I received a lot of help from an active Stack Overflow user in my undergrad summer research project, which was based on statistical physics. Now, I'm writing a paper on it under my professor's supervision. The professor knows about the help I received and asked me to mention it in the "acknowledgements" section (and the Stack Overflow user is OK with me mentioning them in the acknowledgements). But, I feel that the amount of programming help I received from the user deserves a little more gratitude from my side, and if possible I'd like to add the user as a co-author of the paper (obviously, after asking for consent). But, given this is my first research paper, I'm not sure what the process would entail.

Would I face any ethical problems in case I send the paper for publication (since the SO user was obviously not "physically" present with us while I was working on the paper)?

Also, do most journals ask for "email consent" from each and every co-author, before publication?

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    Stack Exchange focuses on content, not users. Generally you should just link to the posts (for example academia.stackexchange.com/a/115427); if it happens that all/most of those posts are by the same user, that should be coincidential. – user97151 Aug 17 at 7:34
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    @user97151 Is correct about post, but for future readers if not this OP, I do want to add if someone helped you in chat there are logs for the chat so you can also link directly to the chat logs as well. – JGreenwell Aug 17 at 12:04
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    @user97151: The ethics of StackExchange may not require anything more than linking to the posts, but the ethics of academia still require appropriately crediting anyone who’s made a significant intellectual contribution. – PLL Aug 18 at 23:00
up vote 78 down vote accepted

Physical presence is irrelevant. I'm a co-author of a four-author paper which came out of a Stack Exchange Q/A thread, none of whom have met in person.

What matters is intellectual contribution, and the question of whether contributing to code counts as sufficient intellectual contribution depends both on the specifics of the contribution and the field of research. I'm also a co-author of two or three psychology papers on the basis of having provided programming services, even though I would have expected an acknowledgement at most, because the culture of the lab (and probably the field more widely) where the lead author did her PhD was very generous with authorship.

The person best qualified to judge the contribution made by this SO user is you, followed by your professor. Your professor will also know the culture of your field. And if, as I presume, the professor is going to be a co-author, you would need them to agree to add another co-author. If you feel strongly about this, you should talk to your professor before you talk to the SO user about "upgrading" them. But since your professor has already given you guidance, and the third party is happy with that proposal, I suggest that you drop the issue unless you feel strongly about it.

  • Thanks. Also, if I upload the pre-print to arXiv first, is only one account needed (i.e. mine)? Or do all the other co-authors need to provide some form of "electronic consent"? – Blue Aug 17 at 14:44
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    @Blue only one account is needed, but if it's your first arXiv submission you might need someone to endorse you, e.g. by sending a link to your supervisor. However, you absolutely should make sure all coauthors consent before you upload the paper! – Anyon Aug 17 at 15:13
  • @Anyon Gotcha, thanks! :) – Blue Aug 17 at 15:15

Physical presence is not the important factor. If he's sitting at another university and you're collaborating (without Stack Overflow), you can publish together without him being present when you submit the paper. The same is true, when you collaborated via Stack Overflow in a substantial amount which justifies coauthorship.

But beware of pseudonyms. Even some "real name" here could be a pseudonym and this may be unprofessional when publishing.

On the other hand, On a paper, nobody knows you're a cat.

  • Can you clarify what's the problem with pseudonyms, and why the OP should beware of it? – Calimo Aug 20 at 9:05
  • Personally I would consider "xena1652" as author name on a paper unprofessional. I would not care when the content is good, but I guess there are many people who would. And you do not know if a real name here may be identity theft. This does not matter too much when somebody answered a question with the pseudonym "Donald Trump", but would be a problem when the name appears on an actual paper. Do you have other experiences about authors using (serious or not so serious) pseudonyms? I would be interested. – allo Aug 20 at 10:08

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