Suppose, in my research (mathematical) I have a critical step that I need to solve, and, due to various reasons I cannot find decent answer to that step by myself or by contacting friends or colleagues, so that I decide to post a similar but simpler problem to the relevant StackExchange (Math). Now, if someone comes up with a good answer that I can use to further my research, will it be enough to acknowledge the contribution of the author of the answer and citing that particular thread of StackExchange, or do I need to include that person as a coauthor of the paper that I might prepare based on that answer?

I emphasize here that the paper is supposed to be not all about that particular result, there are many other things, and that particular answer is useful, albeit critically, at an intermediate stage of proving some results in the paper. I personally feel that citing and acknowledging the contribution is respectful enough. However, I want to know what the standard norm is.

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    If you are using other people's work then you should cite them.
    – Solar Mike
    Apr 30, 2019 at 10:07
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    Possible duplicate of Attributing contributions to academic work that occur in Stack Exchange (plus all the questions in the sidebar 'linked' section) Apr 30, 2019 at 14:08
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    @SolarMike that seems like a good answer, please post it as such instead of as a comment. Apr 30, 2019 at 14:48
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    Do you know when you would offer coauthorship versus just giving an acknowledgement? The threshold shouldn't be any different for asking a question on SE versus in person/email/etc.
    – Kimball
    Apr 30, 2019 at 15:42
  • I think none of the commentators have entertained the possibility that the contributor does not want to be listed as coauthor. People can be cited against their will but should never be made coauthor involuntarily.
    – emory
    Apr 30, 2019 at 22:24

4 Answers 4


I have been in this precise situation. I wrote the manuscript to a reasonably finished state and then contacted the helpful SE person, asking if they want to be a coauthor and whether the attribution is sufficient. The attribution consisted of citing the MO answer and additionally naming them in the acknowledgements.

This approach has the benefit of maintaining or building a good relationship with the helpful person.

Remember that the typical norms of co-authorship include intellectual contribution, as well as writing or critical review of the manuscript, and in any case accepting the final paper. If you see their contribution as relatively minor, you might want to offer them the possibility to extend or otherwise improve the paper if they are interested in co-authorship.

If the contribution does not merit co-authorship, you can still cite it or acknowledge the (possibly anonymous) contributor on SE, if that is warranted. It is polite, but not required, to ask the person how they should be referred to, in any case.

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    @user847982 If their contribution is something that one can find elsewhere, at a better source, than one can also cite that. I suppose most contributions by non-scientists would fit in this category, or at least be minor enough to not warrant co-authorship, but rahter only a thank you or an acknowledgement. But if an amateur provides a missing piece to some work, credit is due.
    – Tommi
    Apr 30, 2019 at 11:15
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    @user847982 Why would you think it is practical or ethical to simply withhold attribution for contributions from anyone who doesn't meet some arbitrary threshold of notability or identifiability? There is a simple term for that - plagiarism. Apr 30, 2019 at 14:13
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    You use results - you cite. The results are substantial in making your paper work as a whole, you offer co-authorship. But citation is minimum, whether or not the person is a full-time academic. It doesn't matter if the problem was solved by Will Hunting the janitor, Pierre de Fermat, the judge or James Garfield, the president. Apr 30, 2019 at 14:18
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    @user847982 Inconvenience is not an excuse for plagiarism.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 30, 2019 at 14:42
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    @user847982 Then quote the handle. In literature, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre is written by someone code-named B. Traven, but nobody knows for sure who that is; the identity of that person is unknown. So, you cite "B. Traven". If someone contributing an important proof on SE calls themselves "AStupidDork" and leaves no other way to credit them, it's their problem - but it's also still their credit. Apr 30, 2019 at 14:45

There is the question of what you are ethically obligated to do, and what I would advise you to do. (I've had a somewhat similar situation.)

I do not think you are ethically obligated to offer coauthorship. The situation is similar to if the person posted a short note to the arxiv. They can expect to be cited, and they can expect that your paper will not take credit for their work, but they can't claim coauthorship of the next work to use the result. Once posted, answers should be free for all to cite, not attached to strings.

Now, if you don't coauthor, you MUST cite the result properly (stackexchange sites often have a link below answers for this) and attribute credit for the result in your paper. (I would include a full proof for completeness, though.) If you find that your paper still stands on its own when this result is reduced to citation of an outside source, this may be a sign that coauthorship would not be very necessary. If you find the paper is weak because all the hard parts have been reduced to citations, you still aren't ethically obliged to coauthor, you just have a weak paper.

If you do coauthor, then I would suggest still citing the stackexchange post, But it is, in my opinion, correct and ethical to present the work as an original contribution of the research paper, since SE is not archival and the author of the post is an author of your paper. In this case, you may find that the paper becomes stronger and its contribution more impressive, which is a sign that coauthorship is a smart move.

But aside from this, for many reasons, I agree with others that regardless, the best advice is probably to pursue coauthorship first. It is a nicer and more polite approach, it makes your paper stronger, it may help that person receive more recognition for their contributions, they are probably an expert in the area and can improve the whole paper and bring recognition, it may improve your personal network even if they say no, etc.


I'm confused. You seem to be saying, actually, that your paper wouldn't exist if it wasn't for that contribution: "critical" twice.

If that is the case, then certainly they are "worthy" of co-authorship. If it is "critical" then you couldn't have done it without them.

If you suggest it to them they might agree or not. If they don't then citation would be appropriate.

Let me turn it around, just as a thought experiment. This other person produced a result to a question you posed. It was their work. Suppose they decide to publish that result. Suppose, indeed, that they think about it for a bit and decide to publish a generalization of that result. Are they justified in doing so? Are they justified in doing so as sole-author? Worth thinking about, I suppose. I doubt that they should publish as sole author without attribution, of course, but their situation seems to be a direct reflection of yours.

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    I am not saying that the paper cannot be prepared without the result, I can probably improve a paper using that result. Apr 30, 2019 at 11:35
  • Hmmm. Actually "they" probably improved the paper with that result. It might also open up opportunities for collaboration in the future. I'm still feeling "itchy" about this. If you write a paper without the result and another version with the result. The difference is due to the other person, except that you proposed the framework (which isn't nothing, of course).
    – Buffy
    Apr 30, 2019 at 11:45
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    @SamratMukhopadhyay Think of each of those results as a different paper. For one of those papers, this person did a critical contribution and thus deserves credit. If you had compiled those various mini-papers into a single, larger meta-paper, you would have to credit every author that contributed to every single one of those smaller papers. This is no different, in my opinion.
    – T. Sar
    Apr 30, 2019 at 13:49
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    @T.Sar, of course I have to give credit to each them, but what I am asking is that do I need to offer them co-authorship, or citing their contribution is enough? Apr 30, 2019 at 14:14
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    @SamratMukhopadhyay You should apply the same standards you would apply to anyone else in making that determination. If someone asks me whether a paired samples t-test is appropriate for their research question, and I tell them yes, I definitely don't expect an acknowledgment or authorship. If I go to the lab down the hall and ask if anyone there has had familiarity dissolving some hard-to-dissolve compound and they recommend a solvent they've used, I'm probably not going to acknowledge or grant authorship to that contribution. If they helped with an entire assay I definitely would.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 30, 2019 at 14:46

It is always a good idea to be generous with coauthorship. Consider the risk/reward:

Offering coauthorship has many benefits: good relations with the recipient, reputation of generosity, increased network of coauthors. The only drawback is that if the offer is accepted, then in some situations some people might have an incorrectly diminished view of your contributions to the joint paper. This is rare and minor -- people know that authors sometimes have differing contributions.

Failing to offer coauthorship has many risks: alienating the recipient, reputation of stinginess (which can lead to fewer future collaborators), accusations of academic misconduct.

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    That last sentence is in my opinion -so- wrong.. If something is the right thing to do, then do it. You absolutely cannot read other people's minds, circumstances may have changed (like they refuse co-authorship in a first paper, but would accept it here), there are many reasons why you should offer anyway, and let the person refuse if they wish to.
    – user104070
    Apr 30, 2019 at 17:18
  • Of course one should not read someone's mind; that would not fall under "completely certain".
    – vadim123
    Apr 30, 2019 at 18:41
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    The only way to be completely certain is to make the offer. So the only reason not to make the offer is if you have already made the offer and it was refused.
    – JeffE
    Apr 30, 2019 at 19:18
  • Good answer, I wanted to upvote, but then I saw the last sentence, and agree with the others. Apr 30, 2019 at 23:06
  • Upon reflection, I've deleted the controversial last sentence.
    – vadim123
    Apr 30, 2019 at 23:13

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