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I'm an American professor in a branch of theoretical science at a US institution. There is a Japanese postdoc in our group who has nearly finished writing a paper with one of the American postdocs. We're having a bit of a conflict over authorship: the Japanese postdoc wants my name to be on the publication, and I don't think it's appropriate. I chatted about the project with them while it was in progress and made a few suggestions, but fundamentally all the ideas and computations originated with the two postdocs. I think that they should take full credit for the work and I that I should take none, and this seems consistent with US authorship norms to me. However, the postdoc from Japan seems very unhappy that I don't want to sign my name on the paper. He said that if I don't, then he won't feel like he can discuss his future work-in-progress with me because he will think I am disavowing the work or that I have no time for him. I've insisted that I'm happy to discuss his work, I just think that he deserves his share of credit for it and that if my name is attached it might be perceived by others as more my work than his.

I've never encountered this situation before. At times I've been in the opposite situation, when I was a postdoc, feeling that professors were claiming undue credit for my work, so actively wanting a professor who did none of the actual work to claim authorship is difficult for me to understand. But I assume this is a difference in cultural norms; I know professors from certain countries in our field who have such a large number of publications that it's clear they're claiming authorship over this sort of project that they had very little involvement in. (I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism of them; I think that within their local academic culture, this is expected and ethical behavior.)

How should I negotiate this cultural clash?

(Also, to forestall one possible set of comments, I'm in a field where alphabetical author order is conventional, so that isn't an issue here.)

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Did you discuss the possibility of having an explicit Acknowledgments section, where you would be thanked by name? –  userxxxxx Apr 15 at 15:11
    
That was my preferred alternative, but he doesn't like it. He seems to feel almost insulted by the suggestion. –  Anonymous Apr 15 at 15:12
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A professor actively not wanting to be on a paper? unheard of! More seriously, it probably does vary some from subject to subject, but in all the academic circles I've been in / heard from, the PI is pretty much always an author (last, unless they really did enough work for first). In many areas, it gives the paper more weight and legitimacy, having a more senior person as an author. –  Kevin Apr 15 at 21:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I feel like the right answer must be to continue the conversation with the Japanese postdoc and ultimately give him the responsibility to understand and accept your position.

I understand that at first he interpreted your lack of desire for coauthorship in a certain way. And then you explained your position, as you have written here. How did he react to that? If someone insists on interpreting your behavior in a way different from how you are explicitly identifying it as being meant to be interpreted, what can you really do other than ensure that your future actions are consistent with the interpretation of your present behavior that you have conveyed?

I don't see any insurmountable "cultural differences" here. In my field (mathematics, which sounds like it is equal or close to yours) there are plenty of singly authored papers by Japanese people, so obviously the practice of supervisory coauthorship is not a fundamental tenet of Japanese culture or anything like that. Even if it were: if the postdoc is in the US working in your group, then he has volunteered in a very strong sense to participate in your local brand of Western academic culture. If he cannot understand that actions can have different meanings in your neck of the woods than what he was used to earlier in his career (whether by virtue of his being Japanese or for some other reason), then he's headed for big trouble.

I would say: clearly explain the situation as best you can, in several sittings if necessary. Don't put your name on a paper that you don't feel you contributed to just because that makes the postdoc uncomfortable. In the near future, try to go a little out of your way to show that you still want to do business with the postdoc (assuming you still do, which sounds reasonable).

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Your view is in line with international norms as expressed by guidelines for authorship (see for example Council of Science Editors, [BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal)] and ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has written up guidelines for authorship and contributorship based on the Vancouver Protocol.).

Since there is international agreements in place you can simply point at these and say that it is what your adhere to. I can see that the student wants to be affiliated with your name and having a recognized name on a paper may be of use both for personal and review reasons. Nevertheless, it seems clear that with the ethical rules in place, the student should realize that the request is not correct. You could of course also suggest that your name appear in the acknowledgements. that seems appropriate to me and could be a golden middle way.

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