I am a current undergraduate who has been involved in a research lab for the past 3 years. Not too long after joining, I was asked to be a co-author on a paper that was already written. My PI wanted me to be recognized on a publication so I could add it to my CV, but I did not contribute or even read the paper until after it was published. I accepted this co-authorship at the time because I was excited to have a paper under my belt. Now, after gaining more experience working in academia, I realize that I clearly should not have been named a co-author.

My academic reputation is important to me as I hope to have a career in this field of research, so I want to make sure I am honest about my work. I will be applying to graduate schools soon and am concerned about how this co-authorship will affect my applications and my interviews. I have considered removing the publication from my CV, and I have also thought about keeping it on there while being honest about the situation if asked about it in interviews.

Do you have any advice on how to approach this situation? Thanks in advance!

  • See the section "Honorary authorship" in this webpage. It states that "Honorary authorship is a major ethical issue in scholarly publication" and "At research institutions, guidelines could equate honorary authorship with research misconduct." – Joel Reyes Noche Jun 18 '20 at 15:39
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    @Cell - the fact that they did not even know about it until it was published - there was no 'willing acceptance', and they know it was wrong. Absent a time machine, what is there to do about it other than explain they know better if asked about it. – Jon Custer Jun 18 '20 at 16:09
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    @JonCuster Perhaps I misread the post, but to me it reads that the user was asked to be co-author, the user accepted before publishing and only learned of the paper's contents after it was published. – Cell Jun 18 '20 at 16:24
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    For clarification, my PI told me "I'm going to make you a co-author on this paper" just before he submitted it. I did raise my concern about my lack of contribution, but he said that it is his decision who goes on the paper and he wanted me included. I fully agree that I do not deserve this authorship, I had only been involved in research for a few months and did not realize the implications of me being added as an author at the time. – Jane Jun 18 '20 at 16:31
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    @Jane - so, wait, you were involved in the research 'for a few months' - perhaps your PI has a better feel for what you did, even if it was just replicating a thing or two that added confidence to the results in the paper. But, in any event, you would handle it better going forward and have learned something which is useful - pretty much wht an undergrad should do! – Jon Custer Jun 18 '20 at 18:46

What's past is past and can't be changed. It is good that you have learned about this issue, but I suggest that you ignore it and just list it like any other publication. There is no major harm done here, even though such "gift" authorship is frowned on in many (not all) fields.

If asked to explain it, just say that you were, at the time, less sophisticated as you were an undergraduate.

Alternatively, you could leave the paper off of your CV, but that can look strange if the paper surfaces.

But the bottom line here is that, as an undergraduate, inexperienced in such things, you did nothing wrong.

And, in some fields, a lot of people get listed as authors even if their intellectual contribution was minimal, since their work is essential to carrying on the work of the lab. Whether that applies in your case, I can't say. Your advisor, PI, might be worth having a conversation about this issue. They may assure you, or not, but their opinion is worth hearing.

I need to add a few things for context. There are certainly a lot of people who don't accept what they call "gift" authorship in any form and so hate on answers like this one. But the question of what is a gift and what is earned can be subtle. In most fields, where one or a few people work together, without need of extensive and long running laboratories with all of the technicians that are required for that, it is a pretty simple question and gift authorship is heavily frowned on in those fields.

But there are some fields in which nothing gets done without a lot of people contributing over a long period of time. When a paper comes out of CERN, for example, the list of authors might be very long. An experiment might take years to set up and require hundreds of technicians, without whom there would be no breakthrough at all. The work is simply impossible without them. In those situations, lots of people get authorship for their contributions.

There have been a few papers, in fact, where the list of authors has been longer than the paper itself. But, in those fields, it is understood what it means and the order of authorship might be vitally important to help sort it out.

It is, I think, a mistake, for those in other fields with a different work process, to judge these people.

See, for example this paper with more than 5000 authors

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    "But the bottom line here is that, as an undergraduate, inexperienced in such things, you did nothing wrong." Actually undergraduate students are expected to know about academic integrity and matters such as plagiarism, that is taking credit for other people's work. This should have raised an ethical flag to the inexperienced undergraduate student. And also in the core sciences the lead author is the person who does the work. It's not "minimal contribution" by any means. – Cell Jun 18 '20 at 16:33
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    @Cell: I certainly didn't know when I was an undergr. student what exactly the rules are for authors abd I would have trusted my prof in thst regard. Also, this was a one-time occurance by an unexperience person who did not do it on purpose. It is certainly not "very bad" and will have no consequences in the future. – user111388 Jun 18 '20 at 16:50
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    @Cell, note the edits. And note, the OP had no bad intention here and so didn't do a bad thing. The OP made no "ethical decision". Their PI did. Blame them if you like. Don't try to impose the standards of one field on another where they may not apply at all. – Buffy Jun 18 '20 at 17:12
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    @Cell: I strongly disagree with your judgment that OP "did a very bad thing". So far, the only thing they "did" was not to take action against their PI because they suspect academic misbehaviour on the side of their PI. And it really cannot be more than a suspicion, since OP has only an undergrad's worth of research experience behind their "calibration" of what constitutes an intellectual contribution - which I think is the more difficult point compared to knowing theoretically about various types of academic misconduct. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 19 '20 at 21:19
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    I think OP can/should also be comforted a bit that, of all forms of 'gift authorship', this particular case is probably the least insidious, where a junior researcher gets credit for a paper with minimal effort on that particular project but while contributing generally to related work in the lab. It's much more problematic when the recipient of the gift is in a position of power/influence – Bryan Krause Jun 20 '20 at 0:12

While an (undergrad) student may be expected to know about the ethical problem of gift authorship, in my experience they often lack the research experience to accurately judge whether a contribution is worth co-authorship or not*.

(I suspect that this may be a contributing factor in a number of questions on this site that have the opposite problem: the poster doubts whether some of their co-authors, in particular supervisors, should be on papers.)

A second point "in favor" of OP is that while I've certainly seen situations that I judge to be gift authorship, the gift authors in those cases have always been far up in the power/hierarchy (directors, professors), never the unimportant undergrad student.

All this does not mean that the case in question isn't a gift-authorship an thus unethical - we don't know the situation sufficiently well to accurately judge this. But it does mean there is a substantial possibility that the problem is OP's perception of their contribution rather than the (lack of) contribution.

(There still is an ethical problem in that OP should have received, read and approved the manuscript before submission - this may be counted as "against".)

In other words, as an outsider after weighing the situation including the fact that OP thinks they should not be co-author, I'm not sufficiently sure that OP is right that I could accuse them of unethical behaviour.

What to do?

my PI told me "I'm going to make you a co-author on this paper" just before he submitted it. I did raise my concern about my lack of contribution, but he said that it is his decision who goes on the paper and he wanted me included.

is not a particularly fruitful interaction in terms of learning.

  • If a similar situation arises in future, you may learn more if you ask what the contribution is that they think makes you a co-author: with the answer OP can hopefully a) find out whether this is actually a gift authorship and b) adjust your judement of contributions if not.
    (Probably too late now after a few years)

  • In case of sufficiently serious misconduct, there is of course also the possibility to contact the editor of the journal and have your name removed. This would raise a big stink, and is very serious. A situation with clearly non-negligible possibility that OP's judgment of intellectual contributions is not yet fully calibrated of course does not warrant such a step.

  • I agree with Buffy that there is nothing wrong with an undergrad student trusting the judgment of their PI that their work in the lab did constitute a sufficient intellectual contribution to merit co-authorship. After all, they are in that lab in order to learn the profession of research.

    Unfortunately, I think many PIs are not very good at teaching research. I.e., at explaining the what and why of the research profession as opposed to the nominal field of study (I've even seen this with professors who had a reputation for being very good lecturers). The research profession is in my experience often learned by training on the job.

  • The misconduct with the paper would still not be by OP but rather by their professor who (possibly) gave a gift authorship without OP having a say in that matter.

  • The ethics of OP's behaviour IMHO boil down to whether they are required to denounce their professor for suspected unethical behaviour.
    In my opinion: clearly no (but where I am, there is substantial bad history wrt. denunciations - I am aware, though, that other users of this site differ in their opinion on whether one is ethically required to denounce what level of alleged, suspected or known academic misconduct.)

Iff it would turn out that OP should rather not have been co-author, I'd judge their behaviour at the level of a mistake. After all, they raised concerns - which were overruled by someone whom they were supposed to trust to teach them proper research, and of whom they were very much dependent.
So not nice, to be done better next time, time to move on.

As for the CV, noone expects an undergrad in the middle of the author list to have contributed the groundbreaking research in that paper.
If the paper is brought up in an interview, you can say that you didn't think that your research work merited an authorship, but you trusted your PI to be right when they said it was.

* I'm also saying this as someone who was told at a inventor counseling at a university patent information center that what I consider obvious is considered quite non-trivial on the patent office's scale of invention steps ("non-trivial means non-trivial for an average/mediocre professional") as experienced post-doc with 15 years of professional experience.

  • The assertion "an (undergrad) student can be expected to know about the ethical problem of gift authorship" seems surprising. Is this common in your country / field? I would expect that undergrads learn the proper conventions and behaviour during their first project / publication, from their advisor / group. Sometimes not even then, since one may trust their advisor on who should be authors and not think any further. – GoodDeeds Jun 19 '20 at 23:49
  • At least in the U.S. patent process, inventorship is defined as someone who made a conceptual contribution to something that ends up in at least one claim. It is not the same criteria as used for academic authorship. Also, the patent process in no country has scales/degrees of "inventive step" (the term used in most of the world - called non-obviousness in the U.S.) other than the binary degree of yes or no. Claims are accepted or rejected. – George White Jun 21 '20 at 2:27
  • @GoodDeeds: I toned down to "may be expected". The undergrads I've been working with (as postdoc at non-university research institutes) certainly knew. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 21 '20 at 10:16
  • @GeorgeWhite: Of course authorship and inventorship are different. But in both cases the author/inventor needs to contribute sufficiently to the invention/study. And contributions come in varying sizes, even though in the end there are only two possibilities: inventor/author or not. In German, we talk about "Erfindungöhe", literally translated the height of the inventive step. This is then judged to be sufficient or not and after that there are no further degrees. But we do say "this inventive step is clearly sufficient" or "this is gonna be a close call". Just like contributions to a paper – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 21 '20 at 10:56
  • ... can be large or small and when deciding who should be author we judge whether the contribution is sufficient or not. And in both cases anyone involved should preferrably have an accurate and precise idea where the threshold is. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jun 21 '20 at 11:00

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