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Would it be unethical to earn money by putting people's name in my papers? In a sense, these people would be sponsoring the paper so I believe it is fair to have their names on it.

Edit 1: In case these people do not join as author but are acknowledge in the paper, would they benefit from it? My intention with this question is just to know how a researcher could earn money as "freelancer", that is, without depending from funding agencies, etc or without being formally employed in industry.

Edit 2: How could a researcher approach an individual or a company to demonstrate their research can benefit them even they are "only" acknowledged in the paper?

Edit 3: Most answers here state that it is unethical since these people would not have contributed to the paper. So, say people pay me to join a research project idealized by me. These people could give their contributions just as a supervisor or colleagues do, correct? Would it still be unethical to have their names published in the paper in exchange for financially supporting the project? Besides, I could even ask these people to sign a statement ensuring they did not just paid to have their names published.

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  • Freelancers get paid to do work for you, they don't pay you. Apr 1 at 15:16
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    He means he is the freelancer. Apr 1 at 15:20
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    I've thought quite a bit about your problem of 'how could I get paid as a freelance researcher' before. Maybe you could ask that question directly; I haven't come up with a solution myself and while I appreciate your creative thinking unfortunately I think taking pay for authorship raises a number of ethical problems
    – Joe
    Apr 2 at 8:31
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    On the motivating question: I know one or two people who work as freelancer researchers. They contribute to funded proposals either by being co-applicants (this will work for some funding agencies and not for others), or by being paid consultants for this research projects (again will be allowed by some funding agencies but not others). However, it's quite tough I think to make a reliable leaving this way. The individual I am aware of is very well networked with long-standing cooperations with scientists with institutional affiliations and is well known in the field and has unique expertise.
    – frederik
    Apr 2 at 12:02
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    @frederik FWIW, I'm in a somewhat similar position for a couple of years now (a bit of hard money and filling in as a consultant for grants/R&D), and it only seems sustainable either at the beginning of the career or nearing/after the retirement. Great ratio of money/time spent and little administrative work though, but at the end of the day, not much different from doing selfsame grant applications sitting in the office.
    – Lodinn
    Apr 2 at 21:09

5 Answers 5

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Yes, they may be "in" the paper.

If someone provides support (monetary or not), it is common practice to mention them in a "thanks" paragraph. Some granting agencies may require acknowledgement. We often see thanks to parents, spouses, co-workers, librarians, editors, and so on. I have even seen thanks given for the author's favorite snack food.

What should be avoided is adding this person as an author, if they have not done any of the work for the paper.

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    +1 for the distinction between authors and acknowledgements. However OP talks about "earning" money and "people's names", so I interpret this as being very unethical.
    – Louic
    Apr 1 at 12:44
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    The last paragraph is misleading. Adding a person who gave money as a coauthor not only “should be avoided”, it is unethical. You’re not helping anybody by being so understated.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 1 at 17:03
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Yes - it is absolutely unethical to sell authorship spots.

Consider reviewing abundantly available resources on what qualifies as authorship (e.g. https://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html)

Here, it says authorship is defined as:

  • substantial contributions to design / analysis / interpretation, AND
  • drafting/revising of work, AND
  • final approval of published work, AND
  • agreement to be accountable FOR ALL ASPECTS of the work and its integrity

Consider putting the names of those who sponsored/funded the paper in the Acknowledgements section.

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    Thanks for being clear-cut. Observe that the asker has accepted the currently only answer that does not say that it is unethical (it says merely that adding as an author "should be avoided"). Want to guess why?
    – user21820
    Apr 2 at 18:53
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    @user21820 I understood that it "should be avoided" is an incorrect term. I got that. I accepted that answer as correct because he made a clear distinction between acknowledgement and authors. Anyway, I upvoted all other answers because all of them are clarifying. I will not go out there selling authorship just because I accepted as correct the answer that says "should be avoided". I am just raising an issue that probably might have bothered other researchers. Besides, look at the Edits. I raised other issues other than just selling authorship. Apr 3 at 7:16
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    @AmbakeFletcher: Same distinction was made in this answer, posted within the same minute of the other answer. Anyway, it's good that you state that you know "should be avoided" is incorrect. But your other edits don't demonstrate that you are firm on the issue that authorship must never be based even partly on money. You even said "I could even ask these people to sign a statement ensuring they did not just pa[y] to have their names published.". Firstly, "did not just pay" is wrong". Secondly, signing such a statement means nothing if you still get paid to include their names!
    – user21820
    Apr 3 at 7:46
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This is not how it works.

Although supervisors are sometimes added to a paper because they "only obtained the grant money", the research proposal they had to write to obtain the grant is their intellectual contribution: coming up with a feasible and well thought-out subject for research is not easy: it may in fact be the most difficult part in the entire process from idea to execution and publication.

Paying or receiving money to add a name to a paper is unethical.

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  • This sounds right, but is there anything to back up "This is not how it works"? Do journals say this? Do universities have this coded in some written document? The question asks about "financially supporting a research project" which seems different than "receiving money" which sounds rather personal (e.g. stuffing it in one's pocket) Am I misunderstanding your answer?
    – uhoh
    Apr 1 at 22:36
  • @uhoh Funding agencies do not really get authorship, do they? An argument could be made that this is precisely how it sometimes works in the modern publish or perish environment, but it does not make this arrangement any more ethical. And yes, publishers and universities do have it in writing - see littleraspberry's answer for an example.
    – Lodinn
    Apr 2 at 5:48
  • @Lodinn Oh I haven't asked about ethics nor how it should work; of course I do agree that it would be unethical. Referencing (at)littleraspberry's answer works nicely in this case as it supports that "(t)his is not how it works". Thanks.
    – uhoh
    Apr 2 at 5:53
  • You bring up the role of a supervisor. Is it very different if, instead of a supervisor, the person formulating the research proposal works for a corporation and, using their connections to the R&D department, gets substantial funding for the project? Not saying that it would be "nice", but rather a grey area. For the record, I have not seen this ever happen, but I have heard rumors to such an effect. The basic scenario is similar to what you outline, but this time the "supervisor" is employed on the client side rather than in the academia. Apr 2 at 6:00
  • Paying to add a name as author is unethical. It's perfectly fine to pay to add your name as a sponsor. Apr 3 at 1:04
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Is it ethical to give paper authorship in exchange for financially supporting a research project?

No, it isn't. The authors should be the people who participated significantly in the production of the scientific content of the paper.

Would it be unethical to earn money by putting people's name in my papers?

For most interpretations of that sentence, yes. But this is vague phrasing.

In a sense, these people would be sponsoring the paper so I believe it is fair to have their names on it.

You believe wrong. You can acknowledge sponsorship, and that is actually rather common in footnotes for author names, saying something like:

The N'th author was supported by grant no. 123 of the National Endowment for blah blah blah. The M'th author's work was partly supported by BigCorp inc.

You could even go as far as writing an acknowledgement in the body of the paper, extolling your funders.

In case these people do not join as author but are acknowledge in the paper, would they benefit from it?

I'd ask that as a different question. They would certainly not be able to present it as one of the papers they are authors of.

My intention with this question is just to know how a researcher could earn money as "freelancer", that is, without depending from funding agencies,

A freelancer does depend on others who fund him/her, just not the same funder all the time: The free lancer offers his lance for hire. That is as opposed to being bound to some specific lord, permanently (to continue the medieval knightly analogy) - or just being a brigand or revolting peasant.

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In most academic fields adding non-participants as "authors" is considered unethical. Authors are those who contribute ideas, intellectual content, not money. The people added commit a sort of plagiarism, actually.

But there are fields in which the opposite is true. Many popular books are "authored" by some famous person but written for hire by a "ghost" writer. The latter isn't always known. Works for hire are a special category of copyright for example.

In some fields the overall supervisor of a scientific lab is added to the list of authors. The rationale is that they have made the research possible through both funding and setting the goals of the lab as well as providing overall advice and direction. But they give more than money to support the research.

In academia you can acknowledge financial support in a paragraph or so of the paper as is usually done when acknowledging grants.

To respond to the edit about "benefit" of acknowledgement to a sponsor, there are several possibilities. Some companies, and maybe individuals, really want to see the results of some research but don't have the staff or other resources to carry it out. So "contracting with" an independent researcher might be an option for them. Some patronage is done because the sponsor wants to seem to be associated with a researcher or a line of research.

For the first option, a colleague and I once had some expertise that a large multinational needed and wanted a quick startup. We were given grants (not actual money) for participation, though it wasn't research as such, other than that it gave the company some feedback on the compatibility of our approach with that of the company. The grants provided funds for travel, equipment, and such.

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