Though co-authorship between leading academics and graduate students is common, and can often be of mutual benefit, it is reasonable to expect the professor in question to make a substantial contribution to the end product - especially if they are the lead author.
A key issue is how much credit should be given those who do the hard slog of gathering the evidence and crunching the numbers? When co-writing papers I have always insisted they be the lead author, but I suspect this is often not the case. This paragraph from an article by Jacob Hale Russell in magazine 02138, A Million Little Writers, caught my eye:
One of academia’s up-and-coming darlings is Roland Fryer, an assistant professor in the economics department who began teaching at Harvard just last year. Fryer is a media star: He has appeared on CNN and been written about in the New York Times, Esquire, and this issue of 02138 (see page 34). Fryer’s group, the American Inequality Lab, works on a half-dozen or more major research areas at a time. To do so, Fryer now employs seven full-time “project managers,” mostly recent college alums, and works with dozens of others. The students, generally recent college graduates like David Toniatti, each manage a research project, from designing the methodology to collecting the data and running the numbers. Fryer writes the final papers, for which he is accorded primary authorship. “It’s him casting a vision, us working through the details, and him correcting it,” Toniatti says. “Everyone can run the regression; it’s really the idea that counts.”
I am sure what goes on at Harvard's American Inequality Lab is quite common, and that many economic professors engage in such 'atelier' practices. And at least Fryer is said to write the final papers. But to what extent should such academic outsourcing be accredited? Is co-authorship enough? Comments welcome - especially if you have been party to these kind of arrangements yourself.
UPDATE: Tim Harford links to this post at his FT Undercover Economist blog, and comments:
This makes perfect sense to me, but the 02138 article also lays out some of the risks and problems of too much outsourcing. Roland Fryer, incidentally, is a very impressive figure and features in The Logic of Life. Stephen Dubner (co-author of Freakonomics) wrote a truly astonishing profile of him here - if you never read anything about an economist every again, at least read that.