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I have a paper where I have many co-authors and most of them did not contribute much. As a PhD student I am in a weak position to reject such inquiries of senior faculty.

To address this, I want to add a section on author contributions. However, the journal where I have this paper under review does not have this section as a default. Is it still OK to add this or how should I proceed to make it more clear that I did all the work on this paper?

UPDATE: thanks to all, I am overwhelmed with the feedback I got. Based on your advice, I decided to not take any actions and make this a lesson learned for future situations. As the paper is already under review it is also too late. In the future, I will try to convince "coauthors" to be mentioned in the acknowledgements instead.

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    Just to clarify: is this in a field where being the first author is meaningful, and are you the first author? – user68958 Dec 18 '18 at 11:45
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    To clarify: Why are they authors? – Haque Dec 18 '18 at 12:25
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    @Haque from senior faculty: "your paper is relevant to my field, I offer to proof read it (i.e. correcting 2 typos) for co-authorship." – spore234 Dec 18 '18 at 12:47
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    Proofreading a manuscript in exchange for authorship is highly questionable, even unethical if senior faculty use their position to pressure you into agreeing. In the future you can offer them an Acknowledgement instead of co-authorship to avoid having to reject them completely. – L_W Dec 18 '18 at 13:13
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    @spore234 Your comment calls for another question: What can I do if I have offered authorship in exchange for a clerical contribution and now regret it? I'm not sure that what you're proposing here is prudent, but there may be other ways. – henning Dec 18 '18 at 15:28
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I'm usually all in favor of contribution sections (I've been at the border between medical and natural sciences for a long time, and I've met this custom in medical papers). However, for the present situation I agree with @ElectronicToothpick that for a paper already submitted and under review it is too late to take any such step. IMHO the starting of this paragraph should already be in the first draft of the paper that is sent around.

  • I've found contribution sections a nice instrument in situations similar to yours: having coauthors where a substantial contribution to the paper is not clear or did not happen.
    PhD students are often not in a position to question higher up faculty on whether they should not be coauthor without significant risk to their standing. The contribution section can hand over part of this to the editor who is not in any dependency situation with possibly gift coauthors.
    While I've not yet seen any coauthors being thrown out of the author list by an editor, I've seen author order (1st authors) being changed on the basis of the contributions section.
  • Even as the main author of a paper (in the sense of doing the major part of writing up and integrating the various coauthors' text contributions) I would not write up any but my own contribution to the paper. I usually start a "Contributions" paragraph and then "CB did this, that and that." plus a comment that everyone please fill in your contributions. That way, the "small" coauthors have to spell out that they did not do anything substantial - or they may spell out valid intellectual contributions that you didn't even suspect like being the source of the idea for solution your supervisor told you as a starting point.

  • I also think (hope?) that everyone who truly did not contribute substantially will find it very embarrassing to spell this out - and may retract their wish to be a coauthor and say they'd rather be acknowledged.
    But even if that doesn't happen, again the editor or worst case the reader will know that they didn't contribute.


I'd like to point out that I think contributions sections genuinely useful for readers as well - in case you have to argue for including one in the future:

  • Particularly in interdisciplinary papers, readers may want to get into contact about a variety of things. Saying who did what allows them to directly contact the person they look for.

  • And, of course, in any situation where it is important to judge the actual contribution (e.g. if someone wants to check expertise in an application).

22

I think you need to consider for a moment if this is in your own benefit.

Depending on how you go about it, adding such a section without your contributors knowing can come off as a backstab, and hurt your relationship with your contributors. Especially since the paper is already under review, and you seem quite adamant to have it included. If you do let them know (and review) beforehand, it might still come off to them as off-putting that you are adamant about discrediting their contribution (in your own words "I did all the work"). Sure they might not have written the paper, but is it really true that they contributed nothing of note? It is very common for supervisors who do reviewing or who only give advice to be listed, even if they have not written any original text. Other academics are aware of this, so what do you really gain by asserting yourself as the sole author?

If you do chose to include a contribution section, make sure that you go about it in a way that does not hurt your relationship with your colleagues, something which is far more important than the exact credits of one publication.

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    There is a reason why this bothers me. The paper is in a borderline health and economics journal. While it is common in health to have many co-authors, it is very uncommon in economics. Many economics journals even restrict the number of co-authors. In economics, many ca-authors = less contribution from each individual, and this is clearly not the case in my paper. – spore234 Dec 18 '18 at 12:14
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    Regarding the second sentence: The OP should hear that modifying a coauthored submission (in any but the most trivial typo-level ways) without notifying one's coauthors, or notifying them too late for them to voice their opinion on the choice, is extremely unethical. – Greg Martin Dec 20 '18 at 7:31
  • @Greg Martin. I agree, I should have been more explicit about that. – ElectronicToothpick Dec 20 '18 at 9:07
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I'll take an even firmer stance than @ElectricToothpick: Don't

To put this another way, what's the cost-benefit analysis? The cost is that you could make a reputation for yourself as someone who looks to gain too much of the credit. This is a reputation that will hinder your ability to get on future papers. The benefit is that you get more credit for this paper.

In the papers that I have read, there is the tendency to assume that the order of authors is in decreasing contributions. I have seen one author contribution section; it was in a paper where the two authors wanted to make it clear that they were equal contributors. In that case, the response of the the folks with whom I was talking about was along the lines of "Oh, that's nice." Had the contribution section been more along the lines of "The first author contributed 90% of the data", it would have been very jarring to us. The only time that this sort of a thing wouldn't look bad would be if an advisor wants to make sure a student gets credit. But there are other ways to do this.

You can get more credit as the primary author in other ways. Principally, if you are the face that champions this paper; e.g. in conference presentations or future papers, the ideas from this paper will become tied to you without needing to intentionally draw attention to yourself.

Now, granted, my papers have been in a different realm than yours, so maybe there's a practice of this in Econ. I think the easiest way to answer this question is to ask you how many of the papers you have read include a section like this? If you can't point to a sizeable percent of papers that include contribution sections to denote primary contribution, the inclusion of the section is liable to draw more negative attention than positive.

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    thanks, I tend to agree to not do it. I just wanted to add that "author contribution" sections are very common. For example in the BMJ, one of the major health studies: bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k4880 Here, "GDC was responsible for the patient involvement aspects of this work" which is a strong indicator that he did not do much. He is also second to last author, the least prominent position. – spore234 Dec 18 '18 at 12:59
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    @spore234 Good to know. This looks more specific to the individual field than I had thought. The only other advice I would then give is that you should follow the norm of the journal to which you are submitting. In the article you have linked, very specific tasks were linked to co-authors. If you can do something similar, it should mitigate any impression of credit-seeking. – Van Dec 18 '18 at 13:12
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I agree with @L_W's comment. Proofreading a manuscript is in general not a sufficient intellectual contribution for coauthorship, although it can certainly be recognized in an acknowledgments section. You may wish to consult the authorship guidelines promoted by an organization that's authoritative for your field and journal. In fact, a major reason such guidelines are written is to prevent exactly this sort of abuse, where senior academics can extend their CV by a few hundred feet by nominally contributing to dozens of papers.

As an example, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors says:

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

[…] All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged

Other answers have pointed out that by telling the "coauthors" that they aren't coauthors, you will rustle a lot of jimmies and obtain little to no personal career benefit. This is perfectly true, but would playing along with them be consistent with your own ethical sense? Would you feel good admitting that you did this to some hypothetical bright-eyed undergraduate who looks up to you? That's what I ask you to consider.

8

I am assuming that you are mostly concerned about getting full credit for this paper on the job market. I would offer three solutions.

First, if you have a supervisor who is sympathetic to your point (and who agrees to this strategy), you can make them the “bad guy.” Then you can say that your supervisor said that you cannot add any additional authors at this time. You might even be able to say that you have been advised that proofreading needs to be handled as a note in the Acknowledgment section/statement, rather than authorship.

If the supervisor is not willing to go this far, then you could ask them to emphasize your primary contribution to this article in all letters written on your behalf on the job market. This would be very standard and would do the same thing as a contribution statement, just in a more private manner.

Finally, you could purposely look for a health Econ journal where this type of statement/disclaimer is more standard. If it is a journal norm, then your colleagues can hardly object to your including it. You might even be able to use the fact that you have to write such a statement to remove people whose contribution would give a bad impression .

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    Do this only if the supervisor agrees!!!!! (Just to emphasize this important point.) Otherwise, she could lose her allies and you her sympathy. – Haque Dec 18 '18 at 15:24
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    Ah yes, that was implicit. I will add. – Dawn Dec 18 '18 at 15:25
  • If some author needs to be removed maybe they can go to the acknowledgment section (if the journal/field have this section too). – llrs Dec 18 '18 at 15:40
  • @llrs Right, that is what I was saying in the last sentence of paragraph 2. – Dawn Dec 18 '18 at 15:43
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    @llrs I am agreeing they would go in Acknowledgements. I will try to clarify more. – Dawn Dec 18 '18 at 15:48

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