12

One of my close collaborators passed away last year and since then I have become curious about the question of attributing work to deceased authors. Each journal has its rules but there doesn't seem to be any consensus what the ethical ground of these decisions is. Recently a different collaborator of mine published a paper with a co-author who passed away 3-4 years ago, which struck me as strange.

On the one hand, work should always be attributed. If someone contributed ideas, funding, manual labor, or wrote the manuscript, they should be mentioned somehow. On the other hand, most journals ask to confirm that all authors have seen the final version of the paper.

Of course, in reality contributors are often over- or underrepresented. For instance, should someone who edited the manuscript be a co-author or appear in an acknowledgement? Does it depend on whether their edits change the content of the paper or just the presentation? On the other hand, if a deceased author contributed the main ideas of a paper but was not around to edit the manuscript, who can decide whether they would not object to the content of the paper?

As there are different reasons for citing a deceased collaborator, I think there are (at least) two questions here: (1) what should an honest person do to honor their collaborators, without adding to their name papers they may have disagreed with; (2) what should a dishonest person be prevented from doing in terms of citing deceased collaborators as a form of name dropping (even if there is some justification for adding them).

  • 3
    Welcome to Academia.SE. Thank you for writing out your question clearly. A question should only contain one thing that wants answering (for multi-part questions, separate questions should be used). However, I'm not sure whether that applies to the two parts of this question. It would probably help though if you could pin down one single point you want answered (note that this site is not for open discussion). – Jessica B Sep 13 '18 at 10:59
  • 1
    The term "scientific legacy" is used by professional archives to talk about the documents, personal letters and in general about the contributions of dead authors. If the author was important, a major archive will buy the legacy and it will take decades until all the material is sighted. On base of the raw materials, librarians will catalog and evaluate the work for future generations. In most cases a "scientific legacy" not only contains the professional work, but also biographical details and the motivation behind it. – Manuel Rodriguez Sep 13 '18 at 12:16
  • 1
    A related question is How to acknowledge a deceased advisor’s contributions to a paper?. It does, however, not address the ethics of assuming the deceased consents to be listed as an author. That's an interesting question for sure. – Anyon Sep 13 '18 at 12:20
  • @Anyon I am aware of that post, I was trying to complicate things by introducing issues and considerations that seemed to be absent from it (the post). – Caharpuka Sep 13 '18 at 13:05
9

(My personal take on this matter - which is only based on intuition/opinion rather than experience):

When you're about to publish such a paper, ask yourself: "How certain am I that the deceased would have put their name on the paper?"

  • If the answer is "certain", go ahead and name them a co-author. But - explain that the attribution is posthumous, both in a footnote from the person's name (the same kind of footnote used for affiliation) and in one of the opening lines (perhaps a note as the first line.)

  • If the answer is "not certain", but the deceased's contribution was significant, don't make them a coauthor, but devote a few sentences to emphasize the significance of their contribution or their involvement, and clarify that the work had progressed or diverged beyond what you had worked on with the deceased (or some such explanation).

  • If the answer is "would probably not", and the deceased's contribution was not significant enough for co-authorship, then you just mention them in a thank-you note somewhere in the paper, same as if they were alive.


As for "preventing dishonesty" - if you're an editor or non-blind reviewer, and notice the name of a deceased person on a paper, without an explanation of the deceased's contribution within the paper - reach out and ask the corresponding author for a side-note (outside the paper) explaining the deceased's involvement with the submitted work.

| improve this answer | |
  • I think it would help if journals asked that the authors state which version of the paper the deceased co-author saw. For instance, did they see a first draft? Did they see the submitted version? Given that the authors are all supposed to agree on the content of the submitted paper, it makes sense to indicate whether they saw this version, or a much earlier version. Maybe they didn't even see a first draft. Unfortunately this is not the case. In the past I have been asked to state this by a family member of the deceased author, to make sure that readers know they did not see the final version. – Caharpuka Mar 30 at 15:02
  • This answer addresses co-authors, not journals. For journals I'd write a different answer. – einpoklum Mar 30 at 17:28
4

I don't see any dilemma here. If a person would be a co-author if alive, then they should still be a co-author if they die before submission. But if they contributed less and so wouldn't be a co-author if alive, then it may be appropriate to acknowledge their contribution in an appropriate section or footnote.

Even if I disagree with your conclusions in a paper, it may be appropriate to ack me, even if you don't mention the disagreement. But that is a judgement call you need to make.

I don't have a general solution for the last part of your question (name-dropping). I worry that it might require an investigation into the provenance of a paper that we seldom do as a matter of course. But it would be pretty obvious in some cases. I could try to publish a paper with Paul Erdős, for example, but it would be immediately recognized as a scam.

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    One case where it gets problematic is if the collaborator would have been unhappy with the (final version of the) resulting paper, had they still been alive. Perhaps they would've wanted their name taken off, or been against publication altogether. It's a hypothetical, and I'm sure most do their best to honor their colleague, but it probably happens from time to time. – Anyon Sep 13 '18 at 12:30
  • 2
    It's interesting you should give Erdős as an example, because although he left in 1996, people have continued to publish with him, typically because they solved a conjecture which he posed. MathSciNet has him as author on several dozen papers published after 1996. The most recent was in 2015 (here, see #A51) and it certainly isn't a "scam". – Nate Eldredge Sep 13 '18 at 13:01
  • 2
    @Buffy Well, we aren't. I was just trying to point out where the dilemma might arise. I think my scenario is more likely to arise in experimental fields though, where one lead author might be tasked with drafting the paper, and collaborators might be specialists in different techniques, often at different institutions. The point is that it's not always self-evident if all collaborators agree or not, at least until feedback is given on the draft. Of course the difficulty would grow with the size of the collaboration as well. – Anyon Sep 13 '18 at 13:01
  • 6
    It's only one example, but when the above mentioned collaborator of mine passed away, I was told by their spouse specifically not to add them as a co-author on anything they hadn't read. – Caharpuka Sep 13 '18 at 13:03
  • 12
    @NateEldredge I must say I find it extremely odd that people would publish "with" Erdös just because the publication solves a conjecture he had stated. This never happens with other authors, and would be considered highly inappropriate, so wanting a higher Erdös number really seems like a poor reason. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 13 '18 at 18:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.