Practical Advice on Co-Authorship and Copyright in Academia for Graduate Students

We had the pleasure of speaking with invited guests Dr. Melissa Johnson (Professor, Department of Communication), Will Cross J.D. M.S.L.S. (Director, Copyright and Digital Scholarship Center; also check out his Twitter), and current CRDM student Sarah Evans about co-authorship and copyright laws in academia. Below are some notes graciously taken by a CRDM student summarizing some of the key topics we covered. The following material is a reflection of our discussion for co-authorship within English and Communication as disciplines and local, state, and federal copyright laws for North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC). This is not legal advice and you should inquire with your institution or legal counsel for any discrepancies that may appear across contexts. With that said, here is some practical advice for navigating co-authorship and copyright laws from the perspective of a graduate student:

Legal Definitions of Copyright

Copyright is attached to a work when an author contributes expression that is creative, original, and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. In layman’s terms, as soon as your pen hits paper or your fingers hit keys, your works are protected legally by copyright laws. However, not all things can be copyrighted. Ideas, facts, short phrases, and government works are always in the public domain. Anything published before 1923 is typically in the public domain. Current federal copyright laws on new works dictate that copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author. This might be the time for a well-placed Roland Barthes joke, but we’ll stick with the task at hand.

Co-authorship legally means that each individual has an equal and undivided interest in the work. Each party can legally submit the work without notifying others as long as any revenues resulting from publications are split and distributed equitably. Copyright and attribution are not the same thing, because copyright is a legal protection while attribution is not generally recognized by copyright law, but is valued as ethical and responsible practice by scholars and other creators.

In the United States, it is generally unethical to publish works without crediting all contributing authors, but it is not generally illegal. The United States does not have the same “moral rights” protections as are present in other (mainly European) countries. That means you do not have a legal right to attribution under US law.

Despite this, non-attribution is a serious ethical violation handled at the disciplinary level. Academia is a small world.

Read the Fine Print

When signing copyright papers – often called a “publication agreement” – with a publisher, you may be transferring many of your legal rights such as copyright away. While it is disreputable, a journal could legally publish your work without attributing authorship to you if you sign away copyright. Read the fine print in order to understand your legal rights. For example, a journal might (and likely will) bar you from publishing an accepted manuscript on your personal website or on sites like ResearchGate and If you sign away the copyright to your scholarship, as is often done within the academy by authors who feel pressure to publish in certain journals, then the journal would have legal claim to that material, not you.

Copyright Enforcement in Academia

Best practices for publication, citation, and co-authorship in academia often comes from disciplinary rules. The reason for this is the legal system primarily focuses on copyright as an economic interest – entitling each co-author to an equitable share of profits off of the copyrighted work. If there is no monetary gain in publishing, which tends to be true in journal publications because you are forced to sign away copyright before profits are to be made, there are few legal repercussions for not playing nice. Furthermore, as statutory law, copyright has to be a one-size-fits-all set of rules, which may not reflect the diversity of practice in the academy around credit, citation, and attribution.

However, institutional and departmental norms dictate a short-lived career for unethical use of co-authored materials.

Co-authorship rules differ from discipline to discipline.

Some disciplines, physics for example, might have a multitude of authors because all persons who contributed to the project for a set amount of time or in a set way are accredited as authors (“The Collective Author” in Biagioli & Galison, 2014). There are options available in this case. Sometimes, the first author or two will be the principle investigators, while the rest of the authors list is alphabetical. Some papers might place all authors in alphabetical order regardless of role. This is a question you need to ask your principle investigator at the outset. Longer authors lists are acceptable, and perhaps commonplace in some fields, to recognize the work of the “invisible technicians” who contribute to the project but whose contributions might be obfuscated.

The humanities tend to have fewer authors and order of authorship should be negotiated based on source of the idea, intellectual contribution, and workload. This is one of the starkest differences between the “hard sciences,” where authorship is typically not negotiated, and the humanities, where authorship is almost always negotiation based on contribution.

Collaborating and Co-Authoring Papers

Communicate with your collaborators early and often

You should clarify ownership, contribution, and authorship expectations at the outset of collaborative works. While you can reassess this relationship throughout the process of research, clear expectations help set guidelines for conduct for the group. In the humanities, some people who contribute to a project might not be granted authorship. Data coders and paid RAs (sometimes) might not be granted authorship. This is something that needs to be discussed as you join any project or establish any team.

When clarifying these expectations, it is a good idea to get everything in writing. That includes the relationship of the team, contribution expectations, and agreements made about the work.

How do I determine order of authorship?

Once again, defer to your disciplinary norms. This blog is speaking from the humanities perspective. In particular, CRDM is an interdisciplinary program with students primarily focused on English and Communication. The only set rule is that authorship should be negotiated and agreed upon before you begin working on the project. The following are some general expectations you can have for determining the order of authorship.

  1. If you and a faculty member begin a project together then you should discuss the expectations of each author. It is common for the faculty member to be the first author as they tend to guide the project toward completion.
  2. If you are a student joining an existing project, ask the current authors. Order of authorship should be based on contribution instead of the order that authors joined the project.
  3. If you write a seminar paper and then turn it into a journal article then you should be first author. In this case, the intellectual contribution is primarily yours; the faculty is playing a supporting role, necessitating them as second author. This assumes minor contribution from the faculty member.
  4. However, if you write a seminar paper and it requires a complete overhaul in order to become publishable, then you should negotiate authorship order. In this case, the faculty will likely become first author because they will be contributing a significant amount to this project.

If your data set is rich enough to produce multiple publishable works, then it is common for authors to rotate order. For example, with two authors the order of authorship on the first paper might be Author A & Author B, but on a second paper it might be Author B & Author A.

Some groups decide to just list authors alphabetically because everyone contributed equally. In this case, there should be a note indicating that all authors were equal contributors in the acknowledgments. Dr. Johnson expressed that she has seen this notation on tenure dossiers and CVs as well. Ultimately, there must be an order of authors, but if the order of the authors is arbitrary, you can protect your interests by noting this during publication and in your job application documents. Also be sure to ask recommendation letter writers to note equal contribution if this is true for a collaborative project you’ve done with faculty.

What strategies are good for collaborating on a paper?

The best strategy is to communicate with your co-authors about how you work. Discussing your work habits (time of day, writing in increments or writing in chunks, upcoming constraints, etc.) with your co-authors can set expectations and alleviate conflict.

Google Docs is a powerful format for many groups. It allows you to always have the most recent revision of your paper available to all authors while maintaining the important functions of Microsoft Word that co-authors will need to use. You can check the revision history of the document to see exactly what your co-authors have changed since you last visited, you can use track changes (called Suggestions in Google Docs), or leave comments for your co-authors.

While Google Docs has many uses, some authors might not be comfortable with Google Docs. Therefore, you should negotiate writing processes with your co-authors to prevent conflict over how authors share information.

Break up the work based on your team’s agreements about authorship and contribution. Create a basic outline so that all authors are working from the same framework. When distributing labor, first authors should probably do more work.

Touch base as comfortable (weekly) to ensure progress and to re-evaluate group dynamics and contributions as necessary.

Does co-authoring hurt my chances on the job market?

It depends. This is a case where order of authorship matters, but it may matter less than your average graduate student would think.

If you have many publications but you are always listed as the fifth or sixth author, that is not particularly enticing for departments that are looking for researchers. However, recent graduates who are second or third author on all of their publications would not be framed so negatively. This is especially true if search committees see you co-authoring with faculty—in particular your mentor.

The reality is that hiring committees will typically look at the number of publications you have in key journals, the number of first or single authored publications, and the number of co-authored publications with faculty mentors. They will also likely weigh those contributing factors, among others, in that order.

When in doubt, ask your mentor.

Your mentor fulfills many roles. One of those roles is to teach you how to be an upstanding citizen within the academic (or professional) community. If you are ever unsure, ask somebody with more experience. This can help to avoid damage to your reputation and avoid conflict with your co-authors.


We hope this summary provides some clarity in how to navigate the tricky domain of advocating for your work while also managing imbalanced power relationships between students, faculty, and other members of the academy. You may contact Geoffrey Luurs for additional details or clarification on this talk. Please find his email on the Get to Know Us. Digitally. page.



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Filed under job market, professional development, publications, Research

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