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We academics sure love to discuss authorship, don’t we?  Previous posts on this blog have addressed authorship issues such as author order and criteria for authorship.  The latter post dove deeply into the issue of defining what sorts of contributions are substantial enough to merit authorship.  I thought this post and the corresponding comments were great . . . but too focused on one side of authorship at the expense of the other side.

Before I explain what I mean by that, consider the following mini-case studies:

(A) You are a Ph.D. student wrapping up your dissertation. As you finish, a side project to which you contributed substantially is also being written up.  You are slated to be a middle author on this paper, but you don’t agree with the way some critical calculations were done.  You have mentioned your concerns to the PI, but he wants to keep the calculations the way they are.  You fear that if you ask to have your name removed from the side-project paper, the PI will be insulted by your pull-out.  You don’t want to spoil a generally good six-year relationship; also, you also will be relying heavily on his letter of recommendation in your job applications.  Should you nevertheless ask that your name be removed from the paper?

(B) A coworker is struggling to write a paper that is due soon for a special issue of a journal.  It is not clear whether he will meet the deadline.  Recognizing your writing skill, the coworker asks you to help revise the paper.  You meet with him and provide substantial editorial feedback on two drafts of the paper, addressing both large issues (narrative flow, justification of claims with evidence) and smaller ones.  You were not otherwise involved in the planning or execution of this project.  Should you accept your coworker’s offer to make you a coauthor?

(C) You are writing up a study in which you were assisted by several undergraduates, who performed biochemical assays under your supervision but are not involved in the preparation of the paper.  If you list them as coauthors, their chances of getting into medical school will go up, and you and your department will also be lauded as providing undergrads with substantive research experiences. Should you include the undergrads as authors?

I don’t think the answers to these questions are immediately obvious.  They weren’t obvious to me, at least, when I was the “you” in each scenario.  But maybe they would be if we could all agree on common standards for authorship!

One standard that I like was articulated in this comment by Jeremy on the post cited above: “Authorship is about responsibility and credit.”

Some may find that too terse to be useful.  To me, it cuts right to the heart of an important issue.

Credit and responsibility should go hand in hand — i.e., people should get credit for taking responsibility — but too often we focus mostly on the credit side.  For example, many discussions of authorship state or imply that certain activities are sufficient for authorship in and of themselves, irrespective of whether the contributor is aware of and agrees with the resulting paper.  This was true of the Dynamic Ecology poll on author contributions, where 65% of respondents thought that collecting lots of data itself justified authorship, and substantial minorities thought that other roles independent of manuscript preparation were themselves sufficient for authorship.  While respondents may have assumed that these choices implicitly included “and also read and approved the paper,” I have my doubts.  Moreover, published studies such as L Dress Pointed Women High Dress YC Rivets 'S Heeled Red Sandals Color Fight Shoes 66rUqxw (Current Medical Research and Opinion 22:1035-1044) have identified situations in which over half of coauthors do not review and approve the manuscripts on which they are coauthors!  (Perhaps some of them reviewed an earlier draft rather than the final submission, but still. . . .)

Why is this responsibility aspect important?  Well, loading papers up with peripheral coauthors leads to the dilution of responsibility.  If I am a middle author on a 10-author paper, I might decide that the limited credit I’ll receive for the paper absolves me of any need to sweat the details. I might even convince myself that I’m doing the lead author a favor by not troubling him/her with my nitpicky concerns.  Multiply this attitude by seven or eight and you have a situation where the lead author’s attempt at a coherent story, however earnest, has not been vetted adequately.

One common-sense counterweight to this dilution-of-responsibility problem is to reaffirm that all coauthors do bear responsibility for their papers, and to enforce this standard consistently in our own paper-writing.  While this step alone will not eliminate problems of muddled methods, misplaced data, overstated conclusions, and so forth, it will surely help.

What does it mean to take responsibility for a paper?  I suggest the following rule of thumb: each coauthor should attest to both (1) the integrity of his/her parts of the study and (2) the plausibility of the rest of the study.  By “plausibility” I mean that the coauthor has reviewed the entire study and considers it reasonable to the best of his/her knowledge.  Thus, while middle authors will not generally inspect all of the raw data or sources cited, they should still confirm that the entire paper makes sense to them and seems defensible.

A similar (though even more stringent) rule of thumb is offered by Oikos in its author guidelines: all authors “should be able to present and defend the work in a public forum.”

Thinking of responsibility as a critical component of authorship is not only the right thing to do, it also brings clarity to certain authorship decisions.

For scenario (A) above, if you are focused only on the credit side of authorship, you might elect to remain a coauthor; after all, you did a lot of work on the project.  But I claim that if you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the paper, you shouldn’t be included.

Scenario (B) is in some ways the opposite of scenario (A). Here you were not involved in the experimental work, so perhaps you don’t deserve credit for it.  But in carefully going through the entire paper multiple times with the lead author and checking for internal consistency, clarity, etc., you took on substantial responsibility, perhaps moreso than most other authors.  Here, the credit-AND-responsibility model of authorship suggests that a borderline case might actually have a decent claim to authorship.

Scenario (C) is essentially a variation on scenario (A), and my conclusion is the same: those who can’t or don’t vouch for a paper should not be coauthors, even if their experimental contributions were significant.  Undergraduates who carefully check a manuscript may well deserve authorship, but those who don’t probably don’t.

If I seem smug and self-righteous in making these assertions, what you are perceiving is mostly my disappointment in my own limitations and weaknesses.  At the time of (A), I chickened out and left my name on the paper.  For (C), my desire to be generous led me to include students whose contributions would have been better acknowledged in the Acknowledgments section.  I am trying to learn from these experiences, though.  Why, just last week I removed my name from a PLoS ONE manuscript!

In conclusion, I hope readers agree with me (and Jeremy) that responsibility is a central part of authorship.  But I trust that you will offer caveats, exceptions, and protests in the comments!

Acknowledgments: Jeremy Fox read a draft of this post and made helpful comments.  However, he does not bear responsibility for the author’s attempt to turn personal authorship melodramas into a serious blog post, and thus is not a coauthor.

tl;dr: Authorship shouldn’t work like the second panel of this cartoon.


47 thoughts on “Case studies in coauthorship: what would you do and why?

  1. What seems to be missing here is the Acknowledgements section and its thanking folks for input short of co-authorship; and the standard declaration that they are not responsible for its final content. oops, it is included…sort of. I have read zillions of buddies papers/books in draft and provided lots of input, disagreement, etc, and never once thought I thus earned coauthorship by that alone. I think the standard for coauthorship are much lower today; lets call it the great dilution.
    The emphasis on responsibility also seems odd; perhaps you assume some-big-things about the paper will be wrong? I assume the paper will be technically correct, but maybe dull, or not. The papers long term influence will depend on that, provided the methods are ok, and math derivations not wrong.

    For A it depends upon the strength of disagreement, if the alternative changes the conclusions a lot. I find it puzzling that the immediate career aspects of the collaboration are discussed; the real issue is whether 5 yrs down the road you would regret seeing others get credit for your ‘ideas’, your’ stuff’. you can include in the acknowledgements section that you prefer alternative methods.

    For B…..nope, someone who aids writing, who edits ,deserves warm acknowledgement, but not coauthorship. Besides the scenario seems very unlikely.

    For C, the answer is also no, at least for the reasons given; putting undergrads on a paper they have not really earned for career boasts alone is improper, in my opinion. having said that I think we have an obligation to include undergrads and grad students as substantial coworkers, if we can. We should make clear what that means when they come into the lab. or begin writing equations.

    • Ric, thanks for your thoughts.
      * I agree that I should have said more about Acknowledgments as a middle ground between authorship and non-authorship.
      * I am emphasizing responsibility here because of my sense that there are lots of incentives to accumulate credit for research, perhaps beyond our ability to take responsibility for all of what we get credit for, which worries me.
      * For A, I was describing the scenario as I experienced it at the time. I was not thinking about 5 years down the road (though one could argue that I should have been).
      * Scenario B, unlikely or not, happened to me essentially as described. (The paper is PubMed ID 21904041.)

      • FWIW, I see scenarios similar to B a lot, especially among grad students (or in labs/collaborations with many non-native speakers of English). I don’t think this deserves authorship, but I also wouldn’t be affronted to find out that somebody was given authorship in this case, particularly if the parameters were slightly broader (say, being a sounding board during the “ideas” stage as well as the writing-up stage).

        Come to think of it, I can’t imagine very many scenarios where I’d be affronted about someone being _included_ on a paper. (Being excluded is a very different matter!) People are put on and taken off papers for all sorts of bizarre political reasons, and it’s not really my place to worry about other people’s business.

      • “Come to think of it, I can’t imagine very many scenarios where I’d be affronted about someone being _included_ on a paper. (Being excluded is a very different matter!) People are put on and taken off papers for all sorts of bizarre political reasons, and it’s not really my place to worry about other people’s business.”

        Which is a big reason why authorship lists are getting longer: the benefits (or perceived benefits) of including people as authors go only to them. The costs, such as they are, are diffused widely.

  2. Re: scenario A, I have a couple of old posts on what coauthors should do if they disagree with one another on what the ms should say:
    I think that if you’re a co-author you should agree with everything in the ms, except minor things (e.g., maybe you think a particular point should’ve been phrased slightly differently, or emphasized a bit more). Meaning that, if you seriously disagree with what the ms says, you should pull your name from it (and re: Ric’s comments above, I disagree that recording your disagreements in the Acknowledgments makes it ok for you to remain an author. Basically nobody reads the acknowledgements, and in any case they’re not the place to discuss substantive scientific matters.). But many ecologists disagree with me that all co-authors should agree with everything the ms says. As for the possibility that pulling your name from the paper might upset someone with some power over your career, that gets into a different issue that has nothing to do with authorship per se. It’s an important issue, but not specifically authorial: How much are you prepared to compromise on *anything* to stay in the good graces of someone with power over you? And what practical steps can you take to protect yourself when doing the right thing might mean upsetting someone with power over you? (Also, in practice, my hope and expectation would be that in the large majority of cases, one could eventually compromise with one’s co-authors as to what the ms should say, with no one holding any long-term grudges against anyone else. If the sort of disagreement you describe would lead to your supervisor writing you bad reference letters, then surely that disagreement over what one paper should say is merely a symptom of some much bigger underlying problem between you and your supervisor…)

    Re: scenario B, I’d lean towards saying you shouldn’t be an author, but really I think it’s fuzzy and depends exactly how much your editorial feedback shaded over into actually writing the paper (e.g., telling the other authors exactly what to say and how to say it). I’m thinking for instance of the much-deplored practice in medicine of “ghost authors”–paid writers who write papers for the authors without being listed as authors themselves. If your only substantive contribution to the ms is writing it, or writing a large chunk of it, or doing such substantive and detailed editing that you effectively wrote it, you should be an author.

    Scenario C is very clear-cut to me: no, those undergrads should not be authors, they should merely be acknowledged. If they also involve themselves in the writing in a substantive way, then yes they should be.

    • Hi J; we probably must agree to disagree on A; In metabolic ecology I disagree with most of my coauthors about how mortality rate links [ or more likely not] to metabolic rate, and mostly their views are found in the joint papers. this is a contentious issue in all metabolic studies, going back a century. I would be foolish to not be a coauthor on these influential papers to which I contributed in big ways;Even if the disagreement is pretty big. I have many other examples.

    • No, one should not be a coauthor for even extensive editing/rewriting. Only if one contributes to the ideas, analysis,….the whole science..should one be a coauthor.A close friend is a professional editor, and has often worked through my papers, and yes, improved them; But he/she never asked for coauthorship for the task. I think its pretty clear when someone has really contributed to the science, and writing itself is not really there.
      On the other hand if someone reads a ms for me and really does change the science in substantative way [ not just correcting my misspelled words] I would probably ask them to be a coauthor.

  3. An issue that is now in play in Entomology (with two different faculty members); what do you do when your collaborator is arrested for sexual misconduct? What do you do when your major professor is fired for sexual harassment?
    The co-authorship scenarios there are nightmares, and I can’t get my head around it. Would love to see that discussion.

    • That is a nightmare. Very hard to think about authorship in such situations because it’s mixed up with so many other considerations. I think Terry McGlynn might’ve had a post on this a long time ago at Small Pond Science?

    • How terrifying a situation. If an author was one of the victims of the conduct, that would make it especially terrible and challenging to deal with.

      In such situations, many universities have an “ombudsperson” who can discuss difficult circumstances with anyone in complete confidential (e.g. and provide clarifications on University policy from a supportive but neutral point of view.

      Most people are sadly unaware that their University even has an ombudsperson [often called ombudsman]. It is a really important resource.

  4. If someone writes part of the ms and participates in ms revisions, they are an author. That’s easy.
    People who do not write but shape or influence the story in a substantial way are likely deserving to be authors. They have assumed some share of responsibility for the end product. Substantial involvement in study design, framing questions, interpreting results, and ms revisions all merit authorship.
    Handing over data, providing lab space, performing analyses, proofing a ms, are all valuable contributions to be acknowledged but do not merit authorship.
    For example, an editor/reviewer can clean up a ms without influencing the story at all. Not an author in that case. Or an editor/reviewer can do the same and also substantially influence the story (emphasizing a different main conclusion, reframing the question…). Depending on the degree of influence, perhaps they are an author. In the first case, the editor helped tell the story as it is in a more organized, cleaner way perhaps. In the second, the editor helped to tell a different story.

    • “performing analyses … does not merit authorship” – this depends on how much creativity is involved, if someone is effectively given an exact recipe on how to analyze the data by someone else on the project, then data analysis is not an intellectual contribution to the paper. However, if someone is handed a data set and a scientific question and told to analyze the data (and figure out the best way to do that on their own), that almost certainly merits authorship.

      An analogy: you give a student an experimental design and they collect the data (not co-authorship). You give the student a question and they develop the experimental design (co-authorship required because they effectively wrote a section of the methods).

      As an aside – I think it is morally questionable [in many situations] to have a student do a task that does not lead to co-authorship if the student is not paid to complete the task. If the task is so menial as to not warrant co-authorship, exactly how valuable is it for their education? I am concerned about students being exploited for free labor.

“However, if someone is handed a data set and a scientific question and told to analyze the data (and figure out the best way to do that on their own), that almost certainly merits authorship.”

Oh, yes. I certainly agree. They have influenced the story in a large way.

RE: Students. It seems to me that if an undergraduate is motivated to do the work to be a coauthor, then perhaps they should be given the opportunity to do so. Even so, we all have to start somewhere and I volunteered my time just to get into a lab as an undergraduate and over the course of a few months I proved I had the motivation to get into active research. I have not observed any outright, clear exploitation of students, but maybe I just wasn’t looking for it.

  • It should be noted that not everyone, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can afford to work for free [and this can really hinder diversity]. If the job involves mostly menial tasks like cleaning equipment, pipetting, data entry, etc, we should be honest with ourselves. After perhaps a few days, the student isn’t really benefitting enough educationally from those tasks to warrant working for free. We definitely do have to start somewhere but note that the ability to volunteer one’s time is a privilege that many of us are born with and that some do not have. We should ask ourselves, “Will the student benefit more from this task than taking an extra course related to their research interests?” if the answer is “no” we should pay that student to do the task. I think that question is a good litmus test – it doesn’t exactly solve the problem of diversity but at least it allows students to enter these labs who can only do so if they are paid a very modest wage. What do you think?

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