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Looking for advice.

My coworkers and I have been working on a project for about two years, and we are right now in the process of writing a paper. About a year ago, we contacted a friend of mine who is also a researcher, told him about our results and asked for his insight. After a couple of zoom calls, he pointed us toward a research direction we had not thought about. After pursuing this direction for some time we found out it did not work, so we ended up doing something different which does not include our colleague’s suggestions at all.

Now, after discussing with the coauthors we have concluded that it is not fair for any of us to include this person as an author, since his contribution has been of no impact for the paper in the end. I agree with this decision. I also believe it would not be nice for our colleague to just find the paper online without any news, and especially since he is my/our friend I feel that I should send him the manuscript via email before sending it for publication. I wonder how I should I deal with the issue of authorship in this email: should I just send him the paper without him as an author? if so, should I explain to him that we do not think his contribution deserves it? or should I ask if he wants to be one? I am not familiar with the authorship etiquette…

Thanks in advance for your advice!

  • 6
    Did you have an agreement regarding authorship when he provided the suggestions? Especially if he is your friend, you should first talk to him. Basically, tell him what you wrote here, but do it by phone, video call or in person. – Roland Oct 1 at 6:53
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    You used that person for free consultation. You should ask them what is the price for time spend. – SSimon Oct 1 at 6:54
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    If you are SURE that his contribution was not part of your paper, you can thank him in the Acknowledgment section of your paper, giving his professional association details as well. – Sjaffry Oct 1 at 6:58
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    His contribution was useful as it caused you to evaluate and drop your initial direction leading you to where you are now. I helped a colleague with a small part and was included in the acknowledgement. – Solar Mike Oct 1 at 7:07
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    Why do you think the friend expects to be a coauthor? – Anonymous Physicist Oct 1 at 8:59
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TLDR: Unless explicitly discussed otherwise, your friend does not expect to be a co-author. Just write a friendly email thanking them for the discussions and asking them if it is ok to include them in the acknowledgements.

As pointed out in the comments, this highly depends on which field we're talking about. In some fields, even pointing in a direction that actually turned out to be right might only be worth an acknowledgement (probably specific though, "we thank X for point to the results published in <obscure jounal 60 years ago>"). Since this is clear to most people, based on the information you provided, I would not think that your friend even expects to be co-author at all (unless they explicitly asked to be co-author, which would be border-line in terms of academic integrity but happens when the person urgently needs another co-authorship for formal reasons - in that case, however, one would expect that person to (a) communicate this clearly beforehand and (b) do much of the mindless busy-work, e.g. beautification of images).

That being said, I would assume that your friend knows they're not going to be co-author and thank them by email for the interesting, albeit ultimately fruitless discussions (but hey, maybe we can explore this in the future,...) and ask them if they agree to be mentioned in the acknowledgements. In other words, put a positive spin on it.

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    This. I would refuse accept authorship if I were the friend in this situation, and would probably find even an acknowledgement to be generous. – Ian Sudbery Oct 1 at 8:54
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    asking them if it is ok to include them in the acknowledgements - I think this is a bit weird, though perhaps this varies by field or something? I've never asked or been asked about such a thing. I wouldn't even explicitly tell them I included an acknowledgement of them, but I might send a preprint and say thanks for their help. – Kimball Oct 1 at 18:30
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    I think that out of politeness, it is indeed a good practice to ask for the permission or notify the friend before writing their name in a paper, if it's not a citation. At least to be sure that their affiliation is correct for instance. – m.raynal Oct 2 at 8:15
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    @photonQ Relating to that, don't forget that negative results are still results. If it looked like a promising avenue but turned out not to be, make sure to document what it was and why, otherwise someone else will fall into that trap too. And at that point it's natural to acknowledge your friend's contribution in making that suggestion, even if it didn't lead further. – Graham Oct 2 at 10:36
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    @Kimball: From my experience (in pure maths/theoretical CS), asking people about acknowledging them isn’t required, but it’s common. Firstly, it seems polite to inform people they’re going to be mentioned; and secondly, it feels more polite to phrase that as a question, than as just a statement. (This may be a linguistic/cultural difference: phrasing a statement as a question, for politeness, is I think almost obligatory for most Brits, but is not so universal among Americans.) – PLL Oct 2 at 19:12
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We made good progress pursuing direction X, but, it didn't work out due to Y, so we pursued Z, as described in the attached. We've included an acknowledgement of your input. Thanks again.

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Under the circumstances, I doubt your friend expects co-authorship of the paper. Your idea of sending a courtesy email to let him know of your proposed decision (instead of having him read the paper and see he is not on it) sounds like a good idea to me. I recommend you write a courteous email thanking him for his help, letting him know that you and your colleagues discussed the issue, and letting him know your thinking on the matter. Do not frame this as a decision that has already been made --- instead, offer him an opportunity to respond before you and your colleagues make your final decision, in case he disgrees with your views and wishes to make an argument for his inclusion. Do not invite co-authorship unless you intend to follow through on that.

It is also worth noting that you could give your friend an acknowledgement in the paper rather than co-authorship. If you decide that this is appropriate then you could offer this as an alternative to co-authorship. If your description of events is accurate, the most likely response is that your friend will be happy to have had a chance to hear about the matter before seeing the published paper, and most likely he will agree that he has not done enough to warrant co-authorship. In the unlikely event that your friend insists that he deserves co-authorship, refer the matter for decision to your Head of Department or some other third-party for an independent decision.

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Often the process of discovery can take you down roads which lead to nowhere. It's sometimes useful to point that out, in case others question what was tried in reaching your ultimate destination. Though authorship may not be appropriate, and effort was expended and some kind of recognition for effort and contribution may be appropriate, it can often help others to understand more deeply when you leave signs along the way, "don't go this way, because of this."

Just a thought.

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I'm afraid I have to disagree with many of the above answers. It does not matter whether the approach your friend suggested panned out or not. It matters how much work your friend did. If it took him 3 years of experiments to invalidate a promising approach, then yes, the contribution was valuable and he deserves a co-authorship even if the approach did not solve the problem. Of course, in the other extreme, a few minutes chat and a suggestion to try running the data through a different filter, may not merit authorship even if it has cracked the case.

Your colleague devoted time an resources to your problem. Consider the next time you consult him. Do you still expect him to devote the same amount of effort? Why?

Specifically in your case, a few zoom calls may not be considered a lot of effort, but the reason for not adding him as an author should not be "it didn't help", but rather "I didn't waste his time".

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