21

I have a little dispute over co-authorship on a paper, and I would appreciate feedback on whether I am handling this appropriately (or if I am being an asshole or not).

I am a PhD student in applied mathematics, focusing on theoretical and methodological statistics. About a year and a half ago, I initiated a collaborative project with another PhD student from a different city. Our agreement was that I would handle the theoretical aspects (proofs and writing) while he would develop and code the algorithm. We agreed that I would be the first author.

I finished my part almost a year ago. Then he started working on his part. It took him almost a year and he did...something. But, in my opinion, it was not good. The algorithm he developed only worked under extremely restrictive assumptions that were not necessary and did not follow from the theory. I also had concerns that its occasional success might be coincidental as I more and more think the underlying idea does not make much sense.

So I looked into the 'algorithm' part myself in April. In April (took me about three weeks), I created a new algorithm and finished coding it (a completely different approach than his, no parts of his work used). It works provably better with no strong assumptions, and (yes, this is just my opinion and intuition) it beautifully matches the theory, and it makes sense that it works.

So I wrote it down in the manuscript what I did and I finalized the paper in the last few weeks, which does not include any of his contributions. Upon discussing authorship, my collaborator insists he should be a coauthor, arguing that this was a joint project from the start and he invested considerable time in it. I disagree, as I have spent immensely more time on it and all current ideas, code, and writing are mine.

We have scheduled a meeting with our PhD supervisors next week to discuss this issue. Am I justified in requesting his removal from the paper? I do not want to have bad reputation and bad personal relations with them, however I wouldn't feel comfortable with sharing credit for something that I created.

Note: There is something that I did wrong about this collaboration. I did not communicate well with him about how and what I was doing in the last month. I told him that I had another approach for the algorithm part, and when I finished the algorithm, I explained it to him (not in deep detail), and we both agreed that it was a better algorithm. Then we did not communicate for the last few weeks while I finished the rest (and yes, his part) of the paper. My rationale was that I did not see how he could help and I wanted to expedite the project's completion, especially since it always took him a long time to do stuff and I just wanted to have this project done and finished.

I appreciate any insights or advice you can provide on this matter. Note that this is just my point of view of the story, and maybe he sees it differently.

6
  • interpersonal.stackexchange.com Commented May 24 at 10:40
  • Offering co-authorship with you doing the writing is wrong (and many journals forbid it). And if the other student has provided input to the article, it should be acknowledged by co-authorship; if it's only code it should be in the acknowledgements (and I say this as someone in computer science). Commented May 26 at 3:50
  • 7
    Let me be the a-hole to advise you this; keep his name on the paper and explicitly tarnish your relations with him. That is, do not collaborate with him again, if you have judged his contributions to be sub-par than you. For keeping his name, academia is about collaborations and knowledge-sharing, I assume they did put in honest effort even if 'you' judged otherwise. Making a scene out of it, won't look good on you and dissuade further collaborators to work with you.
    – user170044
    Commented May 26 at 5:04
  • 1
    I tend to agree with the general sentiment that you should retain the other party as a co-author. They did do work (which you could view as an experiment that didn't produce useful results). You were aware of this, and did further work to improve it. So whilst you see the contribution as meaningless can you be 100% sure you'd have produced the exact same outcome if you'd done everything yourself from day 1 without seeing "how not to do it"? Include them and move on without them for your next paper. Commented May 26 at 23:43
  • 4
    @DavidWaterworth: I'd say: even if OP had produced the very same output on their own without any collaboration, the other's work has happened. As long as it was an intellectual contribution, they need to be in. Not as first author, and/or with the contributions section saying that they contributed a first version of code that was later given up in favor of OP's code. Commented May 27 at 10:21

9 Answers 9

64

I would say "Be generous and don't attach too much significance to the appearance (or lack thereof) of certain combinations of curved symbols (a.k.a. "letters") in the author line" to both of you. Neither has your co-author a real reason to insist on being there, nor have you a real reason to insist on removing a person whom you did work with from there. I often include all people with whom I communicated about the problem in any minimally meaningful way as co-authors and occasionally decline the co-authorship even if others think that I deserve it. IMHO, once the offer has been made, it should stand, so no one should try to force others out, but no one is obliged to accept the offer either, so everyone can opt out him/herself any time.

This attitude has brought me quite a lot of collaborators and good acquaintances (occasionally even friends). Trying to figure out who contributed exactly how much usually results in nothing but making enemies. Don't worry: you are pretty certain to make plenty of enemies during your lifetime no matter what, so there is no need to start right away. Also, I'll tell you one secret: the "collaboration of equals" is rather rare (though not entirely unheard of). In almost every team, one or two people are more equal than others and one or two (not necessarily the same ones) do a lion's share of work. Live and let live. Don't pick up collaborators with whom you have been unhappy about in the past again, but don't expect too much "fairness" when you start a new project (and be wary of people who hold such expectations in general).

As to "losing something by sharing (or diluting) the credit for the work", I wouldn't be afraid of that. During my 30+ year career, I published only 5 or 6 single author papers (out of nearly 200) and that didn't hurt my reputation in the slightest (or, at least, I have never noticed the harm). You've made the paper better by resetting and re-coding the algorithm? Great! Derive as much moral (or whatever) satisfaction from being stronger and smarter as you want, but do not kick the weaker person for not being capable to hold up with the demands of the project. Believe it or not, you'll find yourself in that position too now and then if you collaborate with really strong people (I definitely had such experiences myself).

Just my two cents :-)

6
  • 19
    This is the right answer: Build good karma, be known as a good collaborator. Commented May 25 at 2:03
  • 2
    That's very convincing as pragmatic personal advice, but, out of curiosity, do you think the system would work better if more people had that attitude? Since publications matter for jobs, one could argue that that generosity contributes to less qualified/upright people taking away the jobs from more qualified/upright people.
    – Stefan
    Commented May 25 at 9:07
  • 8
    @Stefan The science is not about being at each other throats for surviving and finding the place under the Sun despite the fact that "the system", as it currently is, often gives such an impression. So, I don't know if it will work better if more people have such an attitude but I'm pretty sure that it will become less cruel towards both very strong and not so strong researchers if most people have it. Also I'm pretty sure that it has worked for me pretty well (even job-wise) though, of course, I know of successful people who have exactly the opposite attitude.
    – fedja
    Commented May 25 at 11:02
  • 3
    It's not a zero sum game. And I'd say you have more to gain here than loose by sharing authorship. Especially as this person has provided effort here, the bad blood and reputation damage for doing otherwise will be pyrrhic at best. Commented May 26 at 7:49
  • @Stefan professors who are very cutthroat about sharing credit, tend to work by themselves a lot. Science is a mostly collaborative effort, with most research being the efforts of multiple people. A group of scientists who collaborate will publish more papers per person. And publish better papers than a person who flies solo.
    – Questor
    Commented May 28 at 16:41
33

From your own description, it sounds like you've tried to bully this coauthor off the project. By not giving them an opportunity to improve things you made decisions unilaterally to exclude them.

As part of a collaboration, you didn't have the right to make unilateral decisions to change the relative contribution to the project.

I think because of these actions you're kind of stuck. You had an ethical responsibility to give the collaborator an opportunity to contribute, and you didn't. Probably the simplest next step is to let them be an author. It is reasonable to have further expectations of them as a coauthor like assisting in any further preparation necessary for publication, you may have them review and give a third party look at the robustness of your code, etc. But, I don't think you can nudge them out by having just done their work for them.

1
  • 13
    I agree with this, except even this one-sided story doesn't read as "done their work for them", it reads like the other author explored one approach that turned out to be a dead end, and that discovery was directly precedent to the second, better version the collaboration developed (together! they discussed it!). He just is an inextricable author of this joint work and always has been. Commented May 25 at 3:19
18

You are first author either way. If you include him, you lose nothing and recognise the work that he put into it, even if it didn’t end up being the final version. If you exclude him, you gain nothing but a sense of validation, an enemy, and potentially a reputation for being untrustworthy.

This might be field dependent. I’m in a field that is sometimes over-generous with co-authorships; you are in a field in which sole authorship is more common. But from my perspective, there’s nothing to be gained by sticking to your guns on this.

4
  • 2
    Thanks for the answer. I only disagree with one thing - that I loose nothing when including him. This will be a paper in the best journal, and as a phd student having a single author paper in such a journal can be a big thing. It's quite unusual, even for postdocs. So it can put me in a better light when looking for postdoc. But I see your point, i don't want to be perceived as bad collaborator. Commented May 24 at 11:57
  • 1
    "If you exclude him, you gain nothing but a sense of validation, an enemy, and potentially a reputation for being untrustworthy." that's a very strong statement to make. What if the other student truly did not do much and is being unreasonable in their demands to be an author? Also, this is very field dependent. You acknowledge this, but you seem to can't help but be biased by the conventions in your own field.
    – Aqualone
    Commented May 24 at 14:47
  • @Albert Paradek Check with your supervisor whether you are correct that having a single author paper is a big deal in your field. In my field, first authorship is the thing: you don’t get more credit for a single author paper, even though it is unusual. Commented May 24 at 19:39
  • 4
    @Aqualone “What if the other student truly did not do much and is being unreasonable” — that doesn’t change the costs or the benefits. Commented May 24 at 21:46
11

I agree with fedja's approach, "once the offer has been made, it should stand". Yeah, you lose out (sharing authorship vs single), but probably not a great deal. It's irritating and rationale for better communication throughout the process, as you observed. I feel your pain as a grad student, working hard to develop a strong reputation in your field, and it sounds like you're in the right, but it's also important to develop a reputation as someone with whom it's desirable to collaborate...even if that collaboration isn't always perfectly equitable.

8

At my university during orientation they told us that even people you have a conversation with that just gave you an idea towards your paper need to be at least a last author, even if they didn't contribute any work. It's really about covering yourself, you don't want to get in trouble with the university for plagiarism. You read the other student's code and then built your code, and you claim that it's completely different but reading it might have given you ideas about how to approach the problem in a more general way but following a similar set of steps. I can't imagine that you were not at all, possibly subconsciously, influenced by it in your implementation. You might not even realize it, people's memories are often imperfect like this: you might read something and a few days later genuinely believe it was your own idea. So even if you may be justified in saying their implementation wasn't good enough quality, I would definitely not remove them from the paper entirely, maybe they shouldn't be coauthor but that is something you should discuss with both advisors and your school/department for policy.

1
  • 6
    +1. A commitment was made. Work was done by the other party. The flaws in that work contributed to the creation of the code for the final publication. It's an uneven split but OP should be more gracious and less selfish.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 25 at 9:55
5

I would use the CReDiT taxonomy to confirm contribution and then use that to discuss authorship.

It seems to me that you both worked collaboratively during the course of the project and probably the algorithm you developed benefited from discussions with this colleague. That ought to be recognised somehow alongside conceptualisation.

1
  • 1
    +1 This answer addresses an issue that other answers have not: the OP learned something from their collaborator's efforts, and what they learned led to a better paper.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented May 25 at 19:41
4

It's good that you have the meeting with both of your PhD supervisors. You should listen to them more than anyone here. That being said, here are my two cents.

I disagree with the other answer by Significance: it's not the case that you have nothing to lose: a single author paper can potentially carry much more weight on your CV than a two author paper. It varies a lot by field as to how much "credit" one gets for being on a paper with n authors. Sometimes it is almost independent of n, and sometimes it is more like 1/n. In some fields, there can be a significant advantage for early career researchers to have single author papers, since it demonstrates their independence (this is partly true in theoretical physics, and I imagine this to be very true in mathematics).

From the way you have described the situation, it sounds like you should the sole author, and the other student would be only mentioned in the acknowledgements. But as you admit, this is only your side of the story, and maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. I would advise you to really try to have a productive meeting with your PhD advisors to sort out the issue, and maybe to also ask the opinion of other senior researchers in your field.

2

I actually didn't know this until I started writing collaborative papers, but it's quite rare that all authors on a manuscript will have contributed exactly equal amounts.

My first collaboration paper had four authors, it was me and one of the other authors that contributed 80% of the content, the other two authors contributed 20% combined and that's being generous.

1

It depends on the scientific field. I think this could be the crux of your problem - in your field perhaps the authorship is more limited, in his (I assume he is CS, because he was coding) it is wider.

In any case I think there are 2 main points here:

  1. "(co)authorship" in science may be much wider term that you are used to. In some fields, where data acquisition is extremely difficult, people who just acquire data are routinely co-authors. In your case, maybe the coding was also difficult part (which you then handled better than him), so there is possibility that it is expected that he is the coauthor. Discussions, ideas, this all may be worthy of an coautorship.
  2. You made a mistake of not communicating with him earlier. Solving his part of work in parallel when he was still working on it, and then saying "my code is better" is absolutely the reason that any future co-authors will look at you with suspicion (this time it was programming, next time it could be data collection, validation, or whatever task you can do better than the coworker).

I'd say, he should be co-author.

You must log in to answer this question.

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