Determinants of corresponding authorship

or, “When is it OK for the lead author (usually an undergraduate or graduate student) not to be the corresponding author?”

This post was spawned over a back and forth I had with a former lab mate:


The short of it is, he’s right. When it comes to contacting the author of a study, we have this handy “corresponding author” (CA) designation for just that purpose. So, if it happens to be someone other than the first author, then of course that person would be the point of contact. But this got me thinking about the larger issue: How do you determine who will be the CA?

A couple years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long) I wrote a post on my old blog about scientific authorship. The way I see it, there are two kinds of people when it comes to determining who should or should not be on a manuscript: Those that think it should be as few as possible, not matter the contribution, or those that feel that authorship is a more flexible item. I fall into that latter camp. Granted, I don’t just give out authorship on my manuscripts, but I feel that if someone contributed significantly to any part of the experiment (even if it’s an undergraduate who assisted in the experiment*), a conversation about authorship is worth having. I think that my reasoning for this attitude stems from the topic of that previous post: authorship order. Oftentimes, when you read a manuscript that has a ton of authors (common for big-name journals), you only ever remember who was first or last (the title of that previous post was “If you’re not first you’re last”). First authors are usually grad students, anchors are usually the PIs. Oftentimes, if you fall somewhere in the middle, you most certainly contributed, but it wasn’t your baby.

I bring up this seemingly unrelated topic because it does hit on many of the same issues as the CA argument. In my mind, there are only a few times when the first author should not be the CA:

  1. The first author is an undergraduate. Getting a first-author manuscript as an undergraduate is an amazing achievement, especially if it’s published when you’re still an undergraduate.** In this case, if you are fortunate to get any press coverage of your manuscript, it’s probably best that the PI handle those inquiries. While this provides an amazing potential learning experience, experience is necessary.
  2. The first author is a graduate student who is leaving academia. As it is becoming more and more common for newly-minted MS and PhDs to leave academia, I can imagine (and have witnessed) situations where it makes more sense for the PI, who will continue on the research from the manuscript, to be a CA.
  3. The first author is a student who carried out the project but it was the PI’s idea. This type of situation arises when a graduate student comes into a lab and is assigned a project. Personally, I am not a fan of this type of experience in general (I had a lot of freedom in graduate school); however, it makes sense that the PI (who designed the experiment) would be the CA.

In the absence of the above scenarios, one of the more common situations is where a PI is just always the CA. This, in my opinion, is a problem. While I mentioned above that it is probably better for a PI to be the CA when an undergraduate is the first author, I believe the opposite with a graduate student. Honestly, being a CA usually just means that you receive emails on occasion from people requesting manuscripts. While most of these interactions are relatively innocuous, some can develop into fruitful relationships.*** If a grad student is not a CA, these potential connections will never happen.

On the flip side of the day-to-day requests for manuscripts, studies sometimes get picked up by popular science outlets. This is where I think that it’s important for the grad student (assuming) to be the CA. If they designed, executed, and largely wrote the manuscript, they should get the credit. I understand that working with the media can be touchy, but that’s why grad students have advisers. PIs can guide their students through the process and provide a more meaningful experience, rather than students taking a backseat to their adviser.

This issue, along with authorship, is part of a larger conversation about the role and “place” of grad students in academia. While I know that there isn’t a panacea, I hope that we can raise awareness to work on these issues.


*I must say that I was fortunate enough to have an amazing undergraduate throughout most my graduate school tenure. He most certainly earned every manuscript on which he is named.

**I got first-author out of my undergraduate; however, it was published when I was in graduate school and already had a few manuscripts under my belt, so my former PI suggested that I could be the CA.

***One such request from myself to a very well-respected PI in my field has led to an amazing professional relationship.


One thought on “Determinants of corresponding authorship

  1. Chat with Dave Freeman about this. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that he required that he was CA on all papers that came out of his lab. Even those with graduate students… and grad students that were continuing on in academia. A quick scan of the lab papers confirms my suspicion (but I only scanned the literature). I think his idea was that he is the most stable person to handle correspondences multiple years down the road.

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