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I will shortly be giving a seminar presentation on a research project that I worked on with collaborators X, Y and Z. We have not yet submitted our paper for publication, and one question we have yet to resolve is the authorship - it is not yet decided whether Z will be a coauthor on the paper.

(The reason is perhaps the reverse of what you might guess: Z doesn't think his contributions were sufficient to deserve authorship, but others of us think that they were. We are still debating this with Z, and it will probably not be resolved before my talk.)

In my talk, I would of course like to give credit to my collaborators. The usual way would be to begin the talk by stating that "this is joint work with [list names of coauthors]". But I wonder whether to include Z in this list.

If I mention that this is joint work with X, Y and Z, then the members of my audience would normally expect to see Z as a coauthor on the paper when it is published. If we end up not including him as an author, they may think that something strange is going on - like maybe we improperly denied him authorship, or he withdrew from the project over doubts about its quality.

But if I don't mention Z, I will feel like I am denying him credit for his contributions. And I think it would be inappropriate to explain to my audience that Z's authorship status is undecided - the debate is a private matter among us collaborators.

Is there a good way out of this dilemma (or maybe trilemma)?

  • 1
    I have said in a talk something like "this may be joint work with Z." In your case, I might say something like "joint with X and Y, with help from Z" or "joint with X, Y (and Z)." – Kimball Aug 30 '15 at 17:22
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Z's name, I am sure, will be on the paper as an acknowledgement at least, even if not as an author. With that in mind, you could probably quite comfortably put Z's name up as a contributor without worrying about misleading the audience.

In some fields, this is made easier by a tradition of having an acknowledgements slide rather than putting up multiple names as authors on the first slide. In this model, only the speaker goes on the title slide, and everybody else worth mentioning goes in the acknowledgements slide (typically the last slide, which stays up during questions), with no particular distinction being made between levels of contribution. If this is accepted in your field it can give you a neat manner of sidestepping the question.

  • I think that in some fields, Having on the first slide "X, joint with Y and Z" works well, too, especially if X is both preparing the slides and talking. – yo' Aug 31 '15 at 12:23
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In a talk you report on work done, not (directly) on the contents of a paper. Since Z was involved in the work you are reporting on in a way that you find significant, you should certainly mention him.

When you are giving the talk it will not be (sorry to say) strictly guaranteed that there will ever be a submittable paper at all, and it is certainly not guaranteed that Z's name will be absent as a coauthor. By the way, if you feel strongly that Z should be a coauthor, you should continue to discuss this with Z (not "debate"; the goal here is for all parties to completely understand each other). If in the end Z does not appear as a coauthor, then as @jakebeal writes you should acknowledge Z in your paper. When someone has made significant contributions, the best kind of acknowledgment documents those contributions (or at least the most significant ones).

I think that's all you need to do and all you can do. I briefly kicked around the idea that you might mention in the paper that Z declined coauthorship, but then as now that won't be public business. It is also potentially embarrassing / paternalistic to Z. After your full discussion you will be confident that Z knows the possible ramifications, both positive and negative, of declining coauthorship.

Upon seeing the paper, might some portion of the room's worth of people who saw and remembered your talk wonder why Z isn't a coauthor and perhaps even speculate that Z got shafted? Yes, that could happen! Academics, like most people everywhere, turn out to be quite interested in stuff like that: almost no event is too small to be discussed behind one's office door, in the evening at a local bar, or into the night at a party at someone's house. But just add that to the list of stuff they're wondering about U, X, Y, Z and all the other letters. If they really care, they will ask. If it's all good among the four of you, it will have to be good enough for everyone else.

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The talk is yours. Put e.g. a slide at the start listing the people who worked on this, stating that you are reporting preliminary results.

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