+6 votes
asked ago by (630 points)
This seems like a common question amongst my grad student friends, and differs across fields. When deciding whether or not to RA, a big factor seems to be whether there is a possibility of co-authorship, particularly in higher years of a PhD program. Should grad students ask professors outright whether there would be a possibility of co-authorship and what the criteria would be for assessing co-authorship? Should professors be explicit about this upfront? When is co-authorship more or less likely?

1 Answer

+6 votes
answered ago by (280 points)
This is a question that stands the test of time. In a perfect world, of course, it is best to sort out these things upfront. But you are dealing with professors who are profoundly imperfect about these things and squeamish about conflicts of interest and the like. If you ask upfront, you may get an evasive answer. That is because professors don't really know. They likely are happy to co-author if you contribute a lot but are not so happy if it turns out you are "just an RA."

This, of course, hints at what the potential right answer is. Professors should offer a contingent agreement. If you do enough, you become a co-author but if you do not, you are just an RA. I was offered this when I was in grad school and didn't end up doing enough and that was fine. The advantage of this is that it creates good incentives. The disadvantage is that "doing enough" is inherently subjective and so the ability of the professor to honour this depends on social skills and we are back where we started. But in economics, the idea of a contingent agreement makes sense so I think you would be well within your rights to ask for it -- even if it is subjective in many dimensions.

I should also point out that if this were done, it would be a good norm. If the market knew that grad student authorship was only granted when the student contributed, then the market will see that as a signal and not infer that it was just the professor being nice or something. It would give value to the co-authorship which is what you want more than the co-authorship itself.
commented ago by (630 points)
I think this is a good idea which enables flexibility on behalf of the professor but also awareness about what the prospects are and how they will be evaluated on the part of the student.

Do you or anyone else have experience of contingent RA/coauthorship agreements? Have they worked well for people in practice?