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I am a PhD student in bioinformatics/computational biology. A year or two ago I helped a fellow student using a software package she needed for creating a certain type of figures for her project. This week I got an email from that student asking if I wish to be listed as an author in a paper she is submitting in which she used these figures.

Other than helping to get her started with this software package and maybe helping her a bit with improving her code otherwise, I made no contribution to that project and in fact had only a very vague idea what she was working on until I saw the manuscript this week. I estimate that at most I dedicated 5-10 hours to the whole thing.

So my dilemma is if such a minor contribution justifies me being listed as an author.

On the one hand, I have invested very little in this student in terms of time and effort, and was not involved at all in her research process per se.

On the other hand, I did invest a considerable amount of time learning to work with the said software for my own project (totally unrelated to hers) so I think there was some kind of knowledge/skill transfer involved that may have saved her some time.

If it matters, the paper has four authors other then me: the student that I helped, her two supervisors, and another PhD student who to my understanding was much more involved than me in this project.

I'm looking forward to hearing your perspective, O wise ones.

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    You could ask for an acknowledgement, e.g., something that includes "XX created Figures A, B & C." – user2768 Jul 12 at 10:26
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    When I was in grad school (materials science) eons ago, it was very common for grad students to help/teach other grad students various things. How to make TEM specimens, how to run some mod/sim program, etc. We never paid it back with authorship (unless they actually did work, not just taught us how to do the work). Instead, we paid it forward, teaching other students how to do the stuff that we knew how to do. In your shoes, how you are feeling, I'd just politely say thanks, but it isn't needed. – Jon Custer Jul 12 at 16:37
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The criteria for authorship may somehow vary by discipline. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) stipulates four criteria that must be met if someone is to deserve authorship.

  • 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.

The ICMJE guideline further states that contributors fulfilling only less than four of the criteria should not be listed as authors but should be acknowledged.

A COPE discussion document about authorship also raises authorship criteria that are considered in different disciplines.

You may decide whether you qualify to be listed as an author based on the different guidelines available, probably based on the one closest to your discipline.

  • Why the downvote? May you (the colleague who downvoted) explain the reason? – Ayalew A. Jul 12 at 9:10
  • I would probably add that by the ICMJE standards, what OP describes does not satisfy all four criteria. – sgf Jul 12 at 11:32
  • By those guidelines the most important part is really the first statement; one could interpret the next three as part of the offer for authorship (that is, if OP was to be an author, they should then have a part in revising and approving the manuscript). – Bryan Krause Jul 12 at 16:42
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If you expect to continue to be on this student's papers or to have her on yours, go ahead. After all there are a huge amount of professors tacking onto papers where all they did was write a grant. It is a good way to boost your count. And you'll still have first on your papers, doesn't hurt to add others. That said, if you think/want no further association, I would just say "make it an acknowledgement".

P.s. Cynical view, but "keeping it real".

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As a PhD student, it is always worthwhile increasing your publication list and if the 'real' authors are happy to invite you, then it's certainly acceptable. It then comes down to your personal comfort.

I have been in similar situations where I provided what I consider to be general assistance without any real intellectual input: coding assistance, editing style comments on a draft paper, suggestions on how to visualise results. For me, I think about it from the other perspective. If someone had provided that level of assistance on my project, would I invite them as a co-author or would I be upset if they expected to be a co-author. Sometimes my general assistance leads to invitation as a co-author and I always decline on the basis that I didn't really contribute to the study.

This has consequences, though, my publications list is shorter than others in my discipline. For me, that's less important. But for a PhD student, every paper you can get is valuable. On the other hand, if you decline, you are also in a stronger position to limit the authors on your papers to people who genuinely contributed, which may also be important to you.

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There is no reason why you shouldn't go for authorship. Free publication, you have nothing to lose, as a student yourself why not?

Anyone can be an author for a paper as long as the first and last authors agree. I'm an author for a paper on something I had absolutely no idea, but I'm still an author!

FYI: Providing technical advice is of course counted as serious contribution.

  • I do not agree that it is that simple. There are ethical standards to be met but these vary a lot. The German science funding agency has an official statement about "Gute wissenschaftliche Praxis" (something like ethical guidelines for scientific work). Also some university may have their own rules that may apply. – Dirk Jul 12 at 9:34
  • @Dirk Wrong. If the all other authors say nothing, who would know? Do you really think reviewers can work out who do what? – SmallChess Jul 12 at 9:35
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    That was not my point. – Dirk Jul 12 at 9:35
  • @Dirk It's your point. As long as the other authors have no objection, nothing would happen. If they have objections, anything can happen. Your guidelines only apply if the other authors have objection. If they don't, anybody can be an author. – SmallChess Jul 12 at 9:36
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    @SmallChess "Am I going to get caught" is not the only question one should ask oneself in matters of ethics. Apart from that, your presupposition "Providing technical advice is of course counted as serious contribution" is exactly what OP wants to figure out. – sgf Jul 12 at 11:31
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Yes

For you your contribution might not look very important and was easy to do for you but for people with non-technical background some help from a bioinformatician/statistician etc is of high value and possibly saves them lots of time and effort. Therefore in their perspective (and objectively) your contribution is significant and it justifies authorship.

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    The student didn't say "I want to list you as an author", she asked OP whether they wish to be listed, so I don't think it's clear that in the student's perspective the contribution is significant enough to justify authorship. – sgf Jul 12 at 11:29
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    "some help from XYZ is of high value and saves them time and effort" is not an argument for authorship. A translator who translates a manuscript from French to English would not qualify as an author, even if the actual authors are poor at English and benefit much from the translation. – lighthouse keeper Jul 13 at 9:21

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