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Researchers might take different paths other than staying in academia after completing their PhD, postdoc or even later. This happens for a number of reasons. The most compelling of all is that there is not enough room for everyone, but it could happen that these people lose interest in research, find a good opportunity in the private sector, or (more often than we'd like) get burnt out.

For a typical researcher, there is a body of work that they have done and is susceptible to be published by people who they were collaborating with after they have left. However -beyond possible personal satisfaction- they do not have the motivation or time to publish this work anymore. This leads to poor communication between the authors that stay and the person that left, usually motivated by the latter not replying (perhaps reading) emails concerning the work or taking too long to do so. These people will usually be fine with having their names on a new publication even without the need to go through the manuscript before submission (this might also be true for reckless researchers in general, but that's another story...) because they might not be concerned about their (former) career in academia anymore.

How should this situation be dealt with? Is it ethical to submit a paper when a coauthor that left academia has not actively taken part in the preparation/proof reading of the manuscript, considering he/she has contributed significantly to the work?

  • 1
    For the record, my opinion is "Yes, it is ethical", and could be similar to publishing with the name of someone who has recently passed among the other coauthors. I'm interested in other opinions and what is the consensus, if there is one. – Miguel Oct 22 '14 at 8:08
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First of all, it doesn't matter where, how, or even if a person is employed. Science can be done by anyone, anywhere, "academia" or not. Assuming the person has made significant contribution by the standards of your field, the only things that matter are:

  1. Is it possible to contact them?
  2. Do they want to be an author?

If they have contributed significantly and want to be an author, it is dishonest to not list them as an author. If they've dropped out of research entirely, you may find yourself doing the writing work without their help, but they still should be an author. If you can't contact them, err on the side of inclusion.

In fact, this is a place where I disagree with the letter of the Vancouver Protocol, which states that somebody can only be an author if they are significantly involved with preparation of the manuscript. The spirit of the Vancouver Protocol is to prevent "gift authorship" and other unethical types of inclusion. Imagine, however, writing an acknowledgement that says: "John Smith did all of the experimental work, but the long hours burned him out, so he left for a job at Netflix and we cut him out of the author list." To me, at least, this feels like denying credit inappropriately.

  • Although I agree with your general answer, I don't fully agree with your "Science can be done by anyone, anywhere, "academia" or not": doing science in this context could mean spending long hours doing a hard job that you are not paid for in your own free time. I like to think that we scientists also have the right to a life outside the office! – Miguel Oct 22 '14 at 11:55
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    @Miguel Just because science can be done by anyone doesn't mean it has to. People can do science in their free time. They can also choose to drop out, but you shouldn't drop them from the co-author list just because they've dropped out. – jakebeal Oct 22 '14 at 12:04
  • (wrt. Vancouver) IMHO preparing the manuscript is not only the process of putting together a document. The work before that (DoE, experiments, data analysis, etc) is a necessary step in the manuscript preparation: there wouldn't be anything to write about otherwise. – cbeleites supports Monica Oct 22 '14 at 12:46
  • @jakebeal Yes, I agree with you. What I meant is that one should not expect someone who left to be willing to spare their free time finishing papers up. – Miguel Oct 22 '14 at 13:05
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    @cbeleites The Vancouver Protocol makes a difference between the generation/analysis of data and the writing up process. Therefore, if someone is not part of the writing up process he should not (according to this protocol) be a coauthor. And here I strongly disagree (this would mean that most papers written by Erdős he shouldn't have been an author). Maybe it works for medical research but certainly not for math/other subjects near math. – The Almighty Bob Oct 22 '14 at 15:31
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This is in fact very common especially after the PhD.

How should this situation be dealt with?

First talk to the person. Does he want to be included? Does he want to be an author (possibly even the main author)? Or doesn't he want to have anything to do with it?

Is it ethical to submit a paper when a coauthor that left academia has not actively taken part in the preparation/proof reading of the manuscript, considering he/she has contributed significantly to the work?

In my opinion it is ethical, as long as the coauthor is fine with the published work and the fact that he is a coauthor. In addition, anyone that is listed as a coauthor should have contributed in an extend that entitles him to be an author (which is very different in different fields).

If he says: I don't care, just leave my name on it and don't bother me anymore. Than, in my opinion, it is fine to just publish it on your own.

However, if he says: I want to be a part of it and then just vanishes it is another story.

  • If he says: I don't care, just leave my name on it and don't bother me anymore Some journals I know of request that each author actively agree with the submitted manuscript and/or sign the copyright agreement personally. – Cape Code Oct 22 '14 at 16:18
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This leads to poor communication between the authors that stay and the person that left, usually motivated by the latter not replying (perhaps reading) emails concerning the work or taking too long to do so.

Then maybe it is time to think how this communication could be improved. My main idea would be to offer a answer mechanism that basically takes no effort at all. Make sure they know that all you really need is their permission to submit (see below).


has not actively taken part in the preparation/proof reading of the manuscript, considering he/she has contributed significantly to the work?

  • There's no need that one has to change text or something like that in order to become a coauthor, and significant contribution to the work is given here. (Think of a coauthor who thoroughly reads the paper with the intention to improve it but decides that the text he got is fine as it is)

  • But: All coauthors must agree to the submission. So IMHO the minimum communication you need to get is the coauthor's OK with the submission. Whether and to what extent they (proof)read the text or not is their decision. Usually, it is in their interest to read and know what is to be published under their name.
    However, IMHO it is perfectly OK if the coauthor gives you a blank permission (i.e. they state they implicitly trust you wrt. the submission), the same as your signature under a contract is legal even if you chose not to read it before signing.

I'd somehow be inclined to do a phone call that explains that

  • you need their decision whether they want to be named as coauthor,
  • and if so, you need their permission to go ahead,
  • but that it is up to them to decide how much further work they'll want to put in: they already delivered a substantial contribution.

Make clear that you'll email unasked the manuscript so the co-author can file it, but in the end all you need is the statement that they are fine with submitting it.

If you're afraid of loosing contact with someone who's about to leave, discuss the procedure while they're still at hand.

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