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I am a biology student working in a laboratory. I am planning to submit a solo author paper to a journal/book. I conceived the work, drafted and revised it.

My question is if I need to include my laboratory head as a co-author. He was not involved in conceiving the work, drafting the paper and revising it. However, I did generate the data in his laboratory. Am I obliged to add him as a co-author because I work in his laboratory?

I have previously submitted solo author papers for books. But, I don't want to run into any troubles, so I am wondering what the right thing to do is.

Eager to hear your thoughts.

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    That is unethical. My advice is that just publish the paper. If receiving the credit for your work implies that you will be attacked in some way, it would be better run away. But it all depends on the way you are. – user1420303 Mar 6 at 0:15
  • What do you mean by attacked in some way? And better to run away? Please clarify. – J. Doe Mar 6 at 0:24
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    Why not just ask him what he thinks? If he says it's fine, go ahead and publish. If he says that you should list him, list him. – nick012000 Mar 6 at 4:19
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  • Just asking - was the work done in the lab with the knowledge and permission of the advisor/group who own/oversee the lab? It is pretty hard to imagine it being as solo a project as the OP implies (without also wondering if no one knew and approved and discussed the various activities, use of equipment, consumables, etc, and how tos). – Carol Mar 7 at 0:17
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In many of the lab sciences it has become customary, and even required, that the PI of the lab is a co-author on all papers produced by those working in the lab, usually as the last listed author.

It would probably be thought unusual if you were to break this "tradition". It might even cost you in your relationship with the PI in the future.

The rationale for this is that the PI has probably done the work to get the lab funded and sets general direction for the work in the lab. Many of the ideas generated by those working there may come indirectly from others, including some insights from the head.

I don't know if this is the situation in your lab, but suspect that it is since you are asking the question. In such cases it is probably wise to go along to preserve the collegial relationships that can benefit you in your future.

You may question the fairness of this, and many do, but if it is required by the meta rules, you are a bit stuck. Ask your colleagues in the lab what is the proper approach. If they say to include the head, and you would rather not do so, then I'd advise asking the PI for permission to publish a paper on your own. I'd follow the advise given if for no better reason than self protection.


I'll note that in some labs many people are listed as co-author even though they have little contribution to the intellectual content of the paper. But they, in some way, enable the work and so are listed as co-authors.

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    I agree that it is a tradition but there are also rare instances in which solo authored papers have been published. My question is if it is unethical to leave my PI off the paper. I think that having a solo author technical paper would boost my career. Question is, if for some reason the paper runs into problems down the road, what would have been the best thing to have done?? – J. Doe Mar 6 at 0:26
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    Also, what do you mean by meta rules? – J. Doe Mar 6 at 0:28
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    I wouldn't say unethical, actually, just unwise given the politics of it. The best thing is to finish your degree(s) and build a career. Meta rules are the rules behind the rules. They may not be stated explicitly, but everyone knows.... Don't forget that you will need letters of recommendation from these folks later. – Buffy Mar 6 at 0:50
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Ask yourself if you could have done the work without the assistance, direct or indirect, of the head.

I do assume a minimal interaction between members of the lab/group and at least between you and the head. If you pursued a research out of black I don't really know how to answer. It wouldn't be a normal situation.

Did you rise the funds for your salary or are you a permanent researcher with at least a fixed allowance? This allows more freedom.

Opposite if the founds are coming from the head's applications, considered how hard s/he may have worked to secure that. Likely, details aside, your activity and results correlate at least with the scientific content of those successful applications.

What about consumables and equipment? What about the presence of a group and how that impacted or even just motivated your work?

What is supposed to be the role of the head on your activity? Merely an administrator of resources? And at which level?

Consider that the simple fact that you conducted an independent research can be seen as positive, as for lot of researchers struggle with lack of autonomy.

For instance, deserving finances and time machine to a certain research can be see as a factual collaboration. As a group or lab head I would not let those be used to something that I would not consider really worth of investigation. At the end in a perfect environment your current doubt should not have even emerged, as it should be clear a priori what are the freedom of single researchers (which ideally should be almost unlimited within the field but it cannot be unless you have your own allowance) and expectations.

I do realised that there could be (there are) concerns about considering all the above as a scientific contribution, but it is also true that almost every action (or absence of) of the head of a lab in biology, chemistry, and other hardware disciplines, not only influences the outcomes of research, but often permits the research to be conducted at first.

Depending on the type of lab and economical situation, I would personally be glad to have the head as a coauthor.

A specific answer might depends on a lot of variables, which not surprisingly are even personal and based on the atmosphere at the working place rather than scientific or economic. But it is customary for a head to be in most if not all the papers produced by his/her group. Different is the case when papers are outcomes of his/her lab, and this distinction is contingent to each situation.

Finally, and less general, personally and depending on career stage, I would simply go to him/her and look for an opinion. I wouldn't be surprise of an answer like "go solo, you are young and it will makes a nice display" or "I did nothing*,go ahead just thank me for discussions". It is a real possibility, too.

What I would not do, is to submit without the other members of the group knowing. It would be at least strange if we do not profit of discussions with other scientists/researchers we have around every days, even more considering we are travelling to conferences overseas to discuss with others. As such, I would go through the above step (discussion with the head) anyway, and I will get a direct opinion or I could infere his/her expectations.

*even if s/he obtained the funds.

  • Many of the things you mention usually don't qualify you for authorship though, e.g. funding of research or salary. That is stuff that should go into the acknowledgements. These guidelines from ICMJE is a good starting point. – fileunderwater Mar 6 at 10:48
  • I am author of hundreds papers and I never ever had a single coauthors granted for free. @fileunderwater. I will edit as for is possible that my answer is not that clear. – Alchimista Mar 6 at 12:41
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It's customary in some disciplines like medicine to nominally include people in purely managerial or supervisory roles as authors, although in fact they were not the author of the paper in any meaningful sense of the term.

While the fairness of this custom is questionable, it is hard to challenge as a matter of fact, if you work in a discipline where this is considered normal. In medicine, I would not bother to raise a stink. In physics, it may depend on your lab/institute (I don't really know). In the social sciences, a blanket demand by your PI to be included as author is unusual. You normally wouldn't be asked, and if you were asked, you would have a good chance to challenge the demand successfully.

In any case, it's a good idea to resolve expectations surrounding authorship before submitting the paper, perhaps even before starting to work on it. Pragmatically, I would ask my colleagues about the general customs at your institute, and then your PI, if needed.

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Besides other reasons and suggestions you should strongly consider the specific authorship guidelines of the journal that you are considering to submit to. Most journals have relatively specific guidelines, and they generally discourage "given/honorary" authorships quite strongly. One good starting point (partially depending on your subject) is the guidelines from ICMJE (International committee of medical journal editors). Even though they might sound specific to the field, many other journals and guidelines point to them for guidance and inspiration.

In the ICMJE guidelines, being a lab head or funder of research by itself clearly does not qualify you for authorship, but it is information that should be included in the acknowledgements:

Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged. Examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding; general supervision of a research group or general administrative support; and writing assistance, technical editing, language editing, and proofreading.

However, having said all this, you should clearly also just ask your lab head if it is ok that you submit the paper as a solo author. Maybe there isn't a problem? If he/she pushes for being included, then you need to carefully consider the ethics and politics of the issue, as well as the authorship guideline rules of the journal.

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    I agree that they do not satisfy the guidelines for the ICMJE. I have, however, decided to be open and communicative with the lab head about the possibility of solo authorship. – J. Doe Mar 6 at 14:11

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