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For a paper with coauthors, what should I do if one coauthor, who I feel has contributed the most among my coauthors, declined to be listed as a coauthor and wished only to be acknowledged in the acknowledgements? The reason he gave for declining was that he did not think he has contributed significantly. The other coauthors knew this, but didn't say anything.

This happened once in the past, and at that time I did as requested by the coauthor, i.e. I removed his name from the list of authors and acknowledged him instead. The other coauthors still had their names as authors of the paper. I felt uneasy about it because I didn't think that it was right. I mean, if my second author did not think that he had contributed enough, why should the third and fourth authors stay? Of course the reader wouldn't know this, but I knew, and my third and fourth authors knew.

Now I am facing the same situation again.

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Make sure to ask your collaborator whether he thinks there is a problem with the quality of the work. It's possible that he's unhappy with the way it turned out and that's why he doesn't want to be closely associated with it, but he doesn't want to say that directly to you. If that's the case, you need to know. Keep in mind also that coauthorship carries time-consuming responsibilities, such as reading drafts and giving comments. –  Ben Crowell Jul 7 at 23:44
@BenCrowell, this was not the case in the past, but I am not ruling it out for the present. But is asking such question common? I fear that I might offend him. He did read the drafts and give constructive comments, in addition to suggesting the problem and carrying out some preliminary analyses. –  adipro Jul 7 at 23:53
But is asking such question common? I don't think it's common, but it's also not common for someone to ask to have his name taken off of a paper. Anyway, if he read drafts, and his comments weren't too negative, it sounds like he doesn't have serious concerns about the quality of the work. –  Ben Crowell Jul 8 at 14:23

3 Answers 3

Publish without him or not at all

Regardless of reasons, you don't have much of a choice - you can publish it as you did the previous time, simply acknowledging him, or not publish the paper at all.

If you can't get his permission, then you can't sign his name under this paper.

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Notice that he's saying that using only an acknowledgement is OK. You can't put his name as an author if he doesn't feel like he should be one, and you can't ethically publish the work without recognizing his contribution via authorship or acknowledgement. You could also spend some time trying to talk him into it. –  Bill Barth Jul 7 at 22:54
Well, it seems to depend on how firmly we accept the premise. I would for instance ask the OP whether he has done his best in conveying to the departing coauthor his opinion of the value of his work. –  Pete L. Clark Jul 7 at 22:55
@adipro the right of the other coauthors to be named as authors is not changed any way by this decision. If their [lack of] contribution allowed you to exclude them from the beginning, then you can exclude them, if not, then you can't exclude them. –  Peteris Jul 7 at 23:20
@adipro You need to include the other co-authors in the discussion. You can tell everybody that you think that the departing co-author has "made perhaps the biggest contribution of all of us" or something like that, which doesn't embarrass the others. If you want, you could also tell the departing co-author in private that you think he's contributed way more than the other two. –  David Richerby Jul 8 at 9:50
@adipro: Like David Richerby, I think there could be room both for one-on-one conversations with the would-be departing coauthor and conversations with the other co-authors. If a main point in your reasoning is "Why are you withdrawing when X is staying on? X did almost nothing compared to you!" then I would reserve that for a one-on-one conversation. But this seems to be a matter of judgment and individual style. –  Pete L. Clark Jul 8 at 15:03

I have previously asserted that a co-author has the right not to be recognized as a co-author, if that is her preference. If she is amenable to publication (as would appear to be the case here), then you may proceed with publication. (If not, then you would need to remove her contributions entirely, and then see if the paper is still salvageable in that form.)

However, you should make sure you have a written documentation of the coauthor's declining of credit. You should also make sure that you have explained clearly why you feel she should be co-author; perhaps you can include a list of the contributions of the other co-authors.

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Do you mind explaining a bit more on what you mean by a written documentation and a list of contributions? Are you suggesting these to be included in the manuscript? I don't think it is common to do so in my field. –  adipro Jul 8 at 9:17
I am not sure if getting a written statement from the collaborator is a good idea. Yeah, it may come in handy if the same person later claims co-authorship, but, frankly, asking him to "waive" in written seems a little distrustful. I could see the other person being insulted by that. I would just make sure that all the other co-authors are aware that this one don't want to be part of the author list (e.g., by putting them in CC in the convo), and leave it at that. –  xLeitix Jul 8 at 9:38
Not specific to academia, but in general if someone makes a surprising decision then it can be useful to get it in email. Not that you expect a court case from them, but it means that if somebody else questions it you can say, "yes, that was their decision, and I quote from their email: ...", which might satisfy the questioner without them needing to bother the original person to confirm. Because the questioner thinks you're much less likely to lie about the contents of an email, than to have misunderstood a conversation. –  Steve Jessop Jul 8 at 10:13

That happened with me, and my father (the retired civil engineering professor), when I published this book.

He actually did a lot of technical work and editing, but disagreed with its views. So I published "solo" and listed him in the acknowledgements.

Someone once said that "consideration" is really doing what the other person wants you to do. So if the second author declines you be listed, that's what you must do, legally and morally.

The fact that there were third and fourth authors involved in your case has "nothing" to do with it.

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