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One of the PhD students in my department is writing a paper and has listed me as a coauthor. I'm not sure if I deserve to be a coauthor.

I have been loosely involved in the project. I attended meetings and made suggestions and I actively proof-read the manuscript. But I don't think I had any significant input beyond that.

The student is in a different subfield and it seems their community has different standards for coauthorship. (The paper combines both subfields.) In my community, I would definitely not deserve to be a coauthor. However, the other community is less strict. In fact, there are other coauthors listed (more senior people) who, as far as I can tell, contributed even less than me.

I said something vague along the lines of "I don't know if I deserve to be a coauthor" and the student and their supervisor brushed it off. So it seems to me that, from their perspective, there is no issue.

I'm wondering what I should do. Surely others have experience with this sort of cross-community coauthorship.

On one hand, I can just let them list me as a coauthor, as there does not appear to be any reason not to. On the other hand, if the situation were reversed, I as the lead author would not include so many coauthors.

Are there any potential downsides to being a coauthor? Do I have future obligations to reciprocate? Or am I overthinking this?

  • You might want to consider previous answers to a similar question here. – St. Inkbug Jul 27 '18 at 0:42
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You say the work is done in their community, and two people in that community (including a professor) agree you meet their standards for authorship.

I see no reason to apply authorship criteria from your field to theirs.

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    +1. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. If it is "their" paper, primarily, then the standards of that community should be an appropriate guide. In some labs everyone in the lab gets on every publication. There is at least one instance in which the list of authors of a paper was longer than the paper itself. – Buffy Jul 27 '18 at 0:32
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I don't think there is per se an ethical problem with you being listed as a co-author, given that the lead authors think you have reached the level of contribution required in their community. I can see some practical problems, though:

  • If you feel like you are "padding" your CV with a paper that you, following the norms of your own community, don't really deserve, you may want to explicitly denote in your CV that this paper is in a different field. I have seen some people (especially in theoretical CS, but I assume this should also be possible in other fields) add a separate subsection in their publication list "Contributions in other Fields", where they added their "non-standard" papers.
  • If this is a longer collaboration, you may run into an expectation problem, when you write a paper that you are leading. Your collaborators may assume that they will also be on your paper when they make similarly small contributions, despite not meeting the standards required in your field. Really the only way to address this is through very open and honest communication. However, more realistically, if you plan to write such a paper, it may indeed be better to insist not to be part of their paper upfront, otherwise it may be difficult to avoid hard feelings on the side of your collaborators if they always write you on their papers but you don't add them to yours, for the same levels of contribution.
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Are there any potential downsides to being a coauthor? Do I have future obligations to reciprocate? Or am I overthinking this?

1) Perhaps decades ago there was a stigma against multiple coauthors. In my technical field, this seems to have degraded and multiple coauthors (even 8) is not looked down upon. As such, my advisor and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) member had a policy that any meaningful contribution to research was rewarded with coauthorship. If your idea provides the breakthrough for someone else, you were a coauthor. Not everyone will agree with this and different fields may have different standards.

2) Are you concerned with reciprocating? I agree with others here that open and honest communication (direct) will clear this up.

I think as a community, us academics can overthink this to the point of being very strict with coauthorships where it is detrimental to the human side of the work. I think the human side is worth considering.

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