Monday, February 18, 2013

Who should be a co-author of your paper?

Only people who have made a "significant scientific contribution to the content of the paper".
In particular, getting a grant, employing someone, or being a lab director does not justify co-authorship.
I have observed that the issue cuts both ways with regard to seniority. It is not just senior people demanding to be co-authors. Sometimes it is junior people putting a senior person as co-author to try and "curry favour" with them or in the hope that it will increase the likelihood of publication.

Here are two frank and helpful articles in Nature Materials which discuss some of the relevant issues.
Authorship without authorization (2004)
Authorship matters (2008)

Like a lot of things, problems may be avoided if there are open discussions before employment or a collaboration begins.

Sometimes co-authorship may be a "grey issue". What constitutes a "significant contribution" can be highly subjective.  But I fear there are too many cases of unjustified co-authorship.

I welcome comments and stories.


  1. how do you change the system,

    postdoc/student doesnt refuse to coauthor anything with a senior or famous person, and it'd be suicide poltically if we did.

    1. Indeed it is hard to change the system.
      But, it is changing slowly. The issue is getting more attention.

      One thing you can do is research the reputation of prospective Ph.D and postdoc advisors BEFORE you sign up with them. If they have a reputation for taking more than their share of credit consider working with someone else.

      You can also gently ask questions. Sometimes junior people just assume the senior person expects to be a co-author and are to scarred to even try and discuss it.

    2. where is the repository for this information?

      it is equally dangerous for all but the most angered of previous employees (that's what a grad student and post doc really are) to speak ill of former advisors. we live in a culture which promotes 'being positive' and just not saying anything bad. also, tenure means academic memory is life-long, so if you say bad things about someone (true or not) it gets back to them.

      it becomes hard to get this information about someone. people who have it might have been forced out of the system into other careers

  2. I just wrote a lengthy comment/story intending to post it anonymously, because I can't possibly avoid incriminating people unless that's an option. But it's not. So I deleted it.

    The thing that bothers me most about this unclear system of authorship contribution, is that it dissuades multiple author papers. I am hesitant to get involved in any collaboration beyond two authors, because I don't honestly believe that being second out of three or more is worth very much more than nothing, even if it's in a very good journal.

    If I get a continuing position one day, I'll be happy to be co-author among several. But at least at this stage in my career, when I have to think about my cv constantly, I can scarcely justify being anything but first author on anything except dual author papers.

    That sucks.

    1. In this respect the particle physics practice, where authorship is always alphabetical, irrespective of who the student/post-doc/faculty member was, is a clean way of dealing with issues like this. In that system, there is no particular demerit attached to being an author somewhere in the middle. Its just assumed that everyone made an equivalent contribution.

    2. Tony - I don't think that's true. I think if ALL your papers were third or lower author that could be an issue - but clearly that won't be the case for you. I think working in larger groups allows you to do different things. For example, you might be the theorist on a mostly experimental paper. This can really broaden you experience and raise your profile. Also, you may be able to make a significant contribution with quite a small cost of time because you can do things (relatively easily) that experimentalists can't do etc.

    3. Hi Ben and Tony,

      I agree with Ben. Tony, I think you are over-reacting.
      The best postdoc CV has a publication list with a majority of first-author papers, one or two single author papers, and a few middle-author papers, particularly theory-experiment ones.
      The latter shows one is a team play and one can connect theory and experiment in a concrete way.
      If a theorist can get an experimentalist collaborator to write a letter of reference for them that is a big plus.
      Bear in mind, experimentalists often have significant input into hiring theory faculty. Having published with experimentalists will be seen as a plus, regardless of the author order.

    4. That's helpful Ben and Ross. Thanks.

      I appreciate the point that majority first author is ideal, but then that theorist-experimentalist ones also mean a lot. This makes sense.

      I also like the point that middle author papers can be a lower work-benefit ratio.

      Perhaps my personal experience has made me cynical of all-theorist papers too, and that my experience is not as representative as I'd expect. That would be encouraging.