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Hypothetical (somewhat farfetched, but still in the realm of possibility):

A ten year old child is sliding down a slide at the local school playground when she sees something sticking out from the ground. Curious, she digs it up and admires it for a while. Thinking that she found something that might be scientifically interesting, she ditches school and spends her lunch money on bus fare to the local university, where she shows what she found to professors. One of the professors identifies the object as a "missing link" fossil and begins the process of writing up a paper for submission to a journal.

Does the child deserve authorship?

More generally, does discovering a "thing" merit authorship? Clearly, if I am on a grant-funded dig to find transitional fossils, rare crystals, paleolithic weapons, or mutant hermaphrodite hybrid lizard-bird droppings and I actually find one that turns out to be critical to the paper, I deserve authorship. Does stumbling onto a scientifically novel object by accident rather than design also merit authorship?

Similarly, if an uneducated, illiterate farmhand finds an axe in a field and it turns out the axe is a critical piece of archaeological evidence that pushes back a milestone in human civilization by a thousand years, does the farmhand deserve authorship or does authorship only fall to the one who recognizes the scientific merit of the find?

If scientific understanding of the find is required to merit authorship, what is the threshold? For example, perhaps our hypothetical child discoverer merits authorship only if she recognized that the item was a fossil. If she thought the item was a meteorite and took it to an astronomy professor, she wouldn't get authorship but would probably merit an acknowledgment ("Thanks to little Suzie Smith, age 10, who found this fossil for me on the grounds of North Town Elementary School."). If Suzie knew the item was a fossil but had no idea that it was interesting enough for a paper, would she still get authorship? What if she knew the item was scientifically interesting enough to merit a paper but did not know enough of the science to actually write the paper without help from someone actually working in academia?

Thoughts:

If the answer or convention varies by field, an answer that covers the field(s) with which you are familiar with authorship conventions would count as a good answer. For example, "In archaeology we have a strict requirement that nobody without at least a bachelor's degree can receive authorship, but in evolutionary biology it's based on a holistic analysis of your contributions, see e.g. Smith (2002) for a summary of recent authorship disputes as it pertains to fossil discovery." could qualify.

If something like this has actually happened, explaining the scenario and what decision was made would count as an answer. For example, "Last fall, this car salesman named Donald J Robin found a 17th century manuscript in his grandmother's jewelry box that he thought was an unknown early textual variant of Hamlet. Working closely with professors at his local university, he discovered that he was correct and published a paper together with them. The professors recommended him for an accelerated double master's degree in literature and archaeology and he is scheduled to graduate this spring."

Yes, I know that this is somewhat of a far-fetched idea and acknowledge that the vast majority of people will never chance upon a major discovery like this. I do note that this is a somewhat common trope in science fiction (e.g. some ordinary "Joe" falls into a bog and comes up choking on the Missing Link and tangled up in a map to Atlantis or something), so it seems likely that such a scenario has been considered or may have even happened.

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  • 2
    Do students working on archaeology digs normally get authorship?
    – Buffy
    Oct 8, 2021 at 12:22
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    Actually, I was hoping for an answer from an archaeologist. If you are not such a person then you are just speculating. You need to know the actual practice in this branch of science. In high energy physics, such as practiced at CERN, a lot more people than you might expect get authorship. I don't know the actual practice in this field and your question is quite specific.
    – Buffy
    Oct 8, 2021 at 19:28

4 Answers 4

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In contrast to the answers at this moment, let me suggest that ethically full co-authorship is deserved. This is based on ethical principles only as I'm neither an archaeologist nor a paleontologist, so don't know the actual practice in those fields.

But, the student brought more to the game than just "stumbling across" an important artifact.

Put yourself in the shoes of the academic who meets with this child. Could you have written the paper without them? Could you have formed a hypothesis about its importance. The kid brought you not only the artifact, but also the research question. They "sparked" an insight in you, since you had past experience, that you would not have had otherwise.

And it is even quite different than finding an artifact in an old museum collection, since the child took an active part in bringing it to your notice, after which, but only after which, a paper becomes possible. They had an "idea", no matter how ill formed, that the thing might be important.

Yes, they are an author. Ethically speaking, anyway.

The academic would also be wise to see if they could "adopt" the child as a protege and teach them a bit about their field. Perhaps they will become an important scientist with a bit of early guidance.


Note that I've answered the question as stated in the body, not just the top-line question, for which the answer might be no in a different context.

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You’re overthinking this. The child discovered the thing, and that discovery was instrumental to a major scientific result. She obviously gets to be a coauthor. There is no reason to deny her coauthorship based on her age, lack of scientific understanding, or anything else.

The point is, coauthorship is not a reward for being smart or scientifically sophisticated, and those qualities are not a prerequisite for becoming a coauthor. The list of authors on a paper is simply a list of the people whose contributions were material in leading to the paper being conceived and written. In this case, you can say that getting coauthorship was simply a matter of luck. Well, the same goes for many famous discoveries that do not involve children or physical artifacts, so conceptually there is nothing new about this situation.

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  • I would vote twice for this if I could. Oct 8, 2021 at 23:13
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This should probably start by working out what the objectives of authorship are. Interestingly, a number of guidelines on authorship are silent on that. They mostly defer to the conventions of the field. Perhaps we might suppose that the objectives of authorship are these;

  1. Identify those who may answer questions or respond to criticism of the work. The child and the farmhand might answer questions, or field criticism but it's likely they are not best placed to do so.
  2. Establish the reputation of the authors, as people who are capable of making contributions of academic value. Authorship is pretty strongly tied to employability for many fields. This is what conditions like "significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study" are basically intended to cover. Both the child and the farmhand made a chance discovery, but they did recognise it as interesting. Lots of discoveries depend on some element of chance, so the random nature ought not to disqualify them. Anyway, a single publication will not normally generate much reputation, so perhaps the effects of giving authorship are not out of proportion. I'd argue that anyone who takes a muddy object in a field to an academic must have had some inkling that it was significant, and should gain reputation for understanding that.
  3. The inverse of point 2; give significance to the paper, by merit of the author's reputation. This one is contentious, but the blunt truth is that there is more work coming out of most fields than most academics have time to read. In each subfield there are people whose work it's generally worth following. Lots of people probably have an alert set to tell them if Jesse Thaler publishes something, for instance. From this point of view, the child and the farmhand are neither here nor there, it won't matter if they are on the author list or not.

So I'd probably conclude that overall giving authorship is not the best option, unless the would-be-author could reasonably answer common questions about the work. On the other hand, if the academic involved is listed as the corresponding author, it likely won't do any real harm. After all, this situation is sufficiently unusual that it won't occur often. J.H. Hetherington gave his cat co-authorship, and that has not caused any real issues.

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  • What do people think about the objectives for authorship? Are these close?
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 8, 2021 at 12:05
  • Also, I advocate for cat-co-authorship.
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 8, 2021 at 12:09
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I think you are making the (common) mistake of thinking of co-authorship as some sort of brownie point that should be awarded according to some criteria. Reality is much simpler - the authors of a scientific paper are the people who wrote the scientific paper. These are normally also the same people who planned the research, applied for funding for the research, executed the research, and analysed / interpreted its results.

If you think about authorship along these lines, it becomes fairly obvious that simply stumbling over an important artifact does not make you an author of any publications that would later on be written about this artifact. Clearly the 10-year old (or the "illiterate farmhand") was important to the research, and later write-ups would and should talk about their role when discussing the story of these results, but it would be silly to pretend that their chance discovery suddenly made them an expert in archeology or evolution theory.


As a sidenote, this question illustrates the main limitation of our current way of acknowledging scientific contributions over authorship of papers - there are simply many "other" ways of contributing to science besides writing up results, and our current model conflates them all. Ultimately, I believe that (especially in the more experimental sciences) we will need to move to a more fine-grained accounting, where we can distinguish between those planning and executing experiments, those acquiring funding, and those doing more menial support work. All of those should be acknowledged, but fairly for the things that they actually did. The CRediT author statement model is a good step into that direction, but ultimately we probably want to move towards a world where the authors of a paper are exclusively the people who actually wrote the paper, while still fairly acknowledging everybody else who had significant contributions.

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    This doesn't match the reality of how academia works. Authorship is NOT just about who wrote the paper, as shown in the many "criteria for authorship" guidelines/documents out there. Oct 8, 2021 at 11:17
  • @user2390246 I see what you mean. This is mostly what I tried to address in the second half of the question. The way I see it it's still about "authoring" a paper, but we have certainly become very liberal in defining what exactly authoring a paper entails. But simply stumbling over an artefact would still not be part of that definition.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 8, 2021 at 11:19
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    You say we should "move towards a world where the authors of a paper are exclusively the people who actually wrote the paper" and your answer is based on that world, but (without commenting on the merits of that world) it is not the one we are in. Oct 8, 2021 at 11:19
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    “the authors of a scientific paper are the people who wrote the scientific paper”: in several experimental fields this is not the reality. The authors of a scientific papers are those who contributed in the large to an experiment, and might have not written a single word. That is, what you propose in the second part is frequently already done, albeit not formally coded.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Oct 8, 2021 at 11:57
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    it would be silly to pretend that their chance discovery suddenly made them an expert: you are making the exact same mistake that you accuse OP of making, namely assuming that coauthorship on a paper is a reward for being an expert on something. It’s not. It’s an acknowledgment that you contributed something that was material to the research being created, which clearly is the case here. Of course, people would know the coauthor is a child who made a chance discovery (that would be explained in the paper) and no one would be confused about what the coauthorship means.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:04

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