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While looking at this Science paper, I noticed that a few of the authors have a lot of affiliations: the first author has five affiliations, including four different departments or programs at Harvard University, and the last author has seven, all of them at Harvard University:

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I consider it immoderate, as I cannot imagine that each author has such strong links to so many workplaces (imagine what their typical week looks like, changing desk every two hours!). However, it was published in a highly-respected (and highly-watched) journal, meaning it probably is an accepted practice.

So, what is the criterion for affiliations? How can one end up with 7 different departments at the same university?

  • PhD students who are not employed at a university may never visit the university they are attached to, but still report it as a secondary affiliation for bureaucratic reasons. – gerrit Sep 26 '12 at 21:51
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The general criterion is that you must list your primary affiliation or any institution that is providing essential funding/resources, and you may list any institution that has given you a relevant appointment (which could be called many things if it's not a real job: affiliate faculty, courtesy appointment, visiting position, consulting faculty, etc.).

In practice, the way it works is that some people collect enormous numbers of affiliations through great popularity: every department wants these people to come and interact, so they all offer appointments. (When this happens, it's hard for the popular people to turn down the invitations, out of fear of causing offense, so they end up with a lot of affiliations.) Other people deliberately try to accumulate as many appointments as possible, to show off how popular or interdisciplinary they are, and they achieve this by going around asking for appointments. (And they often get them, since even if you aren't excited about someone, it's easier to give them a meaningless affiliation than to turn down their request.)

The net result is that there's no way of knowing what it means in any given case, without more information.

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A department is paying something? If YES then the name is on the paper, it's that simple. I think that, one day, I will have to put the name of the coffee shop close to my home since it participated a lot in enhancing the quality of my research.

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    Well, I don't know… first, would paying and contributing in kind be so different? If a department lends desk space, computational resources, whatever, the list would become very long… and somewhat meaninless. If my field (computational chemistry), sources of funding and other in-kind contributions are only acknowledged at the end of the paper. – F'x Sep 26 '12 at 18:26
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    Of course my answer was a kind of caricature. Here, another reason is clearly the fact that this is a science paper. Most lab or department heads are eager to have science (and nature) papers in their annual report ;) – Sylvain Peyronnet Sep 26 '12 at 20:05
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    I would go further — If the author has an official appointment in a department/center/institute, even if it is a courtesy appointment that does not generate income or research funding, they should include that department/center/institute in their affiliation. Lots of faculty in my department have courtesy appointments in other departments; five appointments is really not that extreme. – JeffE Sep 27 '12 at 4:44

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