I'm a postdoc and a guy who used to be a part of our group dropped by today and said repeatedly that he wanted to collaborate with me and that he's too busy with other commitments to do any work. I suggested a project where he could write up some of his recent experiences in the area (I know of a publication that did something similar to this that we could use as a framework and am working with another man in our group on this), and he had no interest in that saying instead he was more interested in the data analysis I'm doing.

The message I got was "I don't have time to do anything, but I want to be a co-author". He was "generous" enough to say he "doesn't need to be the first or second author".

How would you handle that?

During my PhD I had one of my supervisor's former students do this to me. He got 3 publications out of me, which he didn't understand well enough to present at a conference (he insisted that I create slides for him and write a word-for-word script for him to deliver - the conference was in his area of the world). I eventually put my foot down and refused to have him as a co-author again (my supervisor was pushing to put his name on a 4th publication, I think she wanted to help him get tenure and / or was repaying some debt to him with my work).

I don't want to spend time trying to defend my work from people who didn't contribute putting their names on it, but I'm not sure the best way to get rid of him. My PI thinks quite highly of him.

I'm going out with my PI casually for dinner tomorrow and am planning to bring this up and ask him to be explicit about his authorship policy (my PI reserves the right to determine authorship of work from our lab). I don't want to seem whiny, but also don't want to spend time / energy worrying about this.

Am I overly anxious about this? Maybe it doesn't really matter as long as I'm the first author? If that's the case, I'm tempted to just put everyone I know on it (I don't want to reward this guy for being obnoxious).

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    he wanted to collaborate with me and that he's too busy with other commitments to do any work — Wait. What? What the hell does he think "collaborate" means? Just say no.. If your PI insists, just say no. If your PI threatens to fire you if you don't agree, just say no and walk.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 0:08
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    Welcome to Academia Stack Exchange!
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 0:20
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    @gerrit More like "Welcome to Academia" full stop... Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 6:54
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    What kind of input is this ? Could you have accessed these data without him/her ? Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 12:36
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    By the way I suggest you to ask him to be on his work. His answer can be usefull to handle the problem. Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 12:46

5 Answers 5


Your situation sounds messy. I think most will agree that the basic prerequisite for co-authorship is intellectual contribution to the manuscript . To add authors for thanks is common but really not a practice to endorse. If someone comes to me and asks to be a co-author, the obvious response would be: "What will be your contribution?" If there is no clear contribution other than, say, "Read the manuscript and provide input" then the answer should be "No, thanks". In your case, it sounds as if there is no major point in even having a discussion.

In fact, your case reminds me of a colleague of mine who ends up in all sorts of strange situations. His problem is that he is too nice and does not know the word "no". I realize it may be hard to set up strict rules for these things if your immediate surroundings do not subscribe to them, but I think you should know that you have solid grounds for being more strict about adding unnecessary co-authors or letting people into a project without a clear picture of why.

If you are first author on a paper, it seems to me you will also be the person deciding how the work should materialize. I think you need to make your own mind up where you want to draw the line. you will benefit of making a decision on how you want things run. If you want to deviate from this later on, then it is still your decision and no-one else's. I think this is what you (and most of us) really want - to be in the driver's seat. So follow your instincts, they seem sound to me.

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    Thanks very much, this is quite useful. The tricky part is that the PI wants to be in the drivers seat (and has made this explicit). I think it's fair for me to do some back-seat driving though :-). Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 23:15
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    If there is no clear contribution other than, say, "read the manuscript and provide input" — depending on the input, that could be quite significant.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 0:19
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    "to add authors for thanks" - well, that's what the "The author wishes to thank ..." paragraph at the end is for. Otherwise I'd have to start adding e.g. the developers of Linux and MATLAB as "authors" Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 6:59

I am not a postdoc but a current PhD student. Strangely, I have had a couple of similar instances in the recent past.

Just say a firm NO !

If he is a former member of your group and has nothing to intellectually contribute to the current project, then he does not deserve authorship.

I would definitely bring it up casually with your PI and make it clear to him that you do not support a person being a co-author if he does not or has not contributed to the project significantly over its life cycle.

Saying a clear "No!" usually works. :)

  • Not so easy when OP has already said "Yes" several times before.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 8:01

As others, I would say that you should say "no". However, I have something to add: this is not merely about the request of being freely a co-author being annoying. It is about ethics. Not letting someone that contributed significantly to a paper be an author is universally seen as unethical; it might be less clear that letting someone not having contributed significantly to a paper be an author is equally unethical, but it is. Notably, it gives her or him an advantage in evaluation, promotion, tenure and more importantly recruitment that his or her competitors will not have.

In conclusion; not saying "no" is unethical... to many people you probably do not even know, but unethical nonetheless.

I have to add another point there : this is a delicate situation as you are not completely in charge, and as a postdoc you have to handle things gently to have good recommendation from your PI. Being to rigorous about something that people may think costs you nothing can lead you to an impossible situation, so be careful, think ahead the point up to which you are ready to be flexible, do not act offensively, do not corner your PI but let her ways out. For example, you should definitely explain how wrong this would seem to you, but you should not blame her right from the start for asking you this.


In addition to the excellent answers that you already got, I'd like to point out two things.

  • There are criteria lists for authorship, see e.g. http://www.icmje.org/ethical_1author.html.
    You may want to look up a specific guideline for your field.

  • While I agree with the "say a firm no" side, this may not be possible in - due to the local "power structure", or also because real life things are usually not as clear as one sentence in a stackexchange question suggests (in that case even possibly not advisable).
    I've found a "Contributions" section in the text where for each author is listed what exactly they contributed very helpful in situations where people were unclear about coauthorship and position in the author list.
    If there's really just "A. Uthor did not contribute anything" that should a) be embarrassing enough for A. Uthor, or b) the supervisor or, as a last resort c) reviewers/editors to insist on having neither the name in the author list nor the sentence in the contributions. For the less clear cases it allows readers will to judge for themselves, and in any case I found that explicitly writing down the contributions can do much for the clarification and thus also make decisions about authorship much easier.

  • Last but not least, what about approaching the problem from the opposide side at the dinner: telling your PI that you're afraid the guy's not going to do his share in the work. That you had similar experiences previously, so your alarm at that is quite shrill. What your PI recommends what should be that coauthor's exact part of the work and what the PI recommends to ensure that the guy is actually doing his share?

  • +1, I agree that adding contributions is a good thing which might solve the problem at hand. On the other hand, you may just end up with vague contribution entries like "F. Reloader has provided valuable comments and suggestions to improve the manuscript." Those always seem fishy to me. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 15:39
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    @MarcClaesen: I completely agree about fishy vague contributions. But making this public is one of the advantages I perceive with having a contributions section... A related is that if the contribution sentence is embarrassingly vague, the autorship issue may solve itself ;-) Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 16:50

Sometimes, a firm "NO" is not the best option.

I believe it would work to say NO but your PI wants to "drive the car" and you don't want this to generate a conflict.

If her wanting to "drive the car" was not legitimate, I think a firm NO would be the best solution.

Otherwise, I think the best choice is to bend. BUT, there is a big BUT: THEY are in demand and you should turn this into your own advantage:

Think of a compensation, a leverage that could be useful to you... And try yourself at a polite negociation exercice...

Or maybe... Mention something like "expedient co-author" in your publication...

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    Don't use negative words (“expedient co-author”) to refer to your co-authors in a publication.
    – F'x
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 12:13
  • @F'x Yep, that was some kind of joke... maybe I should have added a smiley to make it more explicit ;)
    – kalou
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 12:23
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    Adding expedient co-author would be a funny way to commit career suicide. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 15:35
  • compensation === bribe => unethical
    – Bae
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 4:51

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