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Robert Neubecker

How I learned to speak up for myself about authorship

During my first year of grad school, a faculty member asked whether I’d be interested in analyzing data for one of his projects. I enjoyed new computational challenges, so I agreed to do the analyses on top of my normal Ph.D. work. Then, 1 year later, the same faculty member met with me and asked a series of questions posed by reviewers of the paper he had written. I was flustered—I had no idea that a manuscript had even been submitted to a journal—but I answered his questions. Later, though, I got up the courage to drop by his office and find out whether I was listed as a co-author, or even acknowledged, on the manuscript. He said no, acting as though the question itself was inappropriate. The experience led me to rethink my approach to collaborations.

I started to develop my computational skills when I was working as a pharmacist in Egypt. I had grown tired of my day job, and I was looking for a new challenge. In my spare time, I took online courses that taught me how to write computer code, and I realized that I enjoy programming. Eventually, I decided to quit my pharmacist job and move to the United States, where I started a Ph.D. program in biology.

In grad school, I continued to develop my computational skills. Colleagues noticed my expertise and started to ask for help. My dad was always lending a hand to those in need when I was growing up, and he taught me to do the same. So during my first years of grad school, I always said yes when I was asked to assist with data analyses.

Once, a fellow grad student came to me with an urgent request. She was leaving for a conference the following week and hadn’t analyzed the data for her poster. “Could you help me?” she asked in a desperate tone. Feeling bad for her, I agreed to do some analyses—which took 2 days of my time.

My friends often criticized me for saying yes to these requests, pointing out I needed to focus on my own work. They also worried that I was giving people the benefit of my expertise without getting anything substantive, such as authorship or acknowledgment, in return. I understood my friends’ concerns. The grad student who needed help with her poster said she’d return the favor someday and buy me a meal, but she never did. And the faculty member I did analyses for never did put my name on his manuscript.

In time I realized that although it’s OK to lend a helping hand, it’s also important to speak up for myself. In the years since, I’ve made a point of having a conversation about authorship as soon as possible in a collaboration if I’m being asked for a significant contribution to a project. These can be awkward conversations, especially when the collaborator is more senior than I am. But I’ve learned that they are necessary, because if you invest time in a project, then you deserve to have your efforts acknowledged.

These discussions pay off in other ways, too. Ensuring that everyone involved is on the same page alleviates stress during the collaborative process. That frees me to focus on the science, which is the truly fun part. The conversations have also resulted in accomplishments that I could add to my CV. I defended my Ph.D. 3 months ago, and I left grad school as a co-author on 10 manuscripts—with a few more on the horizon.

If you invest time in a project, then you deserve to have your efforts acknowledged.

The collaborations I participated in during my time as a Ph.D. student enriched my grad school experience, giving me an opportunity to learn about and contribute to projects apart from my own. I particularly enjoyed helping fellow grad students who were interested in honing their quantitative skills. It was rewarding to see their skills blossom, often to the point where they didn’t need my help anymore.

But along the way, I learned that in order to maintain my sanity during the collaborative process, I need to be transparent about my expectations. Collaborators can’t read my mind, and they may not automatically appreciate how much time it takes to analyze data. So it’s my responsibility to tell them.

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