34

Since I am a fairly new researcher in the process of building a track record for myself I'd like feedback on whether I behaved correctly in the following situation.

I was part of a small, short-term research project (~6 months). My main contributions to this project were as project lead, i.e. project acquisition, developing the research question, planning the research, and selecting the appropriate methods. Throughout the project I was involved in substantive discussion with my two colleagues who did the leg work of performing the experiments and analyzing the results.

After all the data was collected and partly analyzed, I went on a 3 month hiatus to focus on finishing a university course. During this time, my colleagues wrote and submitted a paper about the results of said research project without my knowledge. When I came back, I found that the paper was already close to acceptance without any chance of me contributing to it.

Since I believed that I contributed significantly to the knowledge generated in the paper (beyond "just" project management), I asked the lead author to put me on the author list, and he agreed. The second author did not however, with the argument that it would be ethically wrong to include an author that has not contributed to the text itself. While I generally agree with this sentiment, I had no chance to contribute to the text because no one told me that the paper was being written.

After a heated discussion we agreed to disagree. Now my coworker would, although begrudgingly, agree to put me on the author list. However, now I am on the fence since part of the journal's author inclusion criteria says "[involved in] drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content [...]", which I objectively didn't do. Should I stand by my co-author claim, or would letting it go be the more ethical thing to do?

Update: Based on a discription of my contribution, the journal editor decided against my inclusion. We have discussed this issue in my research group and are now looking for ways to avoid these situations in the future.

5
  • 38
    I think if you contributed to the research then they made a mistake submitting without contacting you
    – Joe
    Apr 6 at 16:28
  • 2
    The entire project was 6 months duration. What did you expect to happen in the 3 month hiatus ? People can only wait so long: the others must have had their own schedules too. Man, you should have kept some contact with the group over that stretch.
    – Trunk
    Apr 7 at 9:21
  • 8
    Your co-worker's claim is backwards - they are the one being unethical by denying you authorship on a paper you contributed significantly to. It's not ethical to take the work you did, write a paper without telling you, and then leave your name off of it.
    – kaya3
    Apr 7 at 10:37
  • If you were not asked to participate then your co-authors are the ones who need to consider whether they are being ethical. You should have definitely been given the opportunity to be an author considering your contribution. If I were in this situation, I would write to journal explain the situation and ask that to be allowed to proof read the paper and make small edits. If you find something big that needs changed the paper should be withdrawn.
    – macster110
    Apr 7 at 11:04
  • 2
    Is "involved in drafting the work..." the only inclusion criteria? I think that's listed to include people who weren't involved in, say, the experiments generating the results but who contributed to data analysis, presentation of the work, etc.
    – chepner
    Apr 7 at 15:19

5 Answers 5

16

Has anyone just asked the editor handling the paper what should be done? If they say you satisfy the journal's conditions for authorship, then you either get authorship or you explicitly waive it; if they say you don't, then you don't (but you should still be able to get at least an acknowledgment entry for your contributions and conversations). Since you say "verge of being accepted", the editor may also be willing to give you a bit of time to review the submission to see if there is anything you think should be changed (concluding "no" is still a valid contribution to the production process). This may delay the acceptance and publication time tables, but probably not significantly if you deal with it in short order.

Beyond that, there are a few professional decorum/procedure issues that led to this situation.

For something that's on your side (though also theirs), there is the issue that apparently you went into working on this project without discussing authorship matters in advance. As you have probably learned from this, and hopefully the other two have as well, that's a bad idea. Always try to work out in advance what the expectations and conditions for authorship on (potential) resulting papers will be. As this may vary by journal even within the same field, this may require some advanced consideration on what journal(s) you might try to publish in. It's hard to set that in stone, but it gives a working framework and a forum to make clear your expectations for your role and participation. It's entirely possible that your collaborators originally envisioned you as a non-author, and they never critically reevaluated that position until you brought it up late in the process. Maybe they've grown so accustomed to other collaborators waiving authorship when they go on long breaks they mistakenly failed to check with you. Those are failures on their part, but either way discussing authorship in advance likely would have prevented any such problems.

How a hiatus/vacation/etc. impacts that is also something that should be discussed in advance, at least once you know one is on the horizon. Sometimes a contributor may simply waive their inclusion and let the others go ahead and publish without them, others won't; better to know/communicate which one is which in advance.

Some papers effectively get held hostage indefinitely as one co-author refuses to relinquish authorship but never finishes the tasks they need to for one reason or another. Which brings me back to something I said in the start: if the editor says you qualify as an author, then the only way the paper can be (ethically) published is if you are listed as an author, or you expressly waive your inclusion in the authors list. They can't ethically just remove you because it was inconvenient to clue you in on the process.

So, yes, ask the editor and go from there. It takes the issue out of the contentious grip of you and your collaborators and puts it in the hands of an objective and neutral (hopefully) third party with the authority to make such decisions. The editor will be glad this issue was brought up before publication rather than after, at least.

2
  • While the other answers are very useful, in retrospect this is what we should have done: resolve the dispute by letting a neutral third party (the editor) decide.
    – Enuff
    Apr 7 at 8:06
  • 23
    I disagree with this answer because editors are not supposed to act as judges for authorship disputes.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 7 at 12:53
101

Your objecting co-author has the causality backwards here.

It is incorrect and unethical to say that only writers can be co-authors.

Instead, my understanding of the ethical position is that every contributor to the paper must be given an opportunity to contribute to the writing and revision, since the manuscript is presenting their work. That contribution might well be as small as: "I read your draft and don't see anything that needs changing."

By your account, you have contributed significantly to the scientific content that is being presented, and therefore your co-authors must offer you co-authorship and an opportunity to contribute to the revision.

In submitting the revision, the lead author will need to explain to the journal that you were omitted by mistake in the original contribution. Any other position would be an ethical breach of authorship.

11
  • 10
    And, to leave out someone who has contributed intellectual content is plagiarism.
    – Buffy
    Apr 6 at 12:01
  • 2
    @Buffy - not plagiarism (since nothing was cribbed/copied), but definitely not kosher...
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 6 at 15:44
  • 11
    @JonCuster The OED defines plagiarism as "The action or practice of taking someone else's work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one's own; literary theft." which definitely describes this situation.
    – llama
    Apr 6 at 17:14
  • 20
    "Your objecting co-author has the causality backwards here." This 100%. If the experimentalist were on hiatus while the project-manager and number-cruncher hastily wrote up and submitted a paper - excluding the experimentalist from authorship - it'd be crystal clear that those two authors were in the wrong for not including the third in the authorship process. And the same goes if the number-cruncher decides to solo write up the team's results in secret; they don't simply get to scoop their team's work and be sole author simply by "virtue" of excluding the team from the writing process. Apr 6 at 17:24
  • 5
    @llama This situation would generally be described as an authorship dispute rather than plagiarism, because the other authors were part of the collaboration rather than third parties.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 6 at 23:10
20

Authorship norms vary by field. But if you made a substantial intellectual contribution to the paper, you should be an author in my mind.

What has gone wrong here is that the paper was written without giving you the opportunity to critically revise it. After all, if your name is on the author list, it's your reputation on the line if there is something wrong with it, so you shouldn't be there with at least checking the content.

2
  • I didn't vote on this either way, but part of the problem is that it's not their name on the author list. Apr 8 at 14:54
  • Fair point, i'll edit the answer Apr 9 at 8:32
0

I am not qualified to offer a full answer on the merits of how authorship is defined for academic publications.

But I do enjoy tracing word etymologies, however, and in the case of a seemingly obvious word such as author, I found this origin.

author (n.) mid-14c., auctor, autour, autor "father, creator, one who brings about, one who makes or creates" someone or something, from Old French auctor, acteor "author, originator, creator, instigator" (12c., Modern French auteur) and directly from Latin auctor "promoter, producer, father, progenitor; builder, founder; trustworthy writer, authority; historian; performer, doer; responsible person, teacher," literally "one who causes to grow," agent noun from auctus, past participle of augere "to increase," from PIE root *aug- (1) "to increase."

From late 14c. as "a writer, one who sets forth written statements, original composer of a writing" (as distinguished from a compiler, translator, copyist, etc.) ....

https://www.etymonline.com/word/author

In other words, you definitely helped author the paper in the original sense of being one of the team who brought about, made, or created the paper -- even if you did not contribute specific text for the first draft of the "written statements" of the paper itself.

Nevertheless, going back to my lack of qualifications, I do know enough about publishing in general to have learned that specific journals or fields can have many specific authorship requirements (independent of general dictionary word meanings), including what is needed to be included as an author of a paper. For example, does this journal have a separate contributor list for papers, etc.

To that extent, I most agree with zibadawa timmy on technical grounds (discussing with the editor) and because those grounds are most likely to remove contention and emotion from the equation.

But on purely ethical grounds, I see it this way, and here I do think some emotion is justified in the sense that something was not handled correctly regarding your authorship and should be corrected. Surely your contribution to this paper ought to be explicitly recognized in some form.

Yes, it would have behooved you to lay out your hiatus plans and actively ask the others to let you know if they were going to plan a paper submission while you were gone; but even if you did not do that, your hiatus did not relieve them of the obligation to either (1) let you know they were planning the paper and discuss how to include you (author or acknowledgements/contributors) or (2) wait for you to return if they had no way to reach you during your hiatus.

Just my two cents.

-1

I just don't get how the two people doing the experiments and yourself did not communicate for 3 months while you were finishing a university course.

Didn't you even phone them once during this time ?

If it was physical sciences and the other two had a say in the project work as well as all the experiments plus analysis and - somehow - there was no contact between you all, I can see the point of view of person #2.

You may well have a legalistic right to authorship of the paper.

But ethically your contribution would be more in the Acknowledgements than as a co-author.

I am surprised that you insist on this authorship right given your lack of contact with the others - something they no doubt feel relegates them to a secondary status despite their hard graft.

3
  • 4
    While not ideal, this is pretty normal behavior for a student who hasn't done much research in the past and is counting on their mentors to guide them through the process. The fault lies on the side of the more experienced researchers who SHOULD know better.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 7 at 13:44
  • 2
    Er, no. There are collaborations where I'd turn in my part, wait for others to do their experiments/processing, and that can take pretty much any amount of time. Not entirely unusual to be contacted after 3+ months with an update on the experiment. Also not entirely unusual for only the PI and a couple more people being in close contact with other research groups. Others, who sometimes contribute significantly, are most definitely not phoning everyone else.
    – Lodinn
    Apr 7 at 14:47
  • @jakebeal But the person off the spectrum was the PI. Are you suggesting that the others should have kept in contact with him throughout ? It was all their fault, not the PI's ? I doubt it. It seems to me that this course the OP took was - however engrossing - a convenient excuse to avoid the everyday obligations of project work. Like communicating and responding.
    – Trunk
    Apr 13 at 9:18

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .