I'm a government researcher in R&D and have spent my career doing and publishing my own work. Some time ago I was asked to take over some research from another scientist that was being transferred. She barely started the work and all I ended up receiving were some rough notes for background info - no actual analysis. I told her that since it was her project at the start, I would add her name to the publication as a co-author.

I have since spent several months doing the research and analysis and am ready to submit the publication. Since I did promise her to add her name, I did so fully expecting her to tell me to remove it since all the work was really mine - I didn't even use her notes. All she did was thank me for adding it.

I guess I'm disappointed in her decision to keep her name on the publication. Is that unethical on her part?

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    She created the foundation on which you built the paper, which might well constitute a sufficient contribution for authorship. Moreover, she may have accepted authorship under the believe that her notes were incorporated into the paper.
    – user2768
    Aug 23, 2018 at 12:30
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    This question could be improved by being more explicit about what you are hoping to gain by knowing whether it is unethical. Are you asking that in order to take action, are you asking that to know more about academic authorship etiquette, or just to know more about human behavior?
    – JiK
    Aug 23, 2018 at 12:43
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    This may depend on what field this is. In some fields, it is standard practice for the director of the lab to be listed as the last author on all work done at that lab.
    – GEdgar
    Aug 23, 2018 at 13:28
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    How does she know you didn't use her notes? Aug 23, 2018 at 16:19
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    This looks to me like a rant with the goal of getting answers along: 'you are totally right, she is a terrible person'. Ask yourself another question: 'why have you offered something that you didn't want to give'? No one forced you to do this. You could have reviewed the work, mentioned that nothing was done and this is it. Aug 24, 2018 at 2:16

4 Answers 4


No, it is certainly not unethical. You made an agreement at the beginning and you fulfilled it. She thanked you for your courtesy. All is well. The one, perhaps, contribution that she did make was to get you attached to the project idea, from which you will benefit. You are the primary author, in this case, of course.

There are many reasons for including someone on a paper and not all are benign, but I think this one is. I assume the other person is quite grateful, and maybe even a bit embarrassed. She may even not want to insult you by asking to be removed, since you had the earlier agreement.

But judging her ethics will get you nothing but trouble.


Someone must have had the original idea which became her background notes, it may have even been her idea, so it would be appropriate to still list her as a co-author.

It's not clear where the research idea came from, but also since you took over the research from her and told her that you would add her name to the publication it "costs" you little but gains you more to include her in the author list.

She may not take any action if you were to not include her, and the thankyou could be an expression of appreciation that you included her even though you carried the research through from idea to publication. Again, the long-term goodwill is worth it.

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    +1. The good will is worth it. Who knows whether the two will meet again professionally as they likely have similar interests. Good will aids good research.
    – Buffy
    Aug 23, 2018 at 13:32

It's a bit cyclical, but because she's an author on the paper, you should (must?) have her read the paper before you submit it.

I assume since she was once involved on the project, she would have an interest in editing the paper beyond rubber-stamping it. Therefore, you can have a meaningful editing round with her, which would increase how much of a contribution she had to the paper, which might make you feel better.

To address your question specifically, you said you didn't use her notes. While I'm somewhat skeptical you didn't look at them and therefore learned nothing at all from them, she doesn't know that (unless you sent her an odd email about how much you didn't use her notes), and so probably assumes she made an intellectual contribution and still deserves authorship. So no, I don't think she is behaving unethically.

  • See my comment above. In our R&D lab we apply operational research principles to solve problems for our clients. These rely heavily on statistical analysis. She nor I originated the problem. It was given to us by our client. She did no analysis. That was all left to me after she left. I'm close to retirement so I'm not chasing after promotions any longer, but of course she is.
    – Angus
    Aug 23, 2018 at 18:46
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    @Angus Oh, I see. Still, w/r/t to your other comment, I don't think it's really possible to glean from reading a paper whether or not you used her notes. That said, the more details you add, the more I would be willing to think she's playing the system a little bit to get a publication she doesn't really deserve. Aug 23, 2018 at 18:52

In medicine, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has defined the roles of authors, and who should be acknowledged.
I know you are in a different field, but I can imagine one still wants to follow these guidelines. In that case, she would not qualify for an authorship.

You have a different question: who is at fault, ethically? I would say both of you; I wouldn't have offered an authorship to people of whom it is clear they do not fulfil the criteria for authorship. If I were her, I would not have accepted the offer.
Maybe you could offer to acknowledge her instead?

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    The ICMJE guidelines are terrible, robbing a lot of people of getting any meaningful credit for their contributions; let's not encourage their spread. Aug 23, 2018 at 17:20
  • @JackAidley Could you elaborate a bit more? Am I correct in assuming that you consider the alternative (i.e. acknowledgement) not "meaningful" credit? Why is that? Because acknowledgements aren't as easily gathered in a list as authorships? Trying to understand your point and learn something :-)
    – Jasper
    Aug 24, 2018 at 5:35
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    yes, I don't consider acknowledgements to be meaningful credit. They're a nice thing, that should be extended to people who have been helpful but not involved not used to credit people who were involved. The root problem is that authorship is a crude, frankly not-fit-for-purpose, means of crediting scientific work but the ICMJE guidelines in trying to remove gift and insubstantial authorship go too far in the opposite direction denying fair credit to people who played an important role in the work. Aug 24, 2018 at 10:25

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