Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

How do we acknowledge the contributions of undergraduate students to faculty research?

I have read a number of books in which the authors praise a particular group of students, usually of a class closely tied to the subject of a book, for their thought-provoking class discussions. (These expressions of gratitude usually provoke a bit of envy for colleagues who have the treat of discussing their research topic in such depth and over the course of a semester with their students.) In such situations, students are rarely listed by name (although the class might be), and it seems more likely that class discussion inspired further thought in the author than that individuals contributed key ideas to the author’s own thesis. Another example: a student in a class of mine two years ago made an insightful observation that supported my argument in an article I was working on. I included the idea in my article and credited her in a footnote.

But what does one do when one is working with one particular student, perhaps even collaborating? What happens when the number of participants in the conversation is reduced from fifteen to two?

Some of my colleagues (who, I should mention, have had excellent experiences involving students in their research) have chosen to list their student as co-author of their articles. Others have included students as co-presenters or co-authors of conference papers. In my mind, this really represents an ideal situation: the student is so involved in the project that s/he is a true collaborator, rather than an assistant. Such projects have usually lasted more than one semester. One colleague in English worked with a student for nearly two years. Their collaboration on his article was clear; the title of co-author was certainly deserved.

Other colleagues treat their student researchers more as research assistants, i.e., students to carry out the necessary scientific trials, or they collect research materials and sources for social sciences and humanities projects. The compensation for students in such situations seems to vary from none to a footnote expressing gratitude. Perhaps such students can walk away with the pay that came with the work-study research position. Perhaps they simply take away the satisfaction of the resumé-building experience itself.

My sense, however, is that I am not alone in having had an experience that is neither one nor the other, that is more than simple grunt work but not as much as co-authorship. Working with my student Emily would likely have moved in the direction of co-authorship; the project simply wasn’t long enough. How do I acknowledge the conversations we had that energized the project and shaped the use of secondary material? How do we acknowledge it when students inspire us but in ways that are perhaps less tangible and concrete? How do you acknowledge student support of your research? Please share your comments and experiences!