and we need to make sure that everyone who contributes gets the credit they deserve.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.orgRead the general guidelines here.

Emily Fogarty is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago.