The paper in question is based on research my collaborator X and I did together some months ago. Our respective contributions to the research were around 2/3 for X and 1/3 for me. In terms of the actual text of the paper, X wrote about 1/3 and I wrote about 2/3.

During the writing of the actual paper, X decided to leave academia. I can no longer contact X: emails to the old address go undelivered and there is no forwarding address for physical mail. Attempts to find X through web searches and contact X through mutual acquaintances have been unsuccessful. X has thus not seen a complete draft of the paper, only the sections that were actually written by X.

In these circumstances, is it ethical for me to submit a paper with X's name on it, without a complete version having been checked by X and without X's approval?

If I do submit it, should it contain a note of the fact that X was unable to check the completed paper? I am considering the hypothetical possibility that I could have inadvertently introduced an error while writing the complete paper (and such an error might survive through peer-review and into publication); responsibility for such an error should be mine alone.

There is no possibility of separating out my contribution into a separate paper. Either the work has to be published as a whole or not at all.

I am in a field where alphabetical listing of authors is standard, so there is no question of the order of authors.

  • 26
    This is a very good question. Note that many journals require all authors to personally sign a statement to the fact that they read and approved the final manuscript, so you couldn't submit here at all, unless you decided to publish without X and maybe attribute X's contribution in a prominent place - more prominent than the acknowledgements, certainly. May 28, 2014 at 10:41
  • 6
    @Trylks I did think of the parallel with posthumous publications. This situation is rather different: X may at some indefinite point decide to return to academia, or at least resume research, so this paper may have some effect on X's future. (See my point about a hypothetical error.) And from a legal standpoint, there is another difference: a dead co-author's heir could sign copyright release forms etc.; an uncontactable co-author cannot.
    – Senex
    May 28, 2014 at 12:43
  • 23
    I am fairly baffled that in 2014 you can truly not succeed in tracking down someone that you were in contact with one year ago and who had an academic position. I assume your tracking down process including talking to someone in X's previous department, e.g. his thesis supervisor (if he was a student) or his department head (if he was faculty). Was the answer really "We're sorry, X has vanished without a trace"?? (X doesn't have a cell phone, a facebook account, a gmail account??) May 28, 2014 at 14:13
  • 12
    @PeteL.Clark As far as I know, no one knows where X is, but X did announce to me and other colleagues an intention of leaving academia. Yes, X was a foreign resident and may have left the country. Some of X's colleagues think that X had become disillusioned with academia, and thus that it is possible that X deliberately cut off contact totally. Personally, I think absent-mindedness is the more likely reason for not leaving forwarding addresses etc.
    – Senex
    May 28, 2014 at 14:45
  • 11
    I think Pete covered the ground pretty throughly, but if your colleague was a foreigner, have you tried talking to the people at your university who handle paperwork for foreigners? The US govt tends to require a lot of information about foreigners when granting visas. They might have a forwarding address or phone numbers or something, maybe in his home country. May 28, 2014 at 15:19

11 Answers 11


This is actually the subject of a blog post over at Adventures in Ethics and Science. In general, it seems that several possible actions are defensible. However, whatever action you take, you should make sure to

  1. Document your efforts to reach your co-author
  2. Let the journal editor know at submission time what's going on

RetractionWatch is full of stories papers that were retracted for having been submitted without a co-author's knowledge. These steps can help you avoid that fate.

Given you've done 1 and 2, your choices are then:

  • Include the co-author, despite the radio silence, or
  • Acknowledge the co-author

The problem with the first choice is that authorship signals endorsement of the paper's contents. If the missing co-author has not read and endorsed the final contents, having his name as an author is misleading. However, you can resolve this to some degree by including an explicit statement (e.g., in a footnote) that Author X could not be reached to review the final version of the paper.

The applicability of this choice also depends very much on the journal’s official policy and what responsibilities each of the persons listed as authors have met. I'm sure we can all agree that it would be out of bounds to forge the missing co-author's signature on a form that needs to be submitted with the manuscript! However, even if you have to sign a form stating that all the authors have reviewed the manuscript, you shouldn't do that either - tell the editor you can't, and explain why.

The problem with the second choice (acknowledgement instead of authorship) is that the missing co-author has presumably done enough to warrant authorship of the paper. However, you could argue that an essential part of authorship is to see the paper through to publication - and that if the missing co-author has not done that, he does not deserve authorship. Again, if you do this, you must clearly document the author's contribution in the acknowledgements and alert the editor.

Which action you choose will probably depend on authorship standards in your field and the outcome of your conversation with the editor. Whatever the result, make sure you clearly and honestly communicate the contributions (and lack thereof) of the missing co-author to both your readers and the editor.

  • 26
    This is a typically clear and thorough answer. "However, you could argue that an essential part of authorship is to see the paper through to publication - and that if the missing co-author has not done that, he does not deserve authorship." Yes, I argue that. I don't think this part is field specific or even particular to academia: if you're engaged in something jointly with someone else, and then you somehow disappear completely and are unable to be contacted for the indefinite future (an impressive feat, nowadays), then you have to expect that the other person will proceed without you. May 28, 2014 at 15:24
  • 14
    I strongly disagree with "However, you could argue that an essential part of authorship is to see the paper through to publication - and that if the missing co-author has not done that, he does not deserve authorship.". First, it is matter of field (think about experimental fields where there are many authors; but for n>3 rarely everyone is writing the paper). Second, I can't imagine saying to anyone "So, you don't want to write a paper on our results? Fine, I will do it myself, being the sole author". Writing is vital part of research, but not the only one. (Otherwise, a great answer!) May 29, 2014 at 11:18
  • 3
    @Piotr Perhaps this was not clear, but "seeing a paper through to publication" doesn't mean writing it - it just means being available to clarify things to the other authors about your parts, reviewing drafts, signing any paperwork that authors must sign, etc.
    – ff524
    May 29, 2014 at 13:07
  • 5
    @ff524 I see. For me it is the opposite (i.e. unless I find later a paper of quality below my expectations); actually, while undergrad two times I was informed of authorship after acceptance (back then: experimental physics; and I was happy). Moreover, for career stuff it is easier to say "Well, it uses my results but I was in coma, see this footnote." than "Hey, but I am the author of this great finding! See, I am in the acknowledgements!". Especially since most papers carry non-negative weight. However, for the OP's particular case it is also possible that author prefers to appear nowhere... May 29, 2014 at 15:08
  • 1
    @PiotrMigdal I see it the other way. A paper to which I contributed but was only acknowledged won't help my career, but won't have a negative effect either. If someone publishes something with my name on it, it may help me (if it's good) but if it's low-quality, false, or misleading, it will negatively affect my reputation (even with the disclaimer). I don't want to take that risk.
    – ff524
    May 29, 2014 at 15:39

If you can document that you have made a good faith effort to find X, and have been unsuccessful, I would think you would be covered on both the legal and ethical fronts. There's no reason for all your work to go to waste just because your associate has gone into hiding. If the publisher/journal won't accept them as an author without their signed release, publish it under your name and very prominently acknowledge their contribution (as a special note in the introduction). Make sure the journal is aware of this special case, so neither you nor the journal are blind-sided if X shows up. Note that you have been unable to contact them and would appreciate hearing from anyone who can reach them (and, needless to say, readers will likely have a hard time contacting them).

If you decide to publish "jointly", explain in an introductory note that X did not review the final work, any errors are solely yours, etc.

Do you know for sure that they simply left academia, and didn't in fact die? Have you checked "white pages" phone listings? Have you checked online death records?


The story makes me a bit concerned about the safety and well-being of X. I might try to vocalize that concern to X's former department head and see whether she has anything to say to allay it. If really not, then perhaps you might try: "I am concerned that X might be a missing person. Would you be willing to help me contact the authorities about this?"

Somehow though the vibe I am getting from you is that X really just definitely left his own career and does not care or want to be contacted by his former colleagues. Academics are famous for being a little distant, but truly making oneself unable to be reached is quite unprofessional and even irresponsible behavior. How much can you worry about the future academic career of someone who is willing to sever all contact with his former coworkers for the indefinite future? It is very strange and by the way disrespectful to you: did he say anything to you about your project or did he just completely leave you in the lurch?

Let's hope that X is still alive and well, but he certainly sounds like he had a dramatic "death" in the sense that Paul Erdos used the word: i.e., he has brusquely left the academic community. So I think that dealing with this as you would if he were actually deceased sounds strange at first but is a reasonable way to go.

In this circumstance I would do as @Dirk suggested: don't put X's name on the paper. Dead men don't write papers. Less preciously, there is an inherent dishonesty in listing someone as a coauthor in this situation. Rather you should carefully explain the part of the work that was due to X and that you unfortunately lost all contact with X and are forced to write and submit the paper on your own. Should you expect to have to explain yourself -- and in particular, explain that you did try the things that everyone (including me) thinks should have worked to reach X -- to a journal editor? Yes, absolutely. Is this going to create additional hardship for you in trying to publish the paper? Yes, it certainly might. It's kind of a crappy situation for you, honestly. But I don't see what else to do.

  • 22
    The story makes me a bit concerned about the safety and well-being of X. — I know people who left academia with both their head and their middle fingers held high, and (sadly) other people who committed suicide rather than leave academia, so I'm not as concerned about his safety. His decision to abruptly end his academic career does not necessarily indicate a desire to harm himself personally; it could mean exactly the opposite.
    – JeffE
    May 28, 2014 at 15:04
  • 4
    "His decision to abruptly end his academic career does not necessarily indicate a desire to harm himself personally; it could mean exactly the opposite." Sure. When I don't hear from someone for a while, I start to wonder whether they might have fallen into a ditch somewhere...but only a bit. I agree that it is most likely that this person has simply slammed the door on his previous professional life. But still you wonder...that's why I suggested talking about it to X's former colleagues. If they're not alarmed in any way, it would allay my concerns. May 28, 2014 at 15:09
  • 8
    I had a student who left the lab abruptly and couldn't be reached at all for some five months. I discovered that he had stolen some expensive equipment from the lab, and thus was evading my efforts to contact him.
    – ff524
    May 28, 2014 at 15:12
  • 2
    Coincidental aside: Your mention of Erdos and dead men writing papers reminded me of this, which I first ran across some years ago. I do not know any details behind it, but I suppose if there were one person prolific enough to be publishing papers 7 years after their own passing, it would be him.
    – cardinal
    May 29, 2014 at 1:36
  • 2
    @cardinal: I believe that Erdos himself would have said that he has "left"; he specifically used "died" to mean "stopped doing mathematics". But you are right that sometimes the deceased appear as coauthors of papers, Erdos more than most, so what I said used some poetic license. However, putting a deceased person's name on a paper is evidently a delicate undertaking, and in some ways the OP's situation is even more delicate: at least the deceased are guaranteed (source: B. Franklin, 1789) not to show up later and complain, as the OP is (reasonably) a bit concerned about. May 29, 2014 at 1:39

[This was mentioned as a comment to the question, but since a couple of people thought it useful, I'm promoting it to an answer.]

If your colleague X was a foreigner, try contacting the people at his university (usually a separate office or division) who handle paperwork for foreigners. The US govt tends to require a lot of information about foreigners when granting visas. They might have a forwarding address or phone numbers or something, maybe in his home country. You might have to go through X's ex-department if the people performing these services refuse to give information, citing confidentiality issues.

As far as whether to include X's name as a co-author, add him to acknowledgements, or omit him entirely, I would lean towards not including him as a co-author, but including him in the acknowledgements, and adding a note that you would like to have him as a co-author, but don't feel you can reasonably do so; and including a brief description of the circumstances. It is unclear whether acknowledgements require permission, in fact I asked a question about exactly that some time ago. Generally, I play it safe and ask for permission, but under the circumstances, I don't think anyone will blame you if you don't.


Typically, yes, it would be unethical. You should always allow co-authors the chance to review a paper.

However, this case of missing co-author is a different situation.. I'm sure if you try harder, you could find X. If you have exhausted all resources and absolutely cannot find X, you might consider bending the "rules" a bit and publish the paper with X's name.

You might also consider contacting the journal editor for their feedback.

  • 3
    Thank you for the answer, but could you expand on "I'm sure if you try harder, you could find X" with any practical suggestions? I'm not sure what else I could try. (A colleague semi-seriously suggested a private detective...)
    – Senex
    May 28, 2014 at 13:57
  • @Senex private detective was going to be my suggestion.
    – Mr.Mindor
    May 28, 2014 at 14:11
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    +1 for "ask the editor" (or editor in chief). If you can't find X, you're going to need the editor's sign-off to proceed without him. May 28, 2014 at 14:41
  • 5
    Given that the co-author has likely left the country, a local private detective would be useless, and a foreign private detective would be difficult or impossible to hire (even if you know what country the co-author disappeared into).
    – JeffE
    May 28, 2014 at 14:59

Your university/department probably has a protocol for investigating research malpractice (ie the people who would be responsible for any disciplinary investigation if the "missing author" made a complaint about the route you eventually choose). I suggest you approach them for advice now. And definitely approach the journal editor for advice - they may have seen this before.

Ethically, there is no perfect solution. One thing to weigh up when considering whether the missing author should be an author: are your results controversial in any way? Do you have any reason to think that the missing author might disagree to any significant extent with what you've written? If so, this should weigh heavily in your ethical analysis of the various options.


I am surprised that a certain issue has not been raised here:


Depending on the country the copyright of his work may either lay with him or the university. If the university owns the copyright for his work than indeed with proper permissions from the publisher and proper acknowledgments it would be quite ethical to publish such a work. If however the author still owns the copyright it would be absolutely illegal to publish his works without his consent. Now, as far as I know most universities handle this quite well and it tends to be a standard clause in any contract, but it is absolutely something you should check as I have heard about universities where this was quite explicitly not the case on an ideological basis (just check your own contract).

Associating X's name without his consent

Another issue that has not been raised is whether it would be ethical to publish X's name in the first place. Personally I am inclined to argue that in case that the copyright lies with the institution and author X has disappeared in such a way that you were not able to find him, it might not be in his best interest to publish his name, nor add any value for you. Now, don't misunderstand, I am not arguing for not mentioning him at all, rather I would refer to an anonymous author in the author list and in the acknowledgements describe the situation without mentioning his name.

  • 5
    If the university holds the copyright then publishing without him would perhaps be legal, but that does not make it ethical. May 29, 2014 at 5:54
  • 1
    @Nate Eldredge: to clear that up, I meant this as an answer in addition to the other answers, not stand alone. I do however think it's unethical to publish X's name without his consent. May 29, 2014 at 11:24

If a co-author had died while a paper was being prepared, I would normally expect to see them continue to be listed, along with a footnote mentioning that fact.

The situation here is slightly more woolly because it requires more explanation and in the case of a death there's no risk that the co-author will reappear and repudiate the work. Nonetheless they seem close enough and a footnote along the lines of "X did A work but was unavailable to contribute to the final draft of this paper" would be appropriate.

As others have said, flagging the situation with the editors and any local ethics committee would certainly be prudent.

  • 3
    "in the case of a death there's no risk that the co-author will reappear and repudiate the work" -- I dunno, they could have placed an affidavit with their attorney brutally dismantling the work and your personal character, to be published on the anniversary of their death ;-) May 29, 2014 at 19:13

I would also say, yes, it is not totally ethical to have X as a co-author if he did not approve the final version. If all attempts to contact X fail, and also you are sure that X left academia for good, it would suggest to mention X's contribution in the acknowledgement in a honest way.

  • 10
    Presenting a joint work as your own is more unethical that including the name of the author who was not accessible to review the paper.
    – Alexandros
    May 28, 2014 at 13:45
  • 2
    @Alexandros I would suggest to extend your view as an answer so that there is space to elaborate a bit more and give reasons. Probably more users share your view than mine…
    – Dirk
    May 28, 2014 at 13:50
  • 2
    @Dirk, expanding his view as an answer wouldn't be answer to the question as the OP never asked about removing the missing co-author's name..
    – derelict
    May 28, 2014 at 14:54

There is, of course, the possibility that the foreign-born author fears problems or retaliation at home if they published. Not knowing the topic, I can't say, but the persecution of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" with a fatwa and death threats springs to mind.

  • This is certainly an interesting idea, but it does not answer the question of whether/how the OP should submit the paper.
    – ff524
    May 29, 2014 at 3:42
  • 2
    Also, if the missing author did not want the paper to be published with his name on it, he could have just told his collaborators as much - I don't see how disappearing without a trace would help.
    – ff524
    May 29, 2014 at 3:44
  • 5
    This is not entirely facetious. I do know of Iranian researchers who have to be very careful how they advertise their joint papers with Israeli coauthors. (But they did tell their Israeli coauthors about their need for discretion.)
    – JeffE
    May 29, 2014 at 4:27
  • 1
    Does not answer the question, but points to an aspect a lot of people might overlook. No reason to downvote this.
    – Zane
    Jun 2, 2014 at 11:29

Can't you just rewrite the article? That is, keep all the ideas, techniques, etc., but produce an entirely new text? That would at least deal completely with the issue of copyright. In that case, you would be the sole author (though you must include a very generous acknowledgment note, for sure).

Even if your article contains experimental data/lengthy calculations, you can reuse that data as long as you remake tables, graphs, etc. as your own work. Again, conspicuous attribution is required.

And speaking as someone who has herself gone away abruptly from a doctoral research position, you should consider that the troubles you are going through right now may very well have been fully foreseen and intended by your MIA colleague. So that if you manage to finally track him down, he may simply refuse to publish or even flat out refuse to talk to you. And he's fully entitled to do so. (Not trying to imply that you mistreated your colleague in any way; I certainly felt mistreated before I left, and if someone ever came looking for me, for whatever reason, I'd tell them to shove it. But in my case I rather doubt anyone will.)

So, the gist of it, as I see it, is that you are fully entitled to use the ideas, data, that is, the substance of the work itself (with very explicit attribution and acknowledgment); but you cannot in any way list him as a coauthor without his formally expressed consent (that would be misrepresentation on your part); and you certainly cannot publish anything he actually wrote while omitting him as an author (which would be plagiarising).

On a final note: Keep in mind that, though he may appear to be missing, it is very possible he is still keeping an eye on whatever your lab/department is doing. If someone from my previous workplace did anything like that to me, I would be sure to be back to give them as much grief as I possibly could.

  • 3
    Rewriting someone's words does not remove their claim to authorship for their other intellectual contributions. (NB: I'm not necessarily arguing that the missing author should be kept as an author, just that rewriting the text does not suffice to remove his claim if he has one.)
    – ff524
    May 29, 2014 at 5:57
  • 1
    @ff524 It certainly is enough, since the new text will by definition not have been authored by the missing person (as long the new phrasing is sufficiently original). You appear to be assuming that the authors are named for their ownership of ideas, which is certainly not the case. If it were, any person whose work you built upon substantially would be entitled to block publication of your article. What I'm suggesting is that the OP treat the joint article he currently has (in whatever state it is) as an unpublished internal tech report and cite it accordingly in his newly written article.
    – laura
    May 29, 2014 at 6:07
  • 6
    In every academic field I'm familiar with, substantial intellectual contributions to the original work a paper describes are considered possible grounds for authorship.
    – ff524
    May 29, 2014 at 6:13
  • There are a lot of extremely negative sentiments in this answer that I do not want to engage. But just one easy thing: the answer seems to assume that the OP and X were in the same department. A careful reading of the OP's comments reveals that this was not the case. May 29, 2014 at 6:22
  • 1
    Yes, you are correct: Possible grounds for authorship, meaning, if that person has contributed significantly to the substance of the work, even if she had not written a single word of the final publication, merits her listing as an author if she so wishes. Which is clearly not the case here. So my proposal at least puts the OP in the clear from a strictly legal standpoint (ie, copyright) and is, at the same time, the most intellectually honest course of action, as it neither misrepresents (only the OP is the author) nor defrauds the other guy, since he is dutifully credited.
    – laura
    May 29, 2014 at 6:25

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