The field is chemistry. We had a postdoc in our group who made three members of a series of compounds. He collected data, analyzed it, and wrote a paper (several other members of the group were included as co-authors for their contributions to various analyses).

The postdoc then left the group to take up a junior faculty position in another university.

Subsequently other members of the group (including co-authors of the original paper) synthesized further members of the original series, collected data, analyzed it and are in the process of writing another paper.

The topic of discussion is whether the original postdoc should be included as a co-author?

On the one hand, he did not make the samples, analyze them, or directly contribute to the second paper. All of the work happened after he had left the group. But on the other hand, the second paper is very much a follow-up to the original work, and would probably not have been possible without the work he put in on the project.

Should he be recognized in some way (co-authorship? acknowledgement?) or not?

  • 3
    Did he provide techniques to make the new set of compounds? Develop analytical methods for these general compounds? Were there no conversations/discussions/arguments about the next path to follow? All traces of his contributions vanished when he did? No intellectual contributions to the project in any way? How long has it been since he left? Maybe he should be, and maybe not.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 21:06
  • The techniques used for synthesis are very basic and have been known for decades. The same could be said for the analysis techniques. As far as intellectual contribution to the overall project - yes definitely. He helped write the original funding application and subsequently identified the system in question as being of interest. It is nearly two years since he left the group, but as with any very long-term postdoc, his legacy still lives on in the group!
    – Bob
    Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 21:10
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    The questions were more to stimulate your thinking rather than me needing an answer. These sorts of situations are quite common and can easily be overthought and worried about. When I left my post-doc, certain things were in the process of being finished up, and much of the rest I was happy to leave behind since I had plenty of new work to do. If he left, folks thought 'Hey, this is the next thing to do' and went out and did it, than no, he should not be a co-author. If he contributed a reasonable amount to the work, than he should be.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 21:15
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    Honestly, this sounds exactly like a case for simply citing the original paper the postdoc co-authored. Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 21:23
  • 2
    @StephanKolassa and a case for acknowledgements. Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 22:35

1 Answer 1


There are three distinct levels of credit that the former postdoc might be given, depending on their level of contribution to each particular new publication. In order of increasing significance, these are:

  1. Citation. The postdoc has done significant prior work for these papers, and so clearly this prior work must be cited.
  2. Acknowledgement. If the postdoc contributed materially to the new paper, but not enough to merit authorship, then acknowledgement is the typical compromise "middle ground."
  3. Authorship (though not in one of the "privileged positions" such as first author or last author, if they are held significant in the particular subfield).

The boundary between citation and acknowledgement is usually pretty straightforward: did the individual make any contribution that significantly aided the new work beyond providing nice, clear explanations of the content of their publications? If not, then merely citing should be sufficient.

The boundary between acknowledgement and authorship is extremely field dependent, and moreover often affected strongly by the subfield. With ethical and trusted colleagues, the best way to navigate this question is often simply to have an open discussion together about where and how to draw this boundary.


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