Monday, September 20, 2010

Who should be a co-author?

Everyone should make sure they are familiar with the American Physical Society's guidelines:
Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution or interpretation of the research study. All those who have made significant contributions should be offered the opportunity to be listed as authors. Other individuals who have contributed to the study should be acknowledged, but not identified as authors. 
Some reasons why someone should not be a co-author:
  • All they did was obtain the funding for the project.
  • Their only contribution is that they are the official supervisor of a student who is a co-author.
  • They have not read the paper!
  • Their only contribution is that their status in the field may help get the paper published.
  • They are not confident the results are valid. In particular, they cannot claim the future option of saying, "Well I didn't work on that part. I always had my doubts about that part..."
The issue of co-authors taking credit but not responsibility was particularly highlighted by the Schon scandal and two separate cases involving postdocs in the laboratory of biologist David Baltimore (a Nobel laureate and former president of Caltech and Rockefeller University).

This article on physics postdocs perceptions of the issue is worth reading.

When in doubt ask your supervisor to discuss these issues.


  1. Agree with most of your points but I'm not sure how one is supposed to be confident that (say) the numerics or experimental data in a joint expt.-theory paper are "valid." One assumes people actually did the experiment or ran the code but, like, these things would be practically quite infeasible to check. (A similar remark applies to crystal growers -- it's practically hard to be sure the crystals really _were_ measured. Etc.)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sarang. I understand your concern. I am co-author of many papers where there is a part of the paper (e.g., an experiment, a quantum chemistry calculation, or computation) which I do not have the expertise to be completely confident that the result is valid. However, hopefully I asked my collaborators enough questions and they have given me enough details of checks they performed (e.g, that the computation gave the correct results in a limit in which I knew the answer) that I am willing to trust that they have done a good enough job that the results are publishable.

    I think if we were all more diligent about this we would end up with better papers....

    But, my main point is that if I am a co-author I do not have the option of saying in the future, "o.k. my collaborator faked his results or made a dud sample but that isn't my fault. I am not responsible."
    Authorship brings credit AND responsibility AND liability.

    It is amazing to me that Batlogg never actually visited Schon in the lab of saw one of his "samples". He seemed happy to accept the glory of being a co-author but not the responsibility and liability.