This question was raised in discussion of answers on Is it better to submit a paper to an important journal without the supervisor name or to a less important journal with the supervisor name? There seemed to be a significant difference of opinion, so I'm asking it here as its own question. I'll phrase it as a hypothetical.

Suppose that researchers X, Y and Z have collaborated on a project. Each has made major contributions which were essential to its success, and would ordinarily be entitled to co-authorship on the resulting paper. However, X decides, for some reason, that she does not wish her name to appear on the paper, but she is willing for Y and Z to publish it under their names alone.

May Y and Z ethically do so?

Of course it seems clear that X must consent to have a paper published with her name on it, and she has the right to withhold that consent. It's less clear whether Y and Z may publish anyway, effectively claiming credit for X's work, even though she consents to them doing so. It could be argued in this case that Y and Z may not publish the paper at all.

Another possible concern is that, if X has the right to decline credit for her work, she could be pressured or coerced or bribed into doing so, effectively reducing her to a ghost writer.

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    whose ethics would be violated in doing so?
    – akkkk
    Apr 17, 2014 at 16:23
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    @akkkk: Y and Z may be acting unethically by claiming credit for work they did not do. Apr 17, 2014 at 16:26
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    Simple answer: authored by Y, Z, and Anonymous contributor. You can publish without their name, make it clear that there was another contributor, and not appear to take credit for work you didn't do. This is, of course, assuming they're declining coauthorship because they don't want their name associated with the paper rather than some reason where you can give a name, but just not put them as coauthor.
    – Doc
    Apr 17, 2014 at 18:59
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    I'm puzzled. Obviously one of the authors cannot deny to the others the right from publishing their work...
    – o0'.
    Apr 19, 2014 at 18:17
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    @o0'. This does not at all seem obvious to me. Yes, sure, if the work is easily divided into parts that X, Y, and Z did, then Y and Z can do what they want with their work if X wants to not publish the part that X did. But oftentimes that is not the case - if all three kinda worked on everything, then it is indeed a non-obvious question what happens if one of the others decides that this should not be published at all (for whatever reason).
    – xLeitix
    May 26, 2016 at 13:56

6 Answers 6


It seems to me that if authors B and C write in the acknowledgment section that the contribution of person A was sufficiently important that they think A should be listed as an author but that A declined and especially if authors B and C provide a description of the reasons leading to A's refusal which is satisfying to A, in other words if B and C report accurately what has been happening, then no one is behaving unethically.

For a real life example, one can look at the acknowledgment section of S.Bloch and K.Kato's work on p-adic étale cohomology, the third author being in that case O.Gabber and the reason invoked (if I recall correctly) being that Gabber did not think the work was ready for publication (I'm unable to track the precise reference at the moment, it is not Bloch and Kato's article at the IHES in 1986).

UPDATE: Because I haven't been able to track the reference of Bloch-Kato, let me point out Beilinson-Bernstein-Deligne which starts with

Il avait d'abord été prévu que O.Gabber soit coauteur du présent article. Il a préféré s'en abstenir, pour ne pas être coresponsable des erreurs ou imprécisions qui s'y trouvent. Il n'en est pas moins responsable de bien des idées que nous exploitons et le lecteur lui est redevable de nombreuses critiques qui, nous l'espérons, ont permis d'améliorer le manuscrit.

which roughly translates as

It was first planned that O.Gabber would be coauthor of the present article. He chose to abstain, so as not to share the responsibility of the mistakes or imprecisions to be found in it. He is nonetheless responsible of many an idea we exploit here and the reader owes him numerous criticisms which, we hope, allowed for improvements of the manuscript.

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    +1: Including information about declined coauthorship is a very good (and rarely used) way to address these ethical issues. (I may add such a comment to one of my own papers: thanks for suggesting it!) I think that in the case you give, Bloch and Kato found the best solution to their problem, but -- I don't have intimate knowledge here and I don't want to speak too strongly -- a lot of mathematicians believe that Gabber's actions in this and related matters are at least atypical. Apr 17, 2014 at 17:26
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    The fact that Bloch and Kato are not in any way junior to Gabber also makes the nuances of the situation different from much of what I discussed in my answer. It would be stranger to write a paper and say "This paper is largely the work of my thesis advisor. She declined coauthorship." Wouldn't it? Apr 17, 2014 at 17:27
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    Can you add the English translation of your quote? Because as far as I understand the French it's a very nice example of how to deal with such a case.
    – silvado
    May 26, 2016 at 15:18

Declining coauthorship is actually quite common behavior in my field (mathematics). It is so common that not lightly do I question its ethics. In most instances I have seen it appears rather borderline, or the ethical questions that it raises are accounted for in other ways by the profession. However, taken to the extreme I think it would certainly result in unethical behavior. Thus my comment questioning another comment made on Nate Eldredge's answer:

An author always retains the right not to receive credit for his or her work.

I think this statement is clearly too strong. If you systematically pass off your work to others, you are participating in a form of plagiarism and giving (assuming that your work is good, which I will since this is the version of the practice I am familiar with) an unfair advantage to your should-be coauthors in what is now an extremely competitive academic environment.

Stage 1: Let's start at the extreme point: if you do all the work on a paper (or project, or thesis) and then pass it off to someone else who puts their name on the paper, I hope we can all agree that not just they but also you have done something deeply unethical. As I have before, I will point to this excellent short story which describes an especially interesting case of this. The story describes realistically how the discovery that the main character has written the PhD thesis of his ex-girlfriend would get not just her but also him in trouble.

In this extreme case there is another ethical violation occurring: someone's name is being put on something which they did not have intellectual involvement with.

Stage 2: Let's imagine that a more senior author really did the work of the paper and explained it to someone more junior: possibly their own student, but it happens in another cases as well. And let's say the junior person writes up the work in the formal sense but not without a lot of help from the senior person, to the extent to which that without substantial guidance from the senior person the junior person probably would not have been able to write up the work in an acceptable way. The junior person has in some superficial sense "contributed to the work", but I would argue that really he has not. And to focus ideas let's imagine that this in a field like mathematics (or TCS, theoretical physics...) in which the idea of "valuable routine work" is largely or completely absent: e.g. the junior person did not do any interesting or independent calculations, coding and so forth.

I still feel that this is a serious ethical violation. If it results in the junior person getting a PhD thesis, then I feel bad about that. If this is a larger pattern of behavior and results in the junior person getting several publications which advance his career, then I feel terrible about this: I think the senior person is doing something really reprehensible.

Stage 3: Now imagine that the senior person had the idea for the project, had some of it worked out in advance (but not shown to the junior person), had ideas about how the implementation was to take place, but left at least some substantial part of the implementation to the junior person. Let's say the junior person did at least a substantial part of the work independently, and let's say that he did some things in a way different from what the senior person would have thought to do which is not obviously worse.

This stage is an accurate description of the relation between many thesis advisors and their students in mathematics. In mathematics this type of interaction probably most commonly results in a solo paper by the student, and the likelihood that this will occur is positively correlated with the research strength of the advisor and the department. I grew up watching this practice and therefore got used to it. Once I saw how differently other fields operate I started to wonder whether this was really ethical behavior. I think in practice it is not such a serious problem because in mathematics who your advisor is is known to everyone who knows you: when you meet someone new or talk about them with a colleague, "Who was his advisor?" is one of the first questions that gets asked. It is quite common for someone who got their PhD at a top mathematics department to have their first publication in a truly excellent journal on the topic of their thesis -- deep, cutting edge stuff in their advisor's field -- then a short gap, followed by other papers which are minor variants of previous work or are interesting and valuable but in a different, lower-to-the-ground field. When potential employers see this type of CV, we largely tend to think "I get it: the advisor really did much of their thesis work, and without her the candidate cannot continue doing work of the same quality." Unfortunately this might be unfair in the other direction: for instance some advisors really don't give much direct help to their students. That was the case for me, and luckily various people told me that my advisor has a reputation in the community for not doing his students' theses for them, with the result that some of his students have written much better theses than others (mine was somewhere in the middle). So it's not clear how to arrive at a "standard advisor discount". Taken the other way, sometimes you do see an eminent advisor writing a paper jointly with their student on the topic of their thesis work, and all of a sudden it becomes less clear what this means: there needs to be an explanation of this in the letter of recommendation (but the explanation is not always absolutely clear or convincing either: every student everywhere always did "at least half of the work" according to recommendation letters).

Most eminent thesis advisors regard the help that they give their student to write an excellent thesis as a one time gift, at which point they leave their former student largely alone to sink or swim. However in a small number of cases there are eminent advisors who just have that many good ideas and that generous a nature. Maybe they feel that the way to function as a leader in their field is to feed their former students the ideas they need to do first-rate work. I cannot imagine trying to tell these eminent people not to do this, but nevertheless the practice seems unfair in a competitive job market. It contributes to feelings that the top departments form a kind of elite club that, if admission is not granted by the age of 24 or so, will be almost impossible to join later in life. This is not good for the profession.

There are further stages. To be clear, starting with Stage 4 I would myself be a participant in the process (and sometimes I think I would be a better advisor if I were more onboard with Stage 3). If you're a senior person and you feel like you made what was really only an offhand remark to someone, then even if that offhand remark was crucial in the writing of their paper you are relatively unlikely to want to be a coauthor. I respect that very well and I have to: that kind of expertise and generosity is part of being a senior academic (in my field at least; I assume it's not so different elsewhere). At my relatively middling career stage I have already made plenty of remarks to others that have resulted in acknowledgments in their paper, and I have already turned down at least one offer of coauthorship. And there was one relatively recent case where I offered coauthorship to a very senior person: he declined, roughly because he had almost forgotten the remarks he had made to me about five years (!!) before. I hadn't, and they were crucial to writing what for me is a very good paper. So there is a continuum here and many judgment calls to make; I want to be clear about that. But I also think that we should draw the line somewhere before "An author always retains the right not to receive credit for his or her work."

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    I agree about the unfairness of having some top mathematicians feed ideas to their students until the students have tenure, while other mathematicians leave their students to build their own careers. Also this isn't just a matter of the top departments being an elite club, it is more a matter of individual advisors (from various tiers of schools) acting differently than other advisors. I don't completely agree about Stage 2: if the student would not otherwise graduate, and if also the student will leave academia after getting the PhD, then I would give a student all necessary help. May 1, 2014 at 6:59
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    Comment from a field which IMHO tends to err on the side of too long coauthor lists: For (or rather against) stages 1 and 2, we (chemistry, Germany) declare in our thesis that no help was received other than that listed in the acknowledgements. Nov 21, 2016 at 16:47
  • @MichaelZieve - what is the societal value of such a Ph.D. degree, presuming that the pseudo-student was and remained unable to write up anything publishable independently? Perhaps an extreme extension of the basic human right to education? Aug 22, 2020 at 20:22
  • @JirkaHanika Once a department has accepted a student into graduate school, and that student has passed the preliminary written and oral exams to advance to candidacy, then I think the department has a moral obligation to get the student a Ph.D. in exchange for the student's spending years in the department rather than doing something else. I don't think about anything so grand as societal value, I just think of the student as an individual human being who deserves some certificate indicating that (s)he has worked at something during these 5-6 years of his/her life. Aug 23, 2020 at 1:30
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    @MichaelZieve - Some people work harder than others, though. That's not reflected in the extreme case of the advisor helping the student "write" a thesis which the student barely understands properly, let alone contributing to its content. There should be some minimum standard of the Ph.D. title holder being capable of doing research I think. Aug 23, 2020 at 10:17

I think that you need to distinguish between the case when everyone agrees that X's work requires acknowledgement as a co-author, but X is being difficult, and the case where X is uncertain or dismissive of the level of their contribution.

I was recently added, at the invitation of the primary authors, to the author list of an article in preparation based on my very last-minute contributions. I felt obliged to have a discussion with the primary authors as to whether I really should be added or should simply be acknowledged. In the end, I deferred to their judgment about the importance of my contribution and accepted their invitation. This is a perfectly natural and appropriate conversation to have.

However, if X thinks that the paper is bad as written and refuses to have their name associated with the work, then the remaining authors have some harder choices. They should first consider the objections or criticisms of X and see if the article can be improved. If it cannot for time or space reasons, then they should consider either offering X an acknowledgement credit at the end of the paper or whether or not they can remove X's contribution and their name from the work entirely. It's entirely possible that this may scuttle the paper submission.

I don't think that the remaining authors should submit X's work as their own if X refuses to be associated with the article in any way.


The purpose of publishing a paper should be the dissemination of knowledge and not merely the attribution of credit to the right persons for its discovery. If the authors Y and Z believe that the work is of any importance whatsoever to the scientific community, it would be unethical for them to NOT find a way to publish it. Such considerations could override some of the considerations of fairness of attribution that many here seem to be concerned about.

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    I agree that Y and Z's belief that the work should be published should carry some weight, but I don't think they ever have an ethical obligation to publish anything. Apr 18, 2014 at 2:39
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    They should, if their jobs are funded by taxpayers' money, or if the work is of use to society. Apr 18, 2014 at 8:27
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    Science is ultimately about creating knowledge and understanding. Considerations of credit and plagiarism, or, in the present case, the danger of committing "inverse plagiarism" serve to keep the incentive system fair. But withholding knowledge under this auspices is leading the thinking ad absurdum: it is putting the cart before the horse. The incentive system should serve the expansion of knowledge; the expansion of knowledge should not be sacrificed for keeping the incentive system in place. And, mentioning that the co-author declined to be named may penalise the remaining authors. Feb 5, 2016 at 2:25

This is exactly the reason why care must be taken when inviting some other researcher into team for collaboration. If he has once been written as a co-author, he has a certain right to block the publication of the shared work. This may or may not be fair.

As a result, it is better to invite additional researchers only if they can contribute some substantial new results or perhaps some type of analysis that is difficult to do without they help (writing and evaluating some complex mathematical model about results, for instance). In such cases, the contributed part can be identified and removed, publishing without it.

Differently, if the invited researcher contributed in general discussions and planning over all project, there is no clear way to get rid of such contribution easily. Then all that remains is to negotiate, if all sides agree to publish with the fewer authors, maybe that is ok.


In a comment on the earlier thread, I claimed that a co-author always has the right not to receive credit for work done with respect to a particular paper. I believe this is because there are certain rights and responsibilities that researchers have with respect to publications. Particularly relevant here is the right to receive appropriate credit for their work.

However, associated with any right is also the option not to exercise said right. For instance, author X may believe that co-worker Y has contributed enough to merit co-authorship. If Y chooses to decline co-authorship, this does not prevent author X from publishing the paper.

At the same time, by exercising the right to co-authorship comes additional responsibilities. Among those is the responsibility to participate actively and constructively in the preparation of the manuscript. It is unethical to insist on co-authorship for the purposes of scuttling a manuscript through inaction.

In general, though, none of the above places the restriction on authors voluntarily relinquishing intellectual property rights to the paper (that is, not have their names appear as co-authors, but still allowing the manuscript to proceed). They also have the right to "take their marbles and go home"—essentially withdraw from the complete process, which can of course be much more difficult in collaborative projects involving multiple groups.

In short: authors have the right to accept credit, and the right not to accept credit, but must accept the consequences of that decision.

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