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To what extent does coming up with a research idea, without contributing anything else to the actual work, constitute a sufficient contribution to be an author?

As a hypothetical, suppose a five year-old child tells me one day that he wonders if banana peels can be used to cure leukemia. I am intrigued by the idea and go and write a research proposal. The proposal gets funded (!) and I get positive results (!!). In this case, does the child deserve authorship for coming up with the idea, which I might never have considered?

On the one hand, I can say that some ideas are often very creative and novel to the point where just coming up with the idea is a significant intellectual endeavor (recognizing an unsolved problem, knowing enough theory to hypothesize what might work, knowing what has been tried in the past, using raw intelligence to put things together, etc.), while on the other hand, I could trivially write a script to brute-force-dictionary an arbitrarily long list of "ideas" and then scoop authorship on large numbers of future papers - "Umm, your paper's title was one of 43343895234 that I generated earlier this year with a script, I am entitled to have my name on your paper as an author even though I am not actually doing anything to help, since I had the idea first."

Ideas:

  • Coming up with an idea always deserves authorship as long as the idea was novel.
  • Coming up with an idea deserves authorship only when the idea-maker establishes a sufficient foundation for the idea. For example, randomly proposing a cure for cancer by picking random chemical names out of a dictionary and hoping for a jackpot cannot result in authorship, while providing a theoretical basis for why a specific chemical might work does, even if the idea-generator leaves it at that and does none of the actual experimental design, lab work, etc., or quite possibly is not even qualified to do so.
  • An idea is never sufficient for authorship. Proposing an idea, without doing any of the actual work, merits at most an acknowledgement or a citation ("Thanks to John McWhatever for coming up with the idea of solving the Closeability Problem by applying hyperparallelized matrices across the transverse manifold.", or "On an online Question and Answer site, Columbia (2019) proposed the use of banana peels in curing leukemia, but did not provide a theoretical basis or a practical methodology. In this paper, I demonstrate a clinically significant benefit of 10g banana peel topical tincture daily versus placebo in the treatment of leukemia....").
  • To be clear, you're asking about authorship of an academic paper, not of any subsequent patent? – smci Mar 4 at 3:53
  • @smci right, I am talking about academic authorship. – Robert Columbia Mar 4 at 11:48
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I will give an answer that applies to mathematics and maybe some other things. It isn't quite your second point, but close. Background first.

Newcomers to maths think of it as a bunch of facts. You learn some of those facts in early schooling but don't get a wider view. If you study maths at a higher level you think of it as proving theorems. Some facts and a bit of logic let you derive other facts. But if that is as far as you go, then you really aren't yet a mathematician. A mathematician is a person with enough insight into the workings of the thing that they can propose things that might be theorems if they could only be proven. But this isn't, to a mathematician, just making random statements. There has to be a reason why something is suspected to be true. Things that are likely to be true.

So, if the kid just randomly proposes a connection between bananas and leukemia, then it isn't worthy of authorship. But if a person with deep insight into the workings of the disease and the properties of bananas proposes it as a topic of study then, yes, they could/should certainly be a co-author of the study even if others do the actual proof of the concept.

It is the insight into the likely connection that has value.

Otherwise, you might just be sent off on a random quest without any hope of success.

However, in mathematics, if an advisor suggests a problem to a student, having the insight that the student hasn't yet developed, it is still pretty rare to demand co-authorship unless there is more of a collaboration in the development. But this is just the custom. Certainly it is worthy of acknowledgement, and maybe even co-authorship. It isn't even necessary in this case that the advisor have an outline of a proof, or even any deep insight into how to develop it. It is just insight into a problem worth pursuing.

But if it is, in mathematics, not an advisor-student relationship and one proposes an idea to another, I suspect that co-authorship would feel more natural, but probably with an acknowledgement section in the resulting paper that details the contributions. But in this case, also, it is more likely that the work would be developed cooperatively, so the authorship question would be obvious.

Other fields than mathematics have different views on authorship, of course, but it is, even there, a question of insight. Among an infinite number of roads, someone proposes one as worthy of following. If you follow that you owe them something for putting you on the path. How you acknowledge it is a matter of custom that varies from field to field.

  • 1
    You seem to imply that insight, seniority or experience are a factor in authorship, rather than contribution. A random thought doesn’t count if it remains random - we agree on this - but if someone can expand on this thought, defend it, and show how it fits into the logic of the process, then surely it doesn’t matter the level of insight or experience of the thinker. Granted: this occurs very rarely in 5yr olds. – ZeroTheHero Mar 3 at 14:10
  • Even if someone with considerable experience proposes a problem and leaves it for someone else to develop, the person proposing the problem should not be a co-author: Riemann should not get author credit for proof of the Riemann hypothesis. – ZeroTheHero Mar 3 at 14:10
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    @ZeroTheHero, nor Landau for solution of the Landau Problems. But I think it is different for living people who actually correspond in some way with the authors and pass on the insights directly from hand to hand. But I think you misinterpret a bit. I tried to focus on insight alone, not seniority or experience, though noting that others do value those things. Seniority alone doesn't make you a mathematician. But insight does. – Buffy Mar 3 at 14:29
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    @ZeroTheHero Insight is a contribution! – JeffE Mar 4 at 6:00
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    @ZeroTheHero you may be right, but your example is certainly flawed. To be considered for co-authorship in some paper, someone must make some significant insights into whatever is novel in that paper. In the case of a paper that suggests a new, interesting theorem and proves it, coming up with that theorem (Buffy's example) is a significant insight leading to the paper and deserves co-authorship. On the other hand, a paper that proves an existing theorem (Riemann Hypothesis) no new ground gained by that paper is do to the insights of the person originally proposing that theorem. – DreamConspiracy Mar 4 at 12:52
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I do not think we can have a general answer here. It will always depend on a lot of factors; mostly because research is, unfortunately, not only ideas, but work and resources. Let me tell you my point; if a Professor (or anybody else, let's call it the proposer) has some insight like the one about bananas and cancer and proposes the topic to some PhD student or postdoc or Assoc. Prof. or whatever (let's call it the worker), the latter will probably have a need of resources in order to carry out the researcher. If the proposer can also provide funds, lab or resources, I think she should be a co-author of the paper, patent, whatever. Also because this is a cycle and the proposer with more papers in the new subject will have more chances to secure funding and therefore provide with them to the worker. So at the end this is a symbiosis and the proposer should be on the paper, where of course, she must at least read it and give feedback. And this should be ethical as well. Why not?

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To what extent does coming up with a research idea, without contributing anything else to the actual work, constitute a sufficient contribution to be an author?

This really depends on what you mean by "coming up with a research idea". A "research idea" can be very general, or very specific, and the idea could potentially include substantial progress towards solving the research. If the "research idea" is merely a broad idea for a topic of research, then that would never be a sufficient condition for authorship of a paper. However, if the "research idea" means coming up with a novel method which in itself constitutes a major research contribution, then that might be sufficient for authorship of resultant work.

Probably the most extreme example of this would be in a field like mathematics, where difficult research problems can be "cracked open" by a new insight. As an extreme example, suppose Researcher A comes up with the idea to "try to prove the Riemann hypothesis using Fourier series" and then Researcher B listens to this and goes away and figures out a way to do this, and actually succeeds in proving the theorem, leading to a major paper. Notwithstanding its success, the "research idea" of Researcher A is much too broad to constitute an actual contribution to the research of Researcher B, let alone a contribution worthy of authorship. If Researcher B were feeling generous (and why wouldn't he be after such a great success!) he might thank Researcher A in an acknowledgement, for steering him towards the solution to the problem.

On the other hand, if Researcher A instead comes up with a much more specific idea "to prove the Riemann hypothesis by using this particular application of Fourier series (shows some sketch working to give an idea of what he means)" then that idea might constitute the major breakthrough towards the actual result. If it turns out that this idea is the key to breaking open the problem, and Researcher B then grinds out the details, that would probably be a case where joint authorship is appropriate.

In summary, a "research idea" would be sufficient for authorship if that idea is sufficiently novel and clever that it constitutes a substantial contribution to the work in its own right.

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No. Ideally a co-author should know the contents of the paper, the methodology, and be able to defend this contents and methodology. In practice, a co-author should have an identifiable contribution to the submission, not just an idea.

Ideas are cheap; most ideas are wrong and it is the process of checking that an idea is right that elevates a contribution to the author or co-author level. How much checking depends on the topic, but just shooting the breeze is not enough.

The OP gives the example of a 5yr old, but it’s easy enough to imagine a conversation with a colleague at a conference or a seminar generating an idea eventually developed in a research paper by one but not the other participant to the conversation, even if they were both involved in the original conversation.

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I think this question fundamental misunderstands how the collaboration process and coauthorship decisions happen. You don't typically finish a paper and then decide who the coauthors are, you decide the coauthors and then finish the paper. If someone suggests an idea to you, you should keep them in the loop if you work on it, and you discuss whether you're collaborating or not. (Otherwise you run the risk of scooping one of their students.) So one of three things happens here:

  1. You decide early on that you're not collaborating. Then they are not a coauthor but you give a generous acknowledgement thanking them for suggesting the problem or the idea.
  2. You decide early on that you are collaborating and they do more work on the paper than just suggesting one idea (how extensive will vary).
  3. Occasionally you'll decide to collaborate and then the person will not end up doing any work on the project. In this situation that person should ask to be removed from coauthorship. If someone isn't actively collaborating, you might also inquire whether they want to stay a coauthor. This can be slightly awkward, but it's somewhat unusual and the best way to sort this out is to communicate during the collaboration process.
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I second all of Buffy's eloquent answer, but I think I can provide a slightly different perspective that is of value. For background, I do some academic work in law and my undergraduate degree was in mathematics.

I think that merely coming up with an idea is never enough to deserve co-authorship by itself. Though, like Buffy, I think it does deserve an acknowledgement in some form. In most law journals, the first footnote would be the appropriate place for something like that.

However, I would argue that your second example goes beyond merely putting forth an idea. Someone may provide a solid basis for their idea based on thought and experience without doing the work to write it out or research the background to properly develop it. At that point, they have given the primary author something more akin to a roadmap than a mere starting point idea. At that point, it is appropriate to offer the person who provided that kind of foundation a co-authoriship if they agree with the ultimate conclusions.

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In practical manners, many advisors get co-authorships just for proposing projects versus doing work on them. This probably doesn't really cross the threshold for a real contribution. And it seems to be very different in how it is applied to PIs versus fellow students or even people outside the lab group. (I could write 50+ great projects to do...should I get co-authorship from whoever does them? Even if I transmit the list to people? Not really.)

But I think at the end of the day, you have to realize that the idealistic vision of coauthorship does not really apply. At least in experimental R1 science with big lab groups. It hasn't for at least last 50 years. And the professors actually need to collect the co-authorships to keep writing grants, get tenure/promoted, etc.

You're better off just figuring that it is a tribal custom, like wearing clothes, that you have to deal with. Plus, they're at the back of the bus (stereotypically) in terms of the byline name order. So don't let it bug you too much, man.

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This is quite interesting reading some of the commentary. There seems to be a pervasive call to ignore initiators of potentially great ideas. So then I would ask: If you accidentally come across a great solution to a problem that was mentioned to you by someone is this to be ignored? This is effectively the same problem, but as we all well know, many great ideas have come through this process. So does it matter if there is a un-attached instigator of the idea, or if that input comes during development of an idea? In my opinion - Any contribution, is a contribution. How you weight that contribution reflects on you, and not others.

  • The problem is that word "potentially". Yeah some idea are really valuable. The overwhelming majority are not. In industry you can't really get a job selling ideas alone. There's always something else of value you need to attach to it to remove the risk. That should tell you something. – A Simple Algorithm Mar 3 at 19:09

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