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I recently started my first postdoc, after completing my phd in a different field. I managed to come up with some results that I hope to publish at a reputable conference. All the work, including the creative/theoretical part, as well as the programming part was done by me. My plan was to have me and my advisor as the authors of the paper. However my advisor insists that a colleague from a different university, who contributed nothing to the work and does not even work in the exact same field should be added as a third author, with the task of writing the introduction and related work section. I have no idea what my advisor's motivation for this is.

While I feel adding a random person as an author unfairly dilutes my contributions (especially since my advisor is already essentially a courtesy co-author) I could live with being pragmatic about the situation and submit the paper with a third author, even though I feel that writing opening sections to a paper without being involved in the actual scientific process does not justify authorship.

The issue is that person is completely incapable of grasping my work. They understand neither my theoretical arguments nor what my experiments do (and more importantly do not) show. This is at least partially due to the fact they lack a working knowledge of things like probability theory (on a very basic level, e.g. what is a random variable?) that I use in my work. Worst of all they are not capable of writing somewhat precise English which means that nothing they write is actually usable. I frankly have no idea how they managed to obtain a phd.

I believe that to have a realistic chance to have my work accepted I need to write the sections that were assigned to the third author myself (which I don't mind doing). But how do I handle this situation socially? I feel like now that this person is officially on the author list I cannot simply delete and rewrite what they wrote before submitting, i.e. even though I consider them a "fake" co-author they are now a co-author that needs to clear the final version of the paper.

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    If you did the work, why is your advisor going to be on the paper? That was your first mistake, perhaps. – Buffy Jan 30 at 21:45
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    I presume your advisor secured funding for this work by writing some sort of research proposal? Which presumably contains important problems and novel ideas how to solve them? If this is true, can you clarify whether you used any of these pre-existing ideas, or indeed did all the work, including formulation of the problem and choice of methodology? – Dmitry Savostyanov Jan 30 at 21:54
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    How does the word "fake" apply here? Fake would mean the person doesn't exist. – Coder Jan 31 at 4:38
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    I disagree with your interpretation of "fake" @Coder. We don't call "fake news" as such because it doesn't exist, but rather because it fails to meet the criteria of good/real news. The same thinking could be applied in this case. – Zenon Jan 31 at 5:05
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    Semantically, fake author could referred as ghost author, or perhaps sleeping co-author, those who doesn't contribute anything but their name included in paper. – Syafiq Zaidi Jan 31 at 7:18

10 Answers 10

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Hmmm. Socially:

If you have already agreed to it then you should just go along, graciously. In particular, don't take any action that makes vindictive people (who have power) want to sabotage your future. It is only one paper. There will be others. A paper is a good thing, even under such circumstances. If the advisor has some standing, that might actually be good for you.

Ethically:

Try to work to disassociate yourself from these people (leeches?) going forward. They are acting in their own interest, not yours. Advisors shouldn't play such a game. Find more honest and ethical collaborators.

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    About the ethics: how are you sure that "these people" are not going to return the favour one day? If this is an issue of "publish or perish", it is natural that people try to squeeze as many coauthors as possible on every publication to help their colleagues. – Alexey Jan 31 at 14:58
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    @Alexey, yes, and I think that the practice of padding author lists is frowned on and the people who do it are not respected for it. However, in some fields, a lot of authors is common because those people do contribute. Papers from CERN, come to mind. – Buffy Jan 31 at 15:19
  • The pressure to publish is also frowned upon, and administration that imposes it is not respected for it... – Alexey Jan 31 at 15:26
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    @Alexey In my experience, favors from unethical people can be more harm than good... – corsiKa Feb 2 at 5:34
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I agree with the other answers, just adding my answer to this part of the question:

I believe that to have a realistic chance to have my work accepted I need to write the sections that were assigned to the third author myself (which I don't mind doing). But how do I handle this situation socially? I feel like now that this person is officially on the author list I cannot simply delete and rewrite what they wrote before submitting, i.e. even though I consider them a "fake" co-author they are now a co-author that needs to clear the final version of the paper.

I think you're right: given that you accepted this person as a co-author in order not to offend anybody, it would be counter-productive to risk offending them by unilaterally deleting their part.

However since it's your advisor who insisted on having this co-author (and you've already been kind enough to accept), maybe you could go through them: you could tell them that this person's part is "improvable" (if you use this word try to convey that it's an understatement!), that you're worried that this could harm the chances of getting the paper accepted (this is an important argument), and that you don't mind doing this part yourself and keeping the person as co-author... And tell your advisor that you're not comfortable saying this to the third author yourself as you don't know them personally (hinting that it's the advisor's mess, not yours), that's why you ask them (the advisor) to deal with this diplomatically since they have a closer relationship with the co-author.

This way you don't offend anyone, and hopefully your advisor will realize that it's the least they can do in this situation.

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Without knowing what your advisor's motivation is, this question is difficult - not to mention dangerous - to answer. For all your know, you could ignore your advisor's advice, write the paper yourself, get it accepted, and then end up with an academic misconduct case leveled against you because you used something that the other person did in some obscure but vital way. For example, maybe your advisor gave you some results to start you off, and those results were obtained by the other person.

If after acquiring the facts you determine that your advisor is asking you to add an author unethically, then you can do something about it, but it's not a good idea to act without the facts. Determine the facts first, then worry about what to do next.

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Have you asked your supervisor? Instead of asking us, talk to him. He might have good reason. Even if not, then you know some reasons.

Regarding his incapability to write the assigned section, also talk to your adviser how to proceed. You might write it and let the fake author still remain as an author. It might not feel right, but removing an author usually burns bridges (unless suggested by the removed author himself).

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Your advisor being a co-author is completely normal. He goes as last author. Everyone knows what that means. After all it was he that wrote the grant proposal etc.

Your advisor is probably trying to get the citation count of a friend of his increased nefariously. I'm going to go against the grain and say unless your advisor volunteers a sensible answer, talk to a department chair, as it's not a good situation to be in. This may blow up in your face, but if it does it's exceedingly unlikely that you wouldn't have been looking for a new job anyway sooner rather than later.

Id also take this as a bad indication of your advisor and quietly look for another job whatever happens.

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    What you say in the first paragraph is very field dependent. In some it would be unheard of, not completely normal. Pure Math is an example. – Buffy Jan 31 at 13:50
  • @Buffy Doesn't that rather depend on the work? If the student came up with the idea completely on their own and didn't need any input from an advisor, then sure. But many students take projects which extend previous work by their advisor and his previous students on that subject, so their advisor's input is deserving of a co-author credit. I don't believe Pure Maths is different in this regard, is it? – Graham Jan 31 at 16:08
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    @Graham, we generally use acknowledgements for that, not co-authorship. Especially in the case of an extension. My dissertation included my advisor's proof of one of the theorems, but no one would think that anyone was the author but myself. It was long ago, of course. – Buffy Jan 31 at 17:14
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    Would anyone commenting here care to state their countries ? I was thinking from a USA applied science perspective where my 1st statement is true. The norms in the field are important here. – camelccc Jan 31 at 17:49
  • We can take the first paragraph to be the OPs perspective, based on what they have witnessed in their field and working culture (and country, if they so insist). But largely, conventions differ too much even within the same country across different sub-branches of the same discipline, that it is hard to expect that someone exposed to another culture, would dismiss the first paragraph as normal. Hence, the upvotes on Buffy's comment. That isn't so much of an opposition, but rather an affirmation, that we need to take a broader perspective. Cheers :) – 299792458 Feb 2 at 6:48
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What would happen if you just kept sending their parts back for revision until it was at least middling acceptable? Keep a paper trail of all correspondence should something blow up. But in this case all you're doing is requiring rigor. The injustice is something you may have to get used to until you are running completely independent (whatever that means!). And I'm not saying to accept overt academic dishonesty, just to be clear.

Try to put all the questions of "should this person even be here"--they clearly should not--aside and say "if this was a student of mine what would I require of them on this paper" and just enforce academic rigor.

This approach could have the advantage of discouraging future fake collaboration, and you have the defense from a social perspective that you are "only requesting that the writing be rigorously correct". This will probably work better if you try to pull your emotions out of it as completely as possible and pretend you are a third party evaluating the work (otherwise your animosity is going to show through in how you word requests for revision, is what I'm saying here). "This sentence is unclear" "This actually implies the opposite of our conclusion, can you fix this part" "I'm concerned with the phrasing here". As neutral as possible. It will be much more painful than doing it yourself and it still won't be as good as what you would have done. But it will be better, and if the pain feedback loop works, your advisor will know what your standards are next time and maybe pick a better "collaborator" or at least be prepared for a lot of revision requests.

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It looks like a situation in which one has to cry that the king is naked, but everyone might just as well not do it. And there's an element of conflict to manage, of course. My two cents.

You could also submit 'as is', and then see what the reviewers say. After the first round, your co-authors will probably have a lot of ideas about how you will have to fix the shortcomings in their parts. Then, perhaps, you will be able to plant your heels on the ground. And this may help you keep your potential overconfidence in check.

On another tack, in general, I think that a statement in the acknowledgement such as Author X has done x, Author Y has done y, Author Z has done z is perfectly acceptable. For example, I found a forum post in the Elsevier environment https://www.elsevier.com/connect/clarifying-attribution-in-a-digital-world: the keyword there is clarifying attribution. It can even help readers interested in x, y, or z seek contact with the right person for questions tangential to the article (for which the corresponding author is the contact person).

If the statement has to boil down to Author Z has written the introduction, this might stimulate a moment of self-reflection and the retraction of the idea (out of restraint and shame, if present). There should be a form to fill when an author withdraws after submission, which has to be signed by all initial co-authors to avoid ostracism; don't know whether your co-author would admit such a retreat. Else, the statement will be left to the scrutiny of the the editor/reviewers, assumed they cast their eyeballs on it.

And, as a corresponding author, it is your role to make sure that the manuscript has been approved by all co-authors. That is to say: editors and reviewers do not want to be bothered by what happens behind the scenes, nor should they. On the bright side, Author Z should not bother the editors and reviewers if he does not like the stand of Author X. The dirty linen have to be washed in the family first.

Socially, you will not be the pliable postdoc that they would have wanted to have. They will be clearly disappointed by having chosen the wrong person.


Ethically, serious editorial policies oppose guest and ghost authors, that is false positives and false negatives for the test question Who is the originator of this content? An interesting reading is the Vancouver recommendations http://www.icmje.org/icmje-recommendations.pdf of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors --- it may provide ammunitions to your short- and long-term positioning.

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  • In fact, some journals now ask for author contributions as part of the submission process. This might be one way to obliquely raise the issue. (That said, I think the older Vancouver recommendations are fairly bad; the 2019 revision finally gives the actual experimental work the emphasis it deserves.) – Matt Jan 31 at 21:17
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It sounds as though you work in the field of statistics. Typically, in this field we start with real world problems and try build statistical models that will answer this question.

One aspect of statistical research that was not evident to me in grad school but is quite evident now is that a good deal of the work is actually finding interesting real world problems and turning those in questions that can be answered by our new, awesome statistical model. Often times, an advisor will do a lot of work setting up a real world problem as a statistics problem and then pass the rest to a grad student or postdoc.

Note that in this process, outside researchers play a very important role; they provide us with real world problems! The field of statistics in a vacuum is quite boring, but interesting models are created from outside researchers coming to statisticians and saying "The standard methods that I'm aware don't work well for this type of data, what can you do?". A lot of back and forth happens between the outside research and the statistician and sometime later, a paper is produced.

My point of all this: there is an innocent explanation for your advisor's behavior. It is possible that they've had long discussions with this outside researcher which ultimately motivated the work you did. In such a case, including them as a co-author is very reasonable. Of course, there's also the not-so-great explanation that they are just trying to help a buddy before their tenure review too.

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Good grief. Academia is absolutely among the worst in having people completely overstep their authority.

This is going to be hard, because it goes counter to what you've been taught. But simply establish it this way:

  1. You cannot allow a 3rd party in there that has done no other work.
  2. You are the final arbitrator of who becomes added to your own paper. I'm sorry, but your advisor simply doesn't count.

You'll discover (hopefully not the hard way) that

  1. There is no other way that won't leave you feeling like you've been had.
  2. There is no other way, period.

I wish you well. But how to stand up to others who wish to steal both your thunder and self-respect is going to be part of what you gain in life as a tool. A tool no less important than anything else you learned in school.

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I would never go along with this. It is obviously unfair to you. Ultimately, your job as a post-doc is to publish well and signal to potential employers that you are a highly capable job candidate. Your advisor is asking you to do something that runs counter to that goal.

Not only would I not do this, I would seriously question my advisor’s motives and consider whether or not my advisor makes decisions with my best interests in mind.

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