Acknowledging undergraduate labor in academic papers

July 2, 2020

It is time. Well past time, in fact.

Time for the Acknowledgements sections of academic papers to report to report on a source of funding that is all to often forgotten.

In fact I cannot once remember seeing a paper or manuscript I have received to review mention it.

It’s not weird. Most academic journals I am familiar with do demand that authors report the source of funding. Sometimes there is an extra declaration that we have reported all sources. It’s traditional. Grants for certain sure. Gifts in kind from companies are supposed to be included as well (although I don’t know if people include special discounts on key equipment or reagents, tut, tut).

In recent times we’ve seen the NIH get all astir precisely because some individuals were not reporting funding to them that did appear in manuscripts and publications.

The statements about funding often come with some sort of comment that the funding agency or entity had no input on the content of the study or the decisions to/not publish data.

The uses of these declarations are several. Readers want to know where there are potential sources of bias, even if the authors have just asserted no such thing exists. Funding bodies rightfully want credit for what they have paid hard cash to create.

Grant peer reviewers want to know how “productive” a given award has been, for better or worse and whether they are being asked to review that information or not.

It’s common stuff.

We put in both the grants that paid for the research costs and any individual fellowships or traineeships that supported any postdocs or graduate students. We assume, of course, that any technicians have been paid a salary and are not donating their time. We assume the professor types likewise had their salary covered during the time they were working on the paper. There can be small variances but these assumptions are, for the most part, valid.

What we cannot assume is the compensation, if any, provided to any undergraduate or secondary school authors. That is because this is a much more varied reality, in my experience.

Undergraduates could be on traineeships or fellowships, just like graduate students and postdocs. Summer research programs are often compensated with a stipend and housing. There are other fellowships active during the academic year. Some students are on work-study and are paid a salary and in school related financial aid…in a good lab this can be something more advanced than mere dishwasher or cage changer.

Some students receive course credit, as their lab work is considered a part of the education that they are paying the University to receive.

Sometimes this course credit is an optional choice- something that someone can choose to do but is not absolutely required. Other times this lab work is a requirement of a Major course of study and is therefore something other than optional.

And sometimes…..

…sometimes that lab work is compensated with only the “work experience” itself. Perhaps with a letter or a verbal recommendation from a lab head.

I believe journals should extend their requirement to Acknowledge all sources of funding to the participation of any trainees who are not being compensated from a traditionally cited source, such as a traineeship. There should be lines such as:

Author JOB participated in this research as an undergraduate course in fulfilling obligations for a Major in Psychology.

Author KRN volunteered in the lab for ~ 10 h a week during the 2020-2021 academic year to gain research experience.

Author TAD volunteered in the lab as part of a high school science fair project supported by his dad’s colleague.

Etc.

I’m not going to go into a long song and dance as to why…I think when you consider what we do traditionally include, the onus is quickly upon us to explain why we do NOT already do this.

Can anyone think of an objection to stating the nature of the participation of students prior to the graduate school level?

One Response to “Acknowledging undergraduate labor in academic papers”

  1. G Tanner Says:

    Great post. My lab recently (last year) published a paper with one graduate student (first) author and a large number of undergraduates who assisted with experimental design, data acquisition, data analysis, and even some of the writing. We of course acknowledged the author contributions of all authors, but we additionally acknowledged sources of funding given to undergraduate authors–of which we had 7 whose funding helped support the project. It seems as though this notion ties heavily into the “trainee” notion of grad student and post-doc labor. Acknowledgement is required.

    Like


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