A famous scholar sent me an unpublished draft of hers. It was to convince me that a certain philosophical position is wrong (the paper debunks that position). Then she died. I think her work should be published.

What should I do? Who should I contact?

  • 24
    What's the condition of the draft? Does it need heavy editing, or is it almost ready to publish as is?
    – Anyon
    Sep 21, 2019 at 15:43
  • 19
    I would say ready/almost ready. Sep 21, 2019 at 15:46
  • 60
    And, of course, the situation is just the same if the person is not famous. If the paper is worthy of publication, its authorship is of less importance than the contribution itself. Maybe even more important for a non-famous person, though, to have the work properly attributed just as if they were alive.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2019 at 18:34
  • 11
    Following up on Buffy, another reason it might be more important if the person is not famous is that the work of someone famous is likely known about, and if really famous, will probably come to light in one form or another when that person's academic belongings have been gone through (or at least archived at their university library or something), whereas anything by someone not all that famous is likely to disappear. For someone not famous, maybe it'll be rediscovered in some form at a later time, but the actual work in it's original form by the person who died will be completely lost. Sep 21, 2019 at 19:34
  • 12
    What was her intention in sending it to you? Was it accompanied by any instructions? Did she want you to advance its publication? Review it for errors? Archive it against accidental destruction of the original? Study it and inform your own subsequent work? - The title doesn't say. Sep 22, 2019 at 1:40

4 Answers 4


The first thing to do is to contact her estate. You can probably reach someone through her last affiliation. I assume that they have control over all of the papers and effects of the deceased.

Since you say she is famous, there my be some posthumous attempt to honor her in some collected publication, but the estate, possibly a spouse, should have knowledge of that. Her last employer might also.

But start there.

And, of course it is possible that it has already been submitted somewhere and publication is in process. The estate might even welcome contact with interested people in finalizing publication as needed.

  • 1
    How do you contact someone's estate? I have no idea. Also, let's suppose that for some reason, they don't publish it. Would it be ethical to make the work available online anyway? Sep 21, 2019 at 15:49
  • 9
    If she worked at a university or such, they will have information about next of kin. From there you can go to the executor of the estate if necessary, but a close kin is probably enough to make proper contact. I would hesitate to publish it on my own authority in any venue unless you have permission from her family. That may, of course, already have been granted to others, such as her colleagues. As a last resort, a collective enterprise to bring it forward would be better than any individual one.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2019 at 15:55
  • 41
    A copyright is inheritable property. There is a copyright owner, initially the estate, and later someone such as a spouse or child, and their consent is needed for any publication. Sep 21, 2019 at 15:58
  • 38
    A famous scholar may have appointed a literary executor specifically to deal with manuscripts, unpublished works etc.
    – Owain
    Sep 21, 2019 at 16:01
  • 18
    I think most universities will still be able to contact family. Colleagues of hers probably know the family. You probably have no more than two degrees of separation from someone with responsibility.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2019 at 16:08

If the author has coauthored work with someone recently, that coauthor can be a good first contact. For one thing, they might know someone in the family and perhaps know who is executor for her estate. They might also be in possession of other partially finished works and you might work together toward a common solution. Coauthors sometimes know a scholar better than those in the department. If you are lucky she has a google scholar page you can use to identify recent collaborators.

If she published primarily alone, you are left with contacting her publisher, department, family and estate, former graduate students. It is as Buffy said: if you were close enough to be sent a manuscript, you can't be more than a few degrees of separation from someone who can help.

Best of luck.

  • I know one of her coauthors. I don't even know what a estate executor is, but thanks! Sep 21, 2019 at 16:32
  • 18
    When someone dies with non-trivial assets it takes time to value the assets, pay debts, pay taxes, and organize distribution to the heirs. Rather than the assets going directly to the heirs, they are owned by the "estate of XXX", and the person in charge of the estate is called the "executor". Alternatively, there may be a trust and trustee. If you want to publish her paper before the copyright has been transferred to whoever inherits it, you need permission from the executor or trustee. Sep 21, 2019 at 17:03
  • 16
    @PatriciaShanahan, let me suggest slightly better phrasing: "If you want to see her paper published...." rather than "If you want to publish her paper...". The OP can't actually publish the paper. That is up to others. The OP can help, of course. In theory, the estate could even transfer rights to the OP.
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2019 at 17:45
  • 4
    @Buffy That wording is better. Sep 21, 2019 at 19:57

Probating an estate is a very long and arduous process. Especially if it there wasn't a Will (Source: Newly an ADM of an estate). It's likely a highly emotional time for the family. Such a document or topic could likely get "lost in the chaos" and be an unnecessary complication. PLUS, inheritors of an estate may not always have the best interests of the deceased in mind. Finally, it can take well up to a year for the family and attorneys to finish resolving an estate. With all of that in mind, it would be wise to wait a year and then contact people until you can find administrator(/executor) and inform them of your wish to help publish the deceased's work.

Considering there is a coauthor, most of the above may not actually be relevant! Simply do as the deceased asked (review draft, provide feedback, etc.) and then relay everything to the coauthor. Then wish them good luck, offer your help, 'sorry for your loss', and that's it! It is between the coauthor and the admin/executor of the estate to decide to publish or not to publish.

  • s/is/can be/. My partner was executrix of her father's estate, and it was neither long nor arduous. Also, the deceased doesn't have an interest left; the copyright in the draft belongs to whoever inherits the copyright - it is up to them what they want to do with it. Sep 23, 2019 at 16:42
  • Precisely, I was thinking that as documents can get lost in chaos, mine could be the only copy in the future! Sep 23, 2019 at 18:34
  • Also, there is no co-author listed. Sep 23, 2019 at 18:36
  • @MartinBonner I agree that the right is to whoever inherits the copyright. The goal of my suggestion is to advise giving space and time for the grieving family. Sep 24, 2019 at 17:47

Even if she was retired her department chair will know how to contact her family. They almost certainly announced her death and talked to the family at that point (been there, done that). They may also have more information about her plans.

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