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In my research group, there is a researcher who usually approaches other PhD students who are about to write papers in order to offer his help. Normally, he does not actually do any research related to the paper. Instead, he reads our papers, makes comments about the writing style and sometime re-writes some sections in order to make them more readable. At the end, he will claim the co-authorship of the paper. I can see it is very helpful for new PhD students who don't have much experience in writing papers or articles. However, it is sometime uncomfortable for me to see someone who doesn't do actual research but still manages to get an authorship.

So, I want to ask if it is a common practice for someone to help writing a paper without doing any actual research relating to it, and claim the co-authorship. If it is not, how should I react if someone wants to do the same to me?

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I've seen this. This kind of people are usually easy to recognize because they don't have a "research line" and it's hard to tell what is their expertise, their publications spread along many different topics. Despite of having seen these results, I've never known how is the process before the publication, by your description it seems to be quite creepy... –  Trylks May 21 at 12:30
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A word comes to mind: "Predator". –  Tobias Kildetoft May 21 at 12:35
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Honest question: Does it hurt anyone by adding this type of person as a co-author? I've helped people write their papers in the past before and in the process I learned a great deal about the subject matter. Also, people who help write papers may help fulfill one of the pillars of scientific discovery... communication of the science. Without that, a discovery is nothing really. –  LordStryker May 21 at 12:44
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@LordStryker It hurts all those people who will be competing with those who artificially inflate their publication lists in this way. –  Tobias Kildetoft May 21 at 12:47
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I think I have some kinda Groundhog Day thing going on where I log onto stackexchange everyday and read about the unfair co-authorship. If I recall, Bill Murray broke the cycle by doing good deeds. Guess I'm screwed. –  coburne May 21 at 18:23

6 Answers 6

up vote 31 down vote accepted

people who help write papers may help fulfill one of the pillars of scientific discovery... communication of the science.

There is an appropriate place to credit people who read your paper and offer useful comments on it: the acknowledgement section. It is very common to see acknowledgements "for providing valuable feedback", "for suggesting a cleaner presentation", "for pointing out important related work" and so on. Even "for providing a simpler proof of Lemma X.y".

None of this rises to the level of co-authorship.

What's worse in this case is that

At the end, he will claim the co-authorship of the paper.

While I'd find the idea of co-authorship for such contributions odd, I would not think too much about it if it were negotiated in advance (as is the theme of many of the answers on this site). But to offer what appears to be unconditional help first and then (when the student really has no choice in the matter) to demand co-authorship is plain wrong.

To answer your last question on what to do, the answer, as is always the answer, is to negotiate things up front. It's a little awkward, but a little pre-collaboration awkwardness is MUCH better than a lot of post-collaboration recrimination and hostility.

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+1 for your last paragraph. –  E.P. May 22 at 10:12

The so called Vancouver protocol (developed by ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) and its definition of authorship has been mentioned in many questions of this kind here on Academia but I think they deserve being repeated. The protocol describes authorship through three components which every author must fulfil:

  1. Conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data

    AND

  2. Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content

    AND

  3. Final approval of the version to be published.

A key point here is the "AND". To read and comment on the text is clearly not enough for authorship by these standards. In fact a reviewer of the manuscript would at least fulfil point 2 whereas a person helping out as you describe would not.

It is difficult to fend off this behaviour from more senior colleagues as a PhD student. It may, however, be good to bring up an open discussion about authorship standards in the group without necessarily directly connecting it to the draft of a paper. In some research groups systems for determining both order and authorship as such have been developed by splitting the paper up into tasks. See for example, AuthorOrder.com for an example. Looking at the tag here on Ac.sx and a search on Google will provide much background. But, I particularly recommend the recommendations report from ICMJE; ICMJE developed the protocol and their recommendations constitutes their continually updated version of the protocol.

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Good point, +1. However, this kind of opens the related question of people who contribute to the research but are never heard of when it comes to writing the papers - no edits, no comments, no nothing. "Research yes, writing no" may be less infuriating than "research no, writing yes", but I am still uncomfortable with co-"authors" who haven't authored a single word in the final manuscript. –  Stephan Kolassa May 21 at 15:46
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As far as I can see, under the rules quoted here, if X proves a great theorem and explains it (the theorem and the proof) orally to Y, and if Y then writes it up nicely, then nobody is entitled to be an author of the resulting paper. –  Andreas Blass May 21 at 15:57
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@AndreasBlass If Y is merely transcribing a proof provided by X, then X did draft the article and therefore deserves authorship. Otherwise, writing the proof requires hundreds of small but crucial design and analysis decisions, and therefore Y deserves authorship. (But she should really ask X to critically evaluate the paper, if only by saying "yes, okay", so that he can be a coauthor, too). –  JeffE May 21 at 17:09
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@AndreasBlass the protocol actually specifies that X must be given the opportunity to get involved in article revisions and final article approval; however, if they refuse to participate in the actual article, then it means also a refusal from authorship, and it's a valid choice that they are allowed to make. –  Peteris May 21 at 21:40
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+1 Interesting. Among other things, this 'Vancouver protocol' would condemn the practice in some labs of always adding the lab head at the end of the author list. –  Mark Peletier May 22 at 5:13

This happens quite often in industrial PhDs, at least based on my experience. Every paper I've written so far had around 5 authors, although myself and a research fellow were the only ones doing the work. I completely understand your frustration because there are two guys who have technical backgrounds but doing management work (thus no technical input to my papers whatsoever) who have their names on my papers (that applies to other PhD Students here too). I am not sure about pure academic research (i.e. funding from university) tough, things are likely to be different in that case.

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Obviously his service and helps do not count as co-authorship. I have seen various versions of this tactic before, for example in the form of showing interest, or giving some general and mostly useless advices, comments and discussions. None of these are co-authorship either.

But to answer you question on "how should I react if someone wants to do the same to me?", I recommend you restrict your research communications to a small list of people who have the following qualities: 1. they are experts in the subject your are working on, 2. you have some kind of agreement about how to perform the research and who should do what, 3. they have scientific integrity and are not looking to get credit for something they have not done!

Finally, it is not recommended that you show or discuss your work to someone who is not a trusted expert before submission.

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It doesn't matter whether it is common or not: it is inappropriate.

He is "editing" and not "authoring".

Don't let it get to you. Even if you were to stop this guy, there has been, are, and will be many others doing the same thing. Just hope that karma will take care of it.

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The OP should print @Peter Jansson's answer and post it in a big 11x17 sheet of paper on the most visible board in the department :) Then the "gratuituous contributor" would get the message (and would educate others on how to handle him/her.) –  luis.espinal May 22 at 16:59

An author should be involved in the research, otherwise it is only a clerical role. However, it is not unusual for a collaborator whose contribution to the research is below the average to compensate by doing more work on the writing.

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