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The question of whether writing/editing alone merits authorship is already addressed here. This question is about writing and editing with the possibility of minor scientific contributions.

I have been asked to review a draft paper written by a colleague (a more senior PhD student in the same research group), whose native language is not English. The main purpose is to improve the style and grammar of the paper, rather than make substantial comments to the scientific content.

It is possible that I will be able to contribute some science to the paper, however not likely of the "pedagogical oversight" variety that is normally the domain of the last several authors on a ten-author paper.

Should I approach my colleague with the request that I be placed on the author list, only if I can make a reasonable contribution to the science (by way of some substantial comments or extra data analysis)?

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    You may want to consider why you are being asked to edit a multi author paper. It sounds like the co-authors value their time more than yours, which seems rude unless they are going to offer you something in return (e.g., help with stats, data collection, etc.). – StrongBad Sep 23 '14 at 15:23
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    Can you explain why it the current question is not a duplicate of the question you say it is closely related to? – StrongBad Sep 23 '14 at 15:24
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    I've edited the question to focus on the part that's different (per your comment), and remove the part that's already covered in the linked question. – ff524 Sep 23 '14 at 15:43
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    @Moriarty: So one of the current coauthors is the only native English speaker and also scientifically junior to the other authors? I would think that would make that coauthor precisely the right person to do what you are being asked to do. If someone's scientific understanding of a paper is so minimal that they cannot be trusted to edit it for style and grammar, how can they be a coauthor? (What did they do?) – Pete L. Clark Sep 24 '14 at 5:09
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The short answer is: it should not. But the reality is some think it should. Since there is no law that dictates authorship the closest to an answer is to look at the Vancouver Protocol and derivatives here exemplified by the ICMJE (Internationa l Committee of Medical Journal Editors) which defines an author as follows:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND

  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

With these guidelines in mind many co-authorships would disappear but it becomes quite clear that help with language simply is not enough for co-authorship.

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    I would view a significant revision of the work as a substantial contribution the interpretation of the data. If I write the interpretation of the data, I certainly contributed to it. – Oswald Veblen Sep 24 '14 at 10:54
  • @OswaldVeblen Note the emphasis: all 4 criteria should apply. – Lilienthal Sep 24 '14 at 13:46
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    Yes, I am saying that significant editing would satisfy the first two. The third and fourth are trivial. @Lilienthal – Oswald Veblen Sep 24 '14 at 13:51
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I have the feeling this may be field dependent. In my field/experience (biological science/bioinformatics) people that are asked to help with English do not get co-authorship. Indeed, in many journals where the contribution to the manuscript has to be stated, editing of manuscripts is not considered as enough contribution to warrant co-authorship. Most of the time the person that edited the manuscript ends up in the acknowledgements. That being said, I know also of cases in this field where the person editing the English would get systematically a place in the list of authors.

Personally, if I ask someone to check the English, I would not feel comfortable if the changes are substantial. The manuscript writing is critical for the work to stand a chance of being published and in such case I would most likely offer co-authorship. If the changes are minor then I will just include him/her in the acknowledgements section. At any rate, it is an important thing to discuss with your colleague before accepting the task of editing the manuscript.

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    I think this isn't (or shouldn't) be field-dependent, but I agree with the rest. I've edited several papers for grammar and style and I expect at most an acknowledgement, not co-authorship. This is also why I don't volunteer to do much editing for grammar or style---there's nothing in it for me. – shane Sep 23 '14 at 15:38
  • I have found this to be true as well (my field is Physics) - contributing something to the actual scientific purpose of the paper warrants co-authorship, grammar etc fixups warrant acknowledgement. – user21984 Sep 23 '14 at 15:41
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    @shane it's a fool who offers to do such a task, but a known grammarian and pedant who gets asked ;). Perhaps I need to learn to say "no", but he is a close colleague so helping each other out is just what we do. We also share the same primary adviser. – Moriarty Sep 23 '14 at 15:42
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    @ddiez When I studied in Europe, I got approached a lot to do copyediting. I just told people my fees. It's like being a medical doctor and having people coming up to you to ask for free medical advice all the time. The only solution is to start sending invoices. – shane Sep 23 '14 at 15:50
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    Why shouldn't it be field-dependent? To take extremes: in experimental medical research, one already has research products (e.g. research protocols, data, and numerical results of statistical analysis) independent of the final paper. In philosophy research, the only product is the paper itself, and it's not really possible to separate the idea of the research paper from the actual words of the research paper. In the first case, significant editing might not warrant authorship; in the second, it might indeed. I don't see any way to find a one-size-fits-all solution. @shane – Oswald Veblen Sep 24 '14 at 11:14
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You don't say (here) what field you're in. I suppose that by doing this you intend to invite answers from different fields.

In my own field of mathematics, it would be quite strange for someone to be added as a coauthor primarily for their editing work.

Nevertheless I had a situation recently where I did substantially edit and rewrite a paper in which I was not an author. (I think this is already a bit unusual, but it's hard to know for sure.) In addition to the writing I included a small amount of content: "minor scientific contributions" covers it rather well, actually. Towards the end of the process I was offered coauthorship on the paper. I appreciated the offer but turned it down immediately: though I had contributed to the writing of the paper and contributed some mathematical content, the amount of mathematical content I had contributed was much less than that of the named authors. My perspective was, honestly, that they had already done the work but were having trouble writing it up in a way that would make it publishable in a good journal in a reasonable amount of time. To me, a good rule of thumb is that if subtracting your contribution would result in a paper which (i) still exists and (ii) could -- with additional routine work -- be submitted to the same journal, then your contribution was not sufficiently substantial to warrant coauthorship. In the case at hand, a description my contributions to the paper appears in the acknowledgments...written by me!

There is another way to look at it that in my case made me even more convinced that I did the right thing. When contemplating adding an author, ask yourself what that person would gain by being added versus what the other authors would lose. In my case I would gain at most one more publication -- in fact, the third of a series in which I was a coauthor (the most senior one) on the first two. The two student coauthors would lose the prestige of having written a nice paper which does not have a faculty coauthor....as they deserve, because they did more than 95% of the mathematics of the paper on their own, without any guidance or direction from me. Adding myself as a coauthor would be undermining my own future plans, as I have and will again in the future talk about this work when recommending these students. But even if I was just a postdoc or a more senior grad student, fundamentally speaking how much credit can I get by being an author of a paper when as soon as anyone asks me about it I will feel honorbound to describe the minimal nature of my contributions?

I hope that by the end I have waded back into a point which is relevant to your question. Academics should not be in the business of maximizing the number of papers which appear with our name on them. I don't know of any academic field where this is really the route to substantial academic success: you get hired for the actual strength of your work, not the number of your papers. Adding yourself as an author to a paper that you mostly just copyedited and then made some minor comments from a position of lesser insight/expertise than some of the named authors: in so doing you're not actually adding strength to you research program, are you? Anyone who might have been impressed with the paper is going to be distinctly disappointed when they learn what you actually did, right? I know that in some fields (much more than mine...) the quantitative standards for publication are very high: in some branches of engineering and the sciences you most certainly want to ensure that you are writing a lot of papers rapidly. But then you want to really be involved in the work of those papers, right? We've seen on this site how easy it is to publish papers in the absence of actual academic content. It's too easy to be a plausible route to legitimate academic success in most parts of the world.

As I mentioned in a comment, you said that the one coauthor who is a native English speaker is the most junior author on the paper (a master's student). Well, that confluence of lightness of intellectual contribution and superior skill in this other domain makes that student the perfect person to do the copyediting, it seems to me. If their understanding is so limited that they can't even be trusted to edit the paper for non-content related issues, then I am worried about their being listed as an author at all: what could they have done?

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    Note that in some fields, "having written a nice paper which does not have a faculty coauthor" does not carry more prestige for students than co-authoring with faculty. And in some fields, depending on your reputation (current or future) in a particular area, adding your name to a paper can increase its reputation and reach, in which case the other authors would benefit from it. So weighing the relative gain to you/loss to other authors is not always a good way to make this kind of decision. (I agree with the rest of this answer, though.) – ff524 Sep 24 '14 at 6:04
  • It seems the posture/attitude of mathematics with regards to authorship is admirably sane (I assume here you are to some extent speaking for prevailing practice in the mathematical community). This is also corroborated by discussions I've seen in places like Math Overflow. However, this is most definitely not the case in most academic areas. In most cases I'm aware of outside maths, the idea is indeed to get your name on as many publications as possible, by hook or by crook. – Faheem Mitha Sep 24 '14 at 8:40
  • "Senior" academics consider they are entitled to co-authorship on papers authored by "subordinates" under any circumstances, and are outraged if anyone suggests otherwise. – Faheem Mitha Sep 24 '14 at 8:41
  • Although discipline is relevant to the question, it (ideally!) shouldn't be. For that reason, the omission that I'm in astronomy is deliberate. – Moriarty Sep 24 '14 at 9:57
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    I do think the scenario here is an example of what I think is the best practice in math: based on your contributions, although they were somewhat minor, you were offered authorship. This allowed you to make the personal decision about whether to be an author, rather than having that decision made for you. – Oswald Veblen Sep 24 '14 at 11:05

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