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I work in a field (Philosophy) where co-authorship is uncommon and advisors and grad students very seldomly co-author a paper. I've seen a lot of posts on Academia.se though about the ethics of co-authoring papers with mentors, such as this question.

My sense is that it must be somewhat common in the natural sciences for the head of the lab/dissertation advisor to be automatically added as a co-author to every paper that his or her graduate students produce.

My questions are:

  • Is this really common, and if so, in which fields?
  • Is this really ethical?

My view is that adding your name to something that you had no part in creating is just plagiarism: it's taking credit for the work of others.

The opposite argument, that the work wouldn't have been possible without the PI's grant funding also cuts no ice. I wouldn't have been able to write my dissertation if my parents hadn't had sex, but that doesn't mean they should get credit as coauthoring my work.

That's the way it seems to me, but maybe somebody from these fields can give us a better rationale for (what seems to be) the widespread practice.

Edit: Another argument against the practice. Suppose I'm a billionaire who knows nothing about science, but I take it into my head that I want to be (regarded as) a famous scientist. Suppose I just spend billions of dollars to fund other people to do research. But, I ask each of those people to come and report to me for fifteen minutes ever week about what they've worked on, or discovered that week. Then, every time one of them finds a result, I demand that my name be added to the paper as a co-author, since we have "discussed" the work in progress and it is, after all, by my grace that the funds for the work have been provided. Suppose I just have hundreds of these postdocs, producing thousands of papers a year, all of which I am a coauthor for.

Now ask yourself if I really deserve to be regarded as a famous scientist at all? It seems to me that I don't, because I haven't done any of the science--I haven't suggested any research methods, I haven't designed any experiments, I haven't collected any data, I haven't even helped junior researchers know the shape of the existing literature. You might regard my existence as good for science in some sense--you might think of me as a beneficial patron of the sciences. But you wouldn't think of me as a scientist, right? And you wouldn't think I deserved to be considered for a Nobel Prize, or membership in the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, or whatever. If I demanded that I be given those awards because of the thousands and thousands of papers that I have coauthored, which have been cited tens of thousands of times, you would call me an idiot, right? We give those prizes for discovery, not for being rich. The same thing is true of tenure too. You shouldn't be able to buy your role as a tenured professor. You should have to prove that you, personally, are capable of making a serious contribution to your field. And of course you demonstrate that capability by publishing papers.

So when a prof is automatically added as a coauthor to a paper that he or she did not contribute to in any way except financially, then she is trying to buy a reputation as a scholar, or the other perks like tenure or membership in the AAAS that come with that reputation in just the same kind of way that the absurd billionaire is doing.

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@Suresh: The questions overlap but in my opinion are not identical. Moreover both questions are (still in my opinion, of course) just about the most important questions one could ask on a site like this. So I think they should be encouraged and people should think hard about giving good, broadly applicable answers. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 '14 at 17:46
Your example of a billionaire who knows nothing about science doesn't hold water. The billionaire clearly made no intellectual contribution, since s/he knows nothing about science. Discussing something with the head of a scientific laboratory for 15 minutes a week could result in a significant scientific contribution, though this is not guaranteed. (For example, "I can't get X to work." "Did you try adjustment Y?" Next week, "Hey, Y allowed me to get great results!") –  David Richerby Apr 15 '14 at 19:47
Here's a conversation I have with my grad student colleagues occasionally. "Hey, look at this for me. I've got these three premises that should entail this conclusion, but I can't get the proof." "Yeah, you missed a negation here." "oh, yeah. there it is." I would never want to be a coauthor for something like that. –  shane Apr 15 '14 at 19:49
@DavidRicherby They don't even need to suggest anything, just make the them talk/think aloud –  Izkata Apr 15 '14 at 20:53
@izkata, are you suggesting making the rubber duck a co-author? –  shane Apr 15 '14 at 22:28

9 Answers 9

up vote 30 down vote accepted

No, it is not ethical – irrespectively of the discipline!

The following is from the "DFG Proposals for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice" (pp.82f, emphasis added), which, for instance, strictly forbids "automatic" co-authorships and gives a couple of common negative examples:

Authors of an original scientific publication shall be all those, and only those, who have made significant contributions to the conception of studies or experiments, to the generation, analysis and interpretation of the data, and to preparing the manuscript, and who have consented to its publication, thereby assuming responsibility for it. [...] Therefore, the following contributions on their own are not sufficient to justify authorship:

  • merely organisational responsibility for obtaining the funds for the research,
  • providing standard investigation material,
  • the training of staff in standard methods,
  • merely technical work on data collection,
  • merely technical support, such as only providing equipment or experimental animals,
  • regularly providing datasets only,
  • only reading the manuscript without substantial contributions to its content,
  • directing an institution or working unit in which the publication originates

Help of this kind can be acknowledged in footnotes or in the foreword.

In fact, DFG (the German Research Council) requires you to sign strict adherence to this ethical code on each and every grant proposal. Other funding agencies have similar regulations.

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+1: this seems like a very important answer. Some people on this site have suggested that in certain scientific fields the practice is just not regarded as unethical. One wonders why such a basic academic principle -- which for instance makes contact with the universal condemnation of plagiarism -- could be so field-dependent. This answer provides convincing evidence that there are some common ethical principles at work here. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 16 '14 at 1:15
@PeteL.Clark: I think the issue is that there are also unethical traditions in some fields that are so common that young researchers just internalize them without ever questioning them. One trigger for DFG to make this explicit was the extreme case of a med school professor, who had "co-authored" more than 400 papers in a single year. Still, surprisingly many researchers I have talked too consider this as "pretty normal". –  Daniel Apr 16 '14 at 8:00
Perhaps the problem is that writing successful grant proposals, that take a long time, are not considered a metric in the academic career; so there is a tendency to unethical practices. –  Davidmh Apr 16 '14 at 12:38
@Davidmh, why think that winning grants isn't a metric in an academic career. Everyone I've ever known who won a grant put the name, date, and amount of the grant on his or her CV. That's an appropriate way to take credit, and I think everyone in academia appreciates those kinds of contributions--especially deans who make crucial hiring/promotion decisions. –  shane Apr 16 '14 at 14:28
@shane Some people put the positions of their former PhD students (makes sense if many of them go to Caltech and Princeton), but in many cases, only articles are counted (or mostly counted). After all, "he has 20 papers in Nature" sounds way better than "he funded 20 papers in Nature". –  Davidmh Apr 16 '14 at 14:35

Is this really common, and if so, in which fields?

I guess it is reasonably common in many fields. As a rule of thumb, it seems to me that the more applied a field is, the more likely you are to see groups where the lab head co-authors every or almost every paper in the lab. In my field (software engineering), I would say at least 50% - 75% of all groups operate like this. Academia.SE tells me that this is not the case e.g., in Theoretical CS.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that the lab head is added to each paper without contribution (although there are certainly groups where it means exactly that). In some cases, it is just that all research in a lab directly runs through the lab head (i.e., nobody works on research without the direct involvement of the lab head). In such cases, co-authorship on all papers may be academically warranted (but this might actually be the worse practice in reality, as it allows for no growth to independence at all for the PhD students and postdocs in the lab).

Is this really ethical?

I would argue that things are more complicated than you seem to think, mostly because the funding argument that you claim "holds no ice" is in fact not so bad. Your comparison with your parents having sex is pretty silly. Big research labs depend on senior researchers acquiring grant money. This takes a lot of time - time, that said researchers cannot use to write actual papers. Researchers on any level are mostly evaluated via papers. Under these circumstances, if senior researchers don't get a "kickback" on some level from the money they acquire, what would motivate them to write grant proposals in the first place?

There is also the added difficulty that in many STEM fields it is just darn difficult to decide whether somebody has made a contribution (see also here: What are the minimum contributions required for co-authorship). Is discussing ideas enough? What if all the important ideas and suggestions came from the advisor? Oftentimes, the research work of a PhD student is basically an implementation of a high-level plan laid out by the advisor in the funding proposal. In that case, has the advisor not by default "contributed" to all papers?

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@FaheemMitha I guess this depends on your definition of 'participating' (and also on large/medium-sized). A lab head can certainly forbid (or strongly discourage) research that does not directly go back to his own ideas, as written down in grant proposals and position papers. –  xLeitix Apr 15 '14 at 17:41
"can certainly forbid (or strongly discourage) research". Well, that's an extremely loose definition of participation. Giving orders does not equal participation in my book. –  Faheem Mitha Apr 15 '14 at 17:43
@FaheemMitha It is not so much that he contributes by giving orders, it is more that no research work to which he has not contributed can be done. I have seen this in a few labs with very tight research plans. I don't think this is exactly a model system, but it certainly happens. –  xLeitix Apr 15 '14 at 17:45
"Your comparison with your parents having sex is pretty silly. Big research labs depend on senior researchers acquiring grant money. This takes a lot of time - time, that said researchers cannot use to write actual papers." That argument would hold just as true of the dean and the president of the university as it does of the head of the lab. Why should the the head of the lab get credit, just because he paid for the materials, or researchers that made a project possible? There are other ways to give credit for securing grants, and funding research. But attribution as a coauthor isn't one. –  shane Apr 15 '14 at 18:33
@xLeitix, to see the phenomenon in action, I recommend attending a panel discussion at the American Philosophical Association. –  shane Apr 15 '14 at 19:04

In fundamental mathematics, at least in France, the custom is for advisors never to co-author (important) papers with their students. If an advisor does coauthor a paper with a PhD student, then it is assumed that he or she had to help the student more than should be expected, and this can prevent the student to get a job afterward.

This goes to the point of being arguably unethical in the opposite way than asked in the question, as most of the time advisors do have a role (if only suggest the question and the angle of attack) in PhD student papers.

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Well, in case there was significant input by the advisor, this is unethical as well. –  Raphael Apr 16 '14 at 12:40
The point is that this unethical aspect, while certainly arguable, is on the community itself. A given advisor that would not follow the custom would put a strong handicap on its PhD students. –  Benoît Kloeckner Apr 16 '14 at 18:07

This depends on many factors, and there is no general answer. In a field like experimental particle physics, you can have a paper with 500 authors. These experiments are huge collaborations. For people doing theoretical work in the sciences, it's more common to have only one or two authors; the question is then whether the adviser made a significant contribution.

Yes, it does happen sometimes that people get added as coauthors when they shouldn't. At a lab where I once worked, the director of the lab got his name on every paper done by anybody at the lab, even if he had made no contribution. (His c.v. proudly listed his vast number of scientific publications.) I once had a coauthor who refused to read and comment on the paper before it was submitted, but who also wanted his name on it. He was backed by our PI, because he had done work on the experiment.

In the natural sciences, the norm is basically that if you made a significant contribution to the work, your name goes on the paper. Typically a grad student's adviser will make a significant contribution to any work the student carries out.

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I don't have a problem with people who made a contribution being added. What I have a problem with is getting credit for somebody else's work. –  shane Apr 15 '14 at 16:32

I doubt I have anything too original to say here, but I couldn't resist a chance to add my 2c. This might be the most fraught question in academia, as least if you are a student or a post-doc.

Is it ethical for advisors to automatically coauthor papers?

I assume that by advisor you are also including a postdocs PI, for example. So let us consider the question as this more general one. The basic answer in my opinion, is... No, of course, not.

I've seen various positions/justifications on/for this. They include:

  1. That's just the way it is. The advisor provides the funding. Without him, you would have no funding, no job, and no paper. So be grateful. This might be described as the "capitalist justification" for this practice. Similar viewpoints are expressed to justify why capitalism and capitalists are good things.
  2. Well, the advisor is providing value even if you don't think or know it. It is easy for a junior researcher to underestimate the value of an overarching research plan, and the value in discussion and the perspective of a senior researcher.
  3. Well, the senior faculty need a payoff, or else why is it worth their while? This was expressed by @xLeitix for example.

That might be some value/validity in all these viewpoints, but I personally don't think that any of these is a justification for such practices.

As far as 1 goes, you can basically use the same justification for a sweatshop.

As far as 2, I think that the help provided by one individual spreading himself as thin as the kinds of people we are talking about do, is likely to be realistically very low, unless the person in question is very energetic and very talented. Such people are rare. Plus senior people don't usually have that kind of energy anyway. Also, research questions are just too hard, complicated, and non-obvious. You need to dig in. But you can't dig in 20 holes at the same time. Additionally, in the kind of complex multi-disciplinary areas that are getting more common these days, it is increasingly difficult to have a sufficiently broad skill-set to be able to keep up with more than a fraction of what is going on in a typical research lab.

My experience of mentors/advisors contributions is that their contributions tended to be useless/rubbish because they did not really understand the issues, either because they didn't have or didn't want to take the time, or their training had simply not equipped them to do so.

3 is really the hardest to respond to; I'm not sure I have a good response. However, it is not really a justification so much as a pragmatic observation.

So, to the subquestions

Is this really common, and if so, in which fields?

It is really hard to know this. You can't pass out a survey which includes a box to tick saying "yes, I'm a crook and fraud". However... @xLeitix writes

I guess it is reasonably common in many fields. As a rule of thumb, it seems to me that the more applied a field is, the more likely you are to see groups where the lab head co-authors every or almost every paper in the lab. In my field (software engineering), I would say at least 50% - 75% of all groups operate like this.

Based on my experience, I think this sounds pretty accurate, though I would not venture any percentages. I've worked in more theoretical fields, notably Math and Statistics, and in Biomed type fields; this kind of thing is much less common in the theoretical fields, and practically the norm in Biomed. In fact, I didn't see any of this in Math. I don't think this is because mathematicians are inherently any more virtuous than anyone else. I think it is because applied work just inherently has more overhead in practical terms than theoretical work, at least in the implementation end of the work. If a mathematician has an idea, he has to prove it, which may not be so easy, but once he has done that, he is basically done. In an applied area, if you have an idea, you are just getting started. You have to collect data and/or perform experiments, probably write some code, write the paper, make figures, etc. etc. So there is just more room for monkey work which a junior person can do.

If I am an applied researcher, I'm probably under immense pressure to perform, to get tenure, or maybe just keep my job. I could try to be good, and contribute to every paper that I am putting my name on, but given the immense overhead of applied work as described above, and also, given that your colleagues are probably happily abusing the system, there is immense temptation, I imagine, to abuse the system as well. Just to keep up.

In any case, in my experience, most people who do this seems to have completely internalized this behavior, and seem to take it for granted.

Is this really ethical?

No, of course not. Ultimately, my objections are really that of straight morality. I think it is just wrong. These practices are a form of fraud and a form of reputation/credit theft. Granted, in the grand scheme of things they are fairly minor offenses, but regardless...

I think Shane (the poster) makes a good point with his billionaire hypothesis.

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Thanks Faheem. I think the way to respond to your #3 is just to say that there are other ways of giving PIs credit for mentoring grads. At every US university I've ever heard of, tenure decisions are made in terms of: (i) scholarship, (ii) teaching, and (iii) department service. Getting grant funding and mentoring PhDs should count under (iii). Trying to count those papers as research, i.e. get them to fall under (i) as well, strikes me as pernicious double counting. –  shane Apr 15 '14 at 20:07
Good points, @shane. –  Faheem Mitha Apr 15 '14 at 20:08
I like a lot of this answer. What concerns me, though, is that you seem to think very badly of senior researchers in general ("senior people don't usually have that kind of energy anyway", "research questions are just too hard, complicated, and non-obvious", "their contributions tended to be useless/rubbish", etc.). For individuals this may be true, but in general - how do you think those senior researchers became senior researchers? By not having the slightest clue how to do research? That seems unlikely. Occam's razor suggests that their might have (also) been a problem on your end. –  xLeitix Apr 15 '14 at 20:26
Thanks for the comment @xLeitix: First, I'm not talking about all "senior researchers", just those that have "advised" me in the Biomed area. So, we're talking about a small group of individuals. I would like to think my experiences are untypical, but my experience talking to other people has suggested, that, sadly, it is not. Of course, without direct experience, I have no way of knowing. One point that is worth noting, if one has a bad experience with individual 1, then this significantly increases the odds of having more bad experiences later. Why? –  Faheem Mitha Apr 15 '14 at 21:00
Because your first bad experience could have caused a career hit, which can be difficult to recover from and would have limited your choices. To put it in statistical parlance, bad experiences are not independent. As to "but in general - how do you think those senior researchers became senior researchers? By not having the slightest clue how to do research?" I never said they didn't have the slightest clue how to do research, or even implied it. Read my post again. –  Faheem Mitha Apr 15 '14 at 21:03

The correct analogy to draw in fields where grant-writing is a critical aspect of the research is architecture: the act of preparing the grant is akin to doing the conceptual design of a new building; the work of the graduate students and postdocs (or other researchers) is the research equivalent of fleshing out the design into a practical design, and converting it into a real building. The master architect (the one overseeing the vision) is going to get a substantial amount of credit, regardless of not being the one to plan everything out to the finest detail. But the important thing is that the end product (the building in one case, the research in the other) would not result without the initial rough sketches for the specific project (the conceptual design or the grant proposal).

This is very different from the billionaire example provided above, because writing a grant requires the construction of a specific framework in which the research will be carried out, not just handing over money to others to do work within some grandiose but completely unspecific vision.

Now, as a further practical matter, very few advisors are "absentee landlords" who merely acquire the grant, and then do nothing else. They almost certainly don't run the code or perform the experiments, but they are active in helping to interpreting the data, design future experiments, and evaluating and editing the manuscripts that are produced. In part, this is a matter of safeguarding one's reputation: if you let people publish bad work under your name, your reputation will suffer as a result in the long run.

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But the important thing is that the end product would not result without the initial rough sketches. — No, that's not enough. All research builds on earlier work. The same argument implies that every paper on cosmology should have Albert Einstein as a coauthor. –  JeffE Apr 22 '14 at 14:43
very few advisors are "absentee landlords" — [citation needed] –  JeffE Apr 22 '14 at 14:46
aeismail: I am not "presupposing facts not in evidence": I am considering a certain case. The question asked whether an advisor's name should automatically go on all papers the student produces. In other words, the OP is inquiring whether a universally quantified statement is valid. To argue against such a statement it suffices to exhibit a counterexample. That is what I am claiming to do. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 23 '14 at 1:30
aeismail: In the US, graduate school is not a nine to five job: no one is checking to make sure that students clock in and clock out at certain times, and most graduate students do a large amount of work after hours and on weekends. Moreover students are not employees of faculty (and no faculty that I know of are really "paying" students; money coming from grants is ultimately coming from another source). The idea that students need to clear everything they do with a faculty member would be considered a disrespectful treatment of students by many faculty I know. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 23 '14 at 5:13
I certainly agree that students who use materials or equipment need to clear that usage with the personnel in charge. In many branches of academia, no materials or equipment beyond libraries and the internet are needed to do research. I know of no branch of academia in which sitting, thinking and writing is not a major component of research. Students are free to sit, think and write without faculty permission, and it distresses me that any students anywhere would be discouraged from doing so. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 23 '14 at 5:16

I work in pure mathematics, where advisors are not co-authors unless they have significant input. My perception is that the convention the question speaks of occurs primarily in the laboratory sciences, so my point of view is that of an outsider

Nevertheless, I do not consider the practice unethical. First of all, there is no deception, because in those fields it is well-established convention that the last name on the paper is the lab PI, and other scientists reading the paper will recognize that she didn't contribute to the paper in the same way the first author did, but that the research was performed in her lab with her grant money.

Secondly, the lab PI doesn't just bring in the money, she also decides which direction the lab's research should focus on, and she often has to organize a large team of people- something that an advisor never has to do in say, mathematics. This is where the billionaire analogy breaks down. If your hypothetical benefactor also has to make decisions what equipment to buy, which skills to recruit in postdocs and grad students, and which (and how much) resources are worth pouring into which scientific questions, then yes, she deserves last author credit.

Thirdly (and I may be a little unfair in this point) my perception is that the standards of co-authorship are lower in the lab sciences compared to math and philosophy, e.g. people who perform tedious monkeying with equipment, or perform statistical analyses in data get their names on papers despite not contributing to the "thinking part" of the project. So if Joe who did nothing but mess with a spectrometer for a couple of days has his name as third author, then Susie who manages the lab should get her name on it too.

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Answers to your question of the ethics of co-authorship need to consider what is the role of (or signal conveyed by) authorship in a publication. This role may 1) differ among disciplines and 2) be evolving all the time.

In the case of large research groups or collaborative projects—as some seen in genetics or physics—the roles of a head researcher involve managing the direction of the research and to create an environment where that research can thrive. The latter may involve obtaining funding, hiring post-docs & PhD students, managing people so research happens in a productive way. Whatever output from that group would probably not happen if it wasn't for the head researcher; in that sense, he/she has a very strong involvement in the creation of a research output. Good research heads will know very well where the different pieces/outputs fit in the overall research project, although they may not be familiar with the details of a calculation in a publication. They will guide provide post-docs and students so their publications fit within the overall project. In my book, this merits co-authorship in a publication.

In addition, there is co-authorship as a signal of group productivity, which is then used to improve the standing of the head researcher when it comes to funding application. This is a game played by many labs in the world; one may not agree with the 'corruption' of traditional authorship, but it is certainly used that way. Thus, I do not think we can discuss the ethics of co-authorship in a vacuum, without understanding its role in modern research practice.

Disclaimer: I do work in a small group, where there is no assumption of automatic co-authorship. I am, however, evaluated on the 'creation and support of research environment' when applying for academic promotion.

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"Whatever output from that group would probably not happen if it wasn't for the head researcher; in that sense, he/she has a very strong involvement in the creation of a research output." Are you saying that if the head is not involved in the research for a paper, then that paper doesn't happen? If so, this is not true at all, in my experience. In many cases I know of, a post-doc has done the work completely and published it himself/herself, with no help/involvement by the head. –  Faheem Mitha Apr 23 '14 at 8:58
I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that there would be no research group without the head. No post-docs, no PhD students, no papers. –  user14382 Apr 24 '14 at 4:09
Well, if that was what you were trying to say, it was not clear. Paying someone's salary is not involvement in research, imo. Please see reason no 1. in my answer. –  Faheem Mitha Apr 24 '14 at 7:37
I did say 'create an environment where that research can thrive', which is much broader than paying a salary. I could hire you, pay your salary and, at the same time, put you in a non-productive environment. Deciding the lines of research and putting together a team to achieve them is not a small feat. In fact, it is often harder than doing the actual research. –  user14382 Apr 24 '14 at 8:04

Any question involving the words "Automatic" and "Authorship" raises red flags for me, and my inclination is always to say "No".

From the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, which is the group that sets authorship guidelines not only for medical journals, but also many journals in closely related fields like public health:

Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications. Authorship also implies responsibility and accountability for published work. The following recommendations are intended to ensure that contributors who have made substantive intellectual contributions to a paper are given credit as authors, but also that contributors credited as authors understand their role in taking responsibility and being accountable for what is published.

Automatic authorship doesn't confer either this responsibility, or imply that they've made substantive intellectual contributions to the papers. Their four suggested criteria is as follows:

Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND Final approval of the version to be published; AND Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

I think that in most cases an advisor should have met the first criteria, and should have met all the subsequent ones for papers with their name on it done by one of their students (otherwise, what exactly is the advisor doing besides signing the occasional form?), but it's entirely possible they haven't.

For example, in my dissertation, I have two papers that do not have my advisors name on them - one because it was a side musing born out of trying to graph a set of results, and pretty much the product of my own brain over the course of a week, and another because they felt they hadn't met those criteria.

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