The background: In the grand area of Mathematics in which I do research, there is a famous Professor, let us call him 'A', who started a joint project with another younger colleague, let us call him 'B'. 'A' gave the main ideas and they produced an initial draft. However, after a while 'A' perhaps lost interest or was busy with other things and stopped communicating with 'B'. 'B' could not manage to move the project forward by himself, and it stayed put. After many years, on the initiative of a third colleague, let us call him say 'C', and with both the approval of 'A' and 'B', I joined them on this project and started working with 'B'. After, say, two years, 'B' and I managed to have a paper, which we think is quite good. We have sent it to 'A' to hear his opinion. However, he never returns our email messages. We have also contacted his secretary, and she has been very helpful, but we don't seem to get any reply from 'A'. Because of the pandemic, travelling and meeting 'A' in person is not an option.

'B' and I would like to distribute and eventually publish this work. We have spent quite some time and energy on it. Moreover, the results are interesting and could be used by ourselves in other projects, as well as by other researchers. If we wait too much, there is even the risk of our paper becoming old and superseded by other people's work.

Of course we cannot post this work publically without 'A's name, as he was who gave the key ideas. On the other hand, posting this work with his name could also upset 'A', say, he could think there are mistakes in the paper and he would not want to have his name associated with it.

What is the ethical way to solve this?

Edit: Thanks for all answers! They really add to the discussion. In view of your comments, I feel like adding some more details to the story and making more clear our position.

It is not that A just gave some vague ideas. He really contributed technical stuff during the first year or so of his collaboration with B. What I did with B, in the past two years, was cleaning up the Mathematics and adding some interesting applications. I think we have really turned the draft into a (quasi?) paper. I believe our manuscript is polished.

A is well known for his irresponsiveness in the community of researchers in the field. Indeed this is the reason why there has been the hiatus in the work on the paper, until I joined forces with B.

B and I met A in conferences in the past two years. He was nice and seemed interested in finishing the work. However, on those occasions there was little time to collaborate with him, as he is a busy person.

B and I are fine with whatever course of action A thinks it is appropriate. We do not require him to check our calculations. We are fine to include him as an author, indeed we would like very much to have him as a co-author. We are fine to leave his name out, if he prefers so. But I have the impression he wants to be included.

Oh, yes, we certainly want to keep a collegial relation with A!

Anyway, we cannot proceed without his response!

3 Answers 3


When dealing with extremely busy people, you want to formulate your emails in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to give you what you need.

Providing one's opinion on a paper is a complex, open-ended process. Even more so if you are a coauthor - you need to not only read and think about what is written, but also consider what else could have been written to make the paper better. In a situation as you describe, I'd consider it perfectly normal for the professor to take a few months to get back you even they seriously intend to do so. Thus, your request is not a good choice.

Instead provide them with a straight-forward way out that works for you. Thus, complete the draft and makes sure it is completely polished. Make a plan regarding what you want to do with it. Then send it to the professor, pointing out that you and B agree that the paper is finished, and that you want to submit it to the arXiv/Journal X, and that you just ask for their consent to proceed. If the contribution of the professor is very limited, you can consider also stating merely acknowleding them as an option. If C or anyone else respected by A has read the draft and also considers it ready, include this information. Overall, you want to make it very easy for A to just respond "its fine, go ahead".

If this doesn't work, there is one way to escalate further, but I'd consider this borderline from an ethical perspective. That is to let A know that if they don't object within eg 2 weeks, you will consider this as permission to go ahead with the plan. Only ever think about this if your draft is really, really done.

  • 1
    Unfortunately, your "escalation" might (and should) fail. The editor may require an explicit statement from all authors and downgrading a proper author is misconduct. But your advice to make it as easy as possible is good advice. Moreover, person A might just take extreme umbrage at such a move. Boxing someone in is not a collegial move. And you would like a collegial relationship with "a famous professor".
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 22:31
  • I like your ponderation. I think there is useful advice in your answer, thanks! Commented Dec 5, 2020 at 2:12
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    I have some differing opinion regarding the escalation. First, I think 2 weeks is too short. Perhaps 2 months, with regular reminders over that period. Second, I think the prohibition on having someone as an author without their agreement is absolute (except in case of death or similar) so instead the appropriate action in that situation is to acknowledge prominently (perhaps even in the first paragraph, not just the acknowledgements) that A should be a co-author but was unresponsive to requests for permission. Since A has a reputation, this should not surprise anyone or embarrass A. Commented Dec 5, 2020 at 4:26
  • 1
    It's a different situation, with Gabber withdrawing his name as a co-author because he wasn't satisfied with the exposition (or something like that), but you might look at the first paragraph of the Beilinson-Bernstein-Deligne monograph Faisceaux pervers (Asterisque 100). The theorems of that paper are nowadays usually attributed to B-B-D-G, not B-B-D. I think it's possible that A doesn't want to be a co-author before checking the details themselves but also just doesn't get around to checking the details, and A would assent to a similar solution. Commented Dec 5, 2020 at 4:40

Rather than asking A for specifics on the paper, ask them for advice on how to proceed. They may just tell you to go ahead, listing them as co-author.

You need their permission to proceed, but you don't need their further participation. If necessary, stress your need to get something out there for your own career(s).

But if you make their task harder than they are willing to work, then you will possibly stay stalled for a long time.

If they give permission to continue with their ideas included just, as a courtesy, send them updates as you go along.

You have to include them to avoid plagiarism in this case and, including them, their permission to publish is needed. A reputable publisher will probably require this, in any case.

  • Thanks for your insights, Asking A for advice on how to proceed was exactly the contents of my last email message. Commented Dec 5, 2020 at 1:07
  • @SamP.Arons how long was that email/how many lines of text?
    – lalala
    Commented Dec 5, 2020 at 8:18
  • About 10 lines, including all greetings and good wishes especially regarding these troubled pandemic times. Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 21:43

I can't answer definitively without much more information (which I am not asking you to provide).

I suggest writing the paper with a substantial description of (and thanks for) A's contribution, and sending A a copy with a request for comments before you submit for publication.

If A answers, you can negotiate credit. If not it's reasonable to publish.

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    Actually, no. It isn't "reasonable to publish" something for which A should be an author without their explicit permission. It is, actually forbidden.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 21:13
  • 1
    @Buffy A's refusal to answer queries means they can't be listed as an author. This strategy gives A a chance to express an opinion. That said, so does your answer. Which is better depends (I think) on more context than the question provides. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 21:46
  • Nor can you validly "downgrade" someone who has a claim on authorship to an acknowledgement. If called on it later you can be in big trouble. Get permission.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 21:55
  • 2
    @Buffy I'm not sure that excluding someone as an author is quite the same as offering and only leaving them off after exhausting all attempts at contact. Especially if you still go as far as to explicitly acknowledge the contributions. I'd want to make a more explicit contact than maybe the OP has done so far, though.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 22:38
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    @Buffy - I know some historical examples where people who made very substantial contributions to a paper were not listed as authors for various reasons. I think "A made contributions to this paper that would normally lead to him being included as an author, but repeated attempts to contact him to secure permission to include him on the author list produced no response." is certainly reasonable. It might annoy A to be publicly named as non-responsive, but I am guessing in this situation it actually wouldn't because A knows they are famous for being non-responsive! Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 23:08

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