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I am currently working as a post-bacc research assistant in theoretical physics group. I have been working on my current project for a couple of years, and it is finally finished. I have been going back and forth revising the paper with my advisor. I have performed all computations and simulations of the paper by myself with much guidance from my advisor.

On a recent version of the paper draft, my advisor commented on the author list. I had put myself and first author and them as the last author. They mentioned that they want to send the paper to other experts in the field to have them take a look and to add them to the author list. My advisor mentioned that this is oftentimes helpful to get a paper through review more easily.

When I mentioned waiting for edits or comments from the aforementioned experts, he clarified that they won't actually give feedback or contribute to the paper. They will just put their names on it.

He did ask if I was okay with this, but I suspect he was not genuinely asking and was asking as a socially polite way of informing me he plans to do this. He put this question in one of the comments on the most recent paper version I sent. Since I have not finished the corrections yet, I haven't needed to respond, but I'm planning to send the revisions on monday, so I'm hoping to come to a decision by then.

I was wondering if this is normal and I should just agree to it and not make a fuss? I am also wondering if this is normal practice in academia? I am new to this process, as this is my first paper that I am writing as first author. What is the etiquette in this situation?

My situation is notably different from the situation discussed in How do I handle a "fake" co-author? because the individuals who would be added to the author list are more experienced in the field, of higher rank than me, certainly able to understand my work, and are just generally above me.

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  • I'm not clear on why you think this is different from the linked question?
    – MikeB
    Apr 3 at 13:48
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    Hi. What did you answer when your advisor asked: "He did ask if I was okay with this"?
    – Stef
    Apr 3 at 17:24
  • @Stef Hello. He put the question in one of the comments on the most recent paper version i sent. since i have not finished the corrections yet, i havent needed to respond, but im planning to send the revisions monday, so hoping to come to a decision by then. Apr 4 at 1:13
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    @Relativisticcucumber My advice would be: raise your concerns and don't lie (ie don't say you're okay with it if you're not). But if your advisor insists, fighting them all the way is not in your best interest.
    – Stef
    Apr 4 at 9:48
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    You say no, they did not contribute so they are not authors. Go higher if necessary and report it, this behaviour needs to be stopped. Science will be undermined if we allow this behaviour.
    – Tom
    Apr 4 at 21:17

3 Answers 3

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As mentioned in the answer by @Ben, gift authorship is unethical. It's misconduct. There's no question about it.

That being said, adding co-authors won't really harm you. You will still be the first author. Whether the paper is co-authored by one co-author or a few co-authors doesn't really matter. What's counted in your CV is the number of first-authored papers and the total number of papers. When you apply for academic positions, it won't matter how many people that paper is co-authored by. Actually, adding big names to your article would even make your CV more impressive. And even though this is misconduct, who could complain about it?

As you are a post-bacc research assistant, I think it might be a good idea not to make a fuss at such an early stage of your research career. Your relationship with your advisor is important.


UPDATE: The comments below stress that unethical behavior might harm you. I agree that there's a risk, but you have to weigh that risk against the risk of worsening your relationship with your advisor. From the practical standpoint, the risk of getting harmed by gifting authorship is minimal, because the only way others may learn about it is when you, your advisor, or the co-authors talk to other people about it. And even if they do, it is highly unlikely that anything bad happens. Adding co-authors who haven't made any considerable contribution isn't something very uncommon among researchers I have worked and talked with. Sometimes this is done for "political" reasons, and sometimes people exchange such "favors" from time to time. You include me as a co-author, and later I include you as a co-author. Also, adding a big name to the author list is like getting their signature of approval, which can help get your paper published in a high-profile journal. While technically misconduct, such practices are part of life, albeit possibly not in all countries and not in all research fields.

Remember, your advisor is going to write recommendation letters for you and may help you with their connections, so it's important to remain on good terms with them.

If you really dislike the idea of gifting authorship, you can tell your advisor something like this, "I don't like the idea of adding those people, but if you really want to, I don't mind." This will help you understand how strongly your advisor wants to include them. Who knows, maybe he or she doesn't really insist...

At any rate, please note that my answer reflects my own personal experience, which may have been affected by my country of origin and my research field. In Japan, we generally avoid worsening relationships at all costs, especially with the advisor. I understand there may be different views or strategies of achieving success in academia.

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  • 3
    If you get caught in unethical behavior, it will harm you. Apr 3 at 1:03
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    It doesn't matter if unethical behavior harms you. It harms other people. That's why it's unethical.
    – Ray
    Apr 3 at 20:05
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    +1 for the thoughtful answer to a complex question. Apr 4 at 0:42
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    I feel like this answer is helpful because I was particular to not ask what the ethical choice is, but rather, what the etiquette is. Thank you. Apr 4 at 1:15
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    @TerryLoring I would argue the advisor is engaging in unethical behaviour here; the OP's only choice is in which fights to pick. You can't fight everything and the balance of power in a student-advisor relationship is not in the student's favour.
    – Stef
    Apr 4 at 9:46
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He did ask if I was okay with this, but I suspect he was not genuinely asking and was asking as a socially polite way of informing me he plans to do this.

I recommend you take your advisor at his word and avail yourself of the opportunity to let him know that you have concerns about this course of action. Adding authors to an academic paper who do not make any substantive contribution is "gift authorship" and it is generally agreed to be a form of academic misconduct (for discussion, see e.g., O'Brien et al 2009, Martin 2013, Jones and McCullough 2015, Macfarlane 2015, Teixeira da Silva and Dobránszki 2016, and Khezer and Mohan 2022).

Gift authorship is unethical and it also should not affect the prospects of the paper in review (since most reputable journals use blind review anyway). Gift authorship is rarely investigated and acted on, but in principle, if you were to do this then you and your advisor open yourselves up to legitimate claims of academic misconduct. Aside from this, adding additional authors who have not added to the paper dilutes your own credit on the paper and it would negatively affect any author-adjusted citation metrics that evaluate your research contribution. (This is not a reason to reject having coauthors where it is actually beneficial to the paper, but it is an adverse consequence in cases where you add people as gift authorship.) You are right to have concerns about this and you should communicate them to your advisor.

While it is reasonable for you to talk to your advisor about this and state your concerns, you might find that you are in an institution in which there is pressure to provide gift authorship, and if that is the case then you will need to decide how much you want to push back on this practice. Hopefully your initial discussion with your advisor will allow you to gauge their attitude and the attitude that prevails in the department. If it were me, I would hold my ground and avoid adding gift authors to the paper, but I recognise that people sometimes try to go along to get along. Before you make your decision, I strongly recommend you read C.S Lewis's excellent essay The Inner Ring about the method by which people are pulled into the service of corruption:

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face —that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face— turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

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    As a "post-bacc research assistant" this might not be the hill they want to die on.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 2 at 14:10
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    @JonCuster You might be right, you might be wrong. Difficult to answer in general. Not even trying to do the right thing, is bad.
    – usr1234567
    Apr 2 at 15:10
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    Gift authorship is misconduct; some fields, such as medical research, have cracked down on this. Social acceptability probably varies by both field and institution. Apr 2 at 15:10
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    "most reputable journals use blind review anyway" Many reputable journals in theoretical physics with which I am familiar do not use blind review.
    – SethK
    Apr 2 at 18:06
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    E-mail to supervisor: "I am sorry but I cannot add those co-authors, because I have learned from reading these papers (references given above) that is is considered scientific misconduct, and that is not how I want to start my scientific career". So, refer to higher powers that are beyond your control and to scientific ethics, which you are just now in the process of learning. It is not your decision to leave out 'gift authors'. It's a scientific standard to not even think about it. Apr 3 at 8:11
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It is not common practice. I was never asked to do so and have never heard of it in my proximity. Maybe I am lucky that I was at a institute with a professor with high moral standards.

Try to keep your personal moral standards alive.

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    Not sure that this really answers the question.
    – user438383
    Apr 2 at 19:57
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    @user438383 It is an answer to "I was wondering if this is normal and I should just agree to it and not make a fuss? I am also wondering if this is normal practice in academia?", isn't it?
    – usr1234567
    Apr 4 at 6:08

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