20

I've noticed many situations where a researcher will put their spouses as co-authors in a paper. This is commonly seen in situations where both spouses are in the same field. Valid collaboration between spouses is possible (and exist).

The question is not meant to attack spousal collaborations in academia. Simply put, this is just one possible example where a conflict of interest might arise (the same question can be placed in situations of parent-child and parent-sibling collaborations with no significant difference).

However, where does one draw the line in such a situation? What is stopping them from putting each other in every paper they write, effectively "doubling" their academic output? Whether we like it or not, publication metrics are used in fellowships, grants, awards, and many other situations in academia. In order for it to remain an objective metric requires the integrity of authorship to be upheld. When a PI is choosing authorship, they are responsible for not only themselves, but those in their own group, as well as their department and institution.

The situation with spouses (and other familial relationships) is somewhat unique in that the barrier for co-author contribution is far more easily passed, compared to two regular collaborating PIs. Not only are they often more readily available for collaborations, there is also a possibility of subconscious bias when evaluating the contributions of a significant other. There is also a greater possibility such a system can be gamed. For example, could such a possibility arise where a contribution which would otherwise be recognized in an acknowledgement be replaced by co-authorship due to a slight bias?

The issue is not whether or not spouses, family members or any other person should be allowed to be a co-author when they have made a valid contribution. The problem lies in whether or not the judgement of valid contribution can be made fairly without a conflict of interest by someone in that situation. Being aware of this, is it ethical to still make that decision? Is there a way to be unbiased without complete recusal?

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    It's as ethical as including siblings. Just adding someone because (s)he's a spouse, relative, friend, colleague, mentor, the guy you admire since childhood, a famous actress etc. (neither the question nor the answers would change if you asked about any of these) - is not. Adding someone because he contributed sth meaningful - it's unethical not to offer co-authorship. To wrap up - from false premises one can derive any conclusion one wants. – user68958 May 1 '18 at 15:06
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    @Co3O4 A (regular) collaborator can surely fulfil the same role? – user2768 May 1 '18 at 15:34
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    In what way can it be abused to gain an advantage? The only ways it can be abused in my mind are the typical ways about undeserved credit - but this can happen at any time and is not specific to being a spouse. – Dawn May 1 '18 at 15:38
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    I know a psychologist. I like to joke that there was no school of statistics at her university, so she did the next best thing, took a mathematician and trained him to do the statistical analyses for her. A few papers later she married me. We by now have 20+ coauthored papers, and we both did work indeed on each and every one of them. I am not downvoting, but given a lot of work that the two of us have invested, I would like you to understand that I am not amused by the insinuation that our coauthorships can only be "somewhat justified". – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica May 2 '18 at 20:59
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    To put @Dawn's point slightly differently: "What is stopping them from putting each other in every paper they write, effectively "doubling" their academic output?" What is stopping any given pair of researchers in the same field from doing the same thing? – Mark Meckes May 3 '18 at 2:02
88

Your question is based on one assumption (that you spell out): "the barrier for co-author contribution is far more easily passed [for spouses], compared to two regular collaborating PIs.".

"Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man." -- The Dude

As pointed out in a comment, ethical people don't draw the line in different places depending on the situation (at least for the case in question). The line is already drawn by the ethics principles they follow.

So, to answer your question, it is ethical to include spouses when the spouses contributed to the paper, it is not when they didn't. Exactly like including anyone else.

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    I take the quotation to mean that spouses have frequent opportunity to collaborate, and therefore, they legitimately pass the threshold for joint authorship more often. This doesn't mean that the threshold is lower. (Of course I agree with your conclusion.) – henning -- reinstate Monica May 1 '18 at 15:19
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    +1. "ethical people don't draw the line in different places depending on the situation (at least for the case in question)" is pretty amusing. :-) – wchargin May 1 '18 at 17:24
  • "...ethical people don't draw the line in different places..." The follow up question would then probably be: How many ethical people are there? – Trilarion May 4 '18 at 7:08
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There is nothing unethical about choosing a spouse (or friend, advisee, sibling, etc) when choosing a research collaborator.1

In other areas, (such as hiring and peer-review) it is good practice to recuse oneself if they have a close relationship with the other party.

There's a fundamental difference between these situations. When you are serving on a hiring committee or refereeing a paper, you are acting on behalf of an organization (in this case, your employer or a journal, respectively). You have an obligation to that organization to recuse yourself if your judgment is clouded. On the other hand, if two people decide to collaborate on research, each is making that decision on their own behalf. If a spouse, friend, or advisee is a sub-optimal choice for collaboration, then they will bear the professional harm.

What is stopping them from putting each other in every paper they write, effectively "doubling" their academic output?

If spouses collaborate with each other on every paper they write, there is absolutely nothing inappropriate about listing each other as co-authors. (In fact, to not do so would be unethical.) But this wouldn't increase their academic output anymore than collaboration with other people.2

The situation with spouses is somewhat unique in that the barrier for co-author contribution is far more easily passed, compared to two regular collaborating PIs.

Yes, if two researchers are married, and they have similar research interests, then it probably is easier for them to collaborate with each other than otherwise. However, there is nothing unethical with collaborating with people with whom it is convenient to collaborate. We wouldn't chide a researcher for collaborating with another researcher from their institution or the surrounding area.

Also, I think you may be underestimating the career disadvantages for an academic to be being married to an academic with similar research interests. It's hard enough for married academics to solve the two-body problem--frequently, one spouse ends up leaving academia altogether. It can be even harder for couples with similar research interests, because smaller departments ask themselves questions like "Do we really want to devote two tenure lines to specialists in operator algebras?"

1 I'm talking about small ad-hoc collaborations, not the large-scale formal organizations that exist in some fields, such as particle physics.

2 Parenthetically, depending on the situation, it might not be a great idea for a married couple to always collaborate with each other. But that would hold for any two researchers who routinely collaborate with each other.

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    Related to some issues you bring up: academia.stackexchange.com/q/45706/19607 – Kimball May 1 '18 at 17:26
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    So you think that the glaringly obvious conflict of interest here is of no concern whatsoever? – Davor May 3 '18 at 13:55
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    My point is that, when it comes to choosing collaborators (again, assuming small ad-hoc collaborations, not formalized labs or organizations), there is no conflict of interest, because there's only one interest, which is your own. – PersonX May 3 '18 at 16:34
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    @PersonX Respectfully disagree. The assumption that the PI only has her/his own interest at stake, disregarding that of the other contributors of a project, the people in her/his lab, her/his department, and her/his funding agencies when publishing a paper is not reasonable. – user44476 May 3 '18 at 17:54
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    @Co3O4, I think we might be coming at this from different academic cultures. I'm in mathematics, where many collaborations are ad-hoc and not formally organized. If you are making a decision on behalf of a formal lab group or other formalized organization, then my comments don't apply (see footnote #1). – PersonX May 4 '18 at 12:23
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It's exactly as potentially (un-)ethical as putting anyone else on your papers, with the small difference that people will notice and gossip about it far more quickly.

At least in my field, people often mention s.o. in the acknowledgements for "helful discussions", giving valuable input, proofreading, etc. In reverse conclusion, don't put your spouse in the list of authors just because you talked about it over dinner and he or she gave some insightful remarks or pointed out various shortcomings in your reasoning.

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    "don't put your spouse in the list of authors just because you talked about it over dinner". Or anyone else! – PersonX May 1 '18 at 16:28
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    Deleted long and escalating digression in the comments. Please stick to the post and stay nice. – Wrzlprmft May 3 '18 at 6:09
8

It appears that the OP is confounding the Law with the Police. As the other answers indicated, the same standards should apply (that's "the Law").

But then the OP asks

What is stopping them from putting each other in every paper they write?

...and this is about "the Police" and whether it is practically feasible to policing in an effective way such a situation and making sure that "the Law" is upheld, apart from the "inner ethics police" a person carries.

It is not unreasonable to argue that unethical behavior here is structurally facilitated, and so that we statistically expect that in case of spouse co-authors, more cases of bogus co-authorhsip will/may exist, compared to when no personal relationship/kinship exists. But as with any plausible argument, it still remains to be scientifically explored and tested.

In any case, bogus co-authorship is not the only "unintended" negative effect of having people grouping themselves at a personal level and not only as "members of a society". Also, I suspect there are also some positive consequences of organizing our lives around such little tribes, so once more, it dreadfully comes down to cost-benefit analysis.

6

What is stopping them from putting each other in every paper they write, effectively "doubling" their academic output?

Reputation. I think a lot of people will be skeptical about this very question, and that in itself is a drawback. People may wonder, when siblings or spouses or parents and children publish together, whether they were actually both pulling their own weight. I would not be surprised if many readers assume that more of the contribution came from one than the other (based on which name they recognized, who had a more prominent position, or other factors) while knowing nothing about how the work for that specific paper was conducted.

I have submitted to conferences with someone who happens to share my last name and is of the opposite gender. I have no doubt that some people would speculate that we were married, and I wondered at the time whether that would change their perceptions of the work. (The reviews were double-blind, so I did not worry about that for acceptance to the conference.)

To avoid untoward assumptions about whether it's all just the work of one partner, I imagine that both people should strive to publish separately as well, or with other collaborators, and/or they should have so much output that it would not be feasible for one person to secretly do all the work.

The situation with spouses is somewhat unique in that the barrier for co-author contribution is far more easily passed, compared to two regular collaborating PIs.

Sadly I cannot remember who this was, but there was a husband-and-wife team who frequently published together, and when one died, the other kept their names on papers, posthumously, for years until that part of the research agenda that had been in the pipeline was complete. My sense was that they worked so closely in developing the ideas over the years--as well as applying for funding and conducting the research--that the deceased spouse's intellectual contribution remained clear far after their death.

Finally, there was an interesting little paper about this in an answer to the question Kimball linked to. The authors, four unrelated individuals all named "Goodman," look into people who publish with the same last names, and they also point out that there would presumably not be the same "et al." penalty in this case, since both/all authors "sound like" the first author whenever it is mentioned.

2

If the spouse did not contribute sufficiently so as to qualify for authorship, it is unethical to include the spouse. Conversely, f the spouse contributed sufficiently so as to qualify for authorship, it is unethical to NOT include the spouse.

That said, spouses working on the same project can certainly create uncomfortable situations. My preference for working in a group with such an arrangement would be an externally approved and monitored management plan.

-2

The fact of the matter is that - also due to common interests as a couple (especially when married is like a business) - the spouse would almost always be seen as significant contributor. It's not that there will be attempt to pretend or lie for the spouse's contribution. The PI will always value even the slightest thing that the spouse will do. He/she is chosen as a lifetime companion for a reason. So, it is almost inevitable that even under the best of the intentions, spouse's contribution will be overvalued and someone will feel injustice.

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    You are suggesting that every married academic will "almost inevitabl[y]" treat their spouse and field unethically, which is a pretty offensive thing to say. – Azor Ahai May 1 '18 at 20:54
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    You’re making a way too strong claim — but the fundamental point is right: there is a potential conflict of interest, and it’s laughable to suggest, as some other answers do, that ethical people are above any suspicion of favouritism or unconscious bias, or that unethical people might not intentionally abuse such a situation. – Konrad Rudolph May 1 '18 at 21:52
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    -1 on the comments: (the PI will "always" value the slightest thing that the spouse will do) and that it is 'almost inevitable'; hmmm – Carol May 3 '18 at 2:17
  • I agree with @AzorAhai that poor ethics in this situation is an inevitability, but I do think the appearance of conflict needs to be dealt with up front, preferably through the university mechanisms that deal with conflicts. – Scott Seidman Jun 27 at 13:38
  • @Scott You misread my comment, I said the opposite, in fact. – Azor Ahai Jun 27 at 17:15

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