My friend has told me his own story. He's a researcher and he's trying to publish his paper. His supervisor is a Chinese researcher, but they're working in the states. My friend has written all the code and contributed to everything for the project (including writing the paper). However, his supervisor is insisting to add three professors to the authors' contribution. In the contribution, it's clear my friend is merely a software developer while the other authors contribute the ideas, paper and case studies.

My friend isn't very happy because merely implementing an algorithm would not be a good career path for him. More importantly, those three professors did absolutely nothing, but they did indirectly provide funding for the project.

My friend is a fresh PHD graduate. His supervisor is an average post-doc, he's building his own career path as well. The supervisor told my friend it's normal to add unrelated names, something he'd been doing quite lot in China. In fact, he said everything about research in China is about connection. The more high-ranked names you add, the more likely those professors will "pay back" and find someway to promote you or land you a job/project later. He claims that's exactly why nobody cared Tu Yoyyou, before she won the Nobel prize. She was always a brilliant researcher but she didn't know how to use connections to make a better career path for herself.

My friend was further told that he would have a brilliant research career if he allowed himself be a software developer for this project. The professors wouldn't be happy if their names weren't on it. He was told it wouldn't be wise for him to being "blacklisted": it's not what you can do to make you a good researcher, it's about whom you know that distinguish yourself from other researchers.

His supervisor has written the authors' contributors for the three professors and is about to send the paper to a journal.


Is this normal in the Western world and what should he do?

  • 6
    His supervisor is really a postdoc? That's unusual. My experience has always been that PhD students are supervised (directly or indirectly) by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member. Is there not someone more senior overseeing both the student and the postdoc? I'd suggest talking to that person. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 0:01
  • 3
    Also, can you explain what an "author's contribution" is? Are you talking about a section of the paper in which the contributions of each of the authors are described? Finally, what field is this? In some fields, providing money is understood as being sufficient for authorship, in others it isn't. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 0:04
  • 2
    @NateEldredge It's explicitly written in the guideline that providing money wouldn't be intelligent contribution. It's university guideline. I work in the same place so I know.
    – SmallChess
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 0:05
  • 6
    This happens too in the western world, even among top US institutions. It shouldn't, though.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 11:16
  • 1
    I know academia in China and Germany. In both countries this kind of things happen a lot, although in China is is supposedly worse than Germany. Academia is as far as I know much more a game of personal relationships than merits. Sadly.
    – user12956
    Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 10:22

4 Answers 4


I am a postdoc in China, and have been here since almost 2 years. I am looking forwards to leaving mainly because I cannot cope with their cultural ways at work, e.g. how the local academia works. The supervisor mentioned in this question does speak the truth about gift authorships in Chinese science, thus firstly let me acknowledge his sincere contribution and advice. As another answer states clearly, ultimately such decision lies in the hands of the true first author and his/her advisor. However there is the conflict of standards over international ethics and clan-specific ethics. Typically what happens is exactly this: a young researcher gets stuck in a moral dilemma with collaborators and is advised to either abide or walk out. The problem is, too often morally questionable standards are not announced before a project starts and abusers rely on the lateness of the dilemma to push for a win-win situation. Adding to the problem, Mainland Chinese people are culturally prone to speak through contextualised subtle insinuations, leaving a lot of margin for belated misunderstanding when dealing with other cultures.

Surely by this point a decision was already taken on this specific conflict, but I will leave here the main advice to others in potentially similar situation. Gift authorship from my experience seems widespread in Chinese academia. Engaging in scientific collaboration with Mainland China academics is therefore prone to lead to conflicts over ICMJE and similar guidelines on authorships and other aspects. This is not to say gift authorship doesn't take place elsewhere as well, however the local approach tends to be more straightforward and intense than elsewhere (i.e. absolute zero intellectual contribution; numerous added names; openly offended if denied). As I believe supporting parasitic academics rapidly leads to bad quality science and somewhat kills the original meaning in the career for most people involved, I refrain from providing gift authorships as best as possible while always reciting the international guidelines. I hereby recommend other serious colleagues to do and preach the same, even if some conflict ensues.


I think that what you have mentioned is relatively common in China. This view is partially based on my experiences and what I have learned from others but also backed up (a little) by some research. Overall research suggests that networks may be more important in China than in the western world. The concept of guanxi is frequently referenced to explain this. Similarly, based on measures of culture, such as those outlined by Hofstede, China and the west are quite different in terms of power distance and individualism. Specifically, Chinese culture has been argued to lead to Chinese people being (relative to Americans) (i) more clearly divided into social hierarchies (e.g., peoples status has a bigger influence in social setting) and (ii) more focused on working toward group success rather than their own individual success.

From your friend's supervisor's perspective, it makes perfect sense to leverage his network through this form of reciprocity. Basically, he does something for these professors, wins their favour and then expects that they will eventually do something for him in return.As they hold more power then him, they may potentially be able to open doors that otherwise would have remained closed (for example through recommendation letters, or personal influences). Indeed, many of these professors may have acquired their position partially due to their own networks, and similar practices in the past.

I think your friend should accept that this is the way that things will work if he continues to work with this group of researchers. If he is too principled and reliant on autonomy to tolerate this then he will need to leave and work with someone else. On the other hand, if he can tolerate this for a while, he may very well end up being the beneficiary of similar behavior in the future.

  • 6
    It seems that you are advocating that the researcher should violate ethical standards on authorship to which he is bound (both from his institution and from widely accepted international canons). If so, I think that you ought to carefully explain why you believe this is justified, as well as describing the risks involved and why the benefits outweigh them. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 2:01
  • 7
    Hi Nate, thanks for the comment and suggestion. I didn't intend to advocate any particular course of action - just to summarize the potential outcomes. I think that the researcher's decision should be based on their own evaluations of the risks and benefits of these options. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 4:09
  • 3
    I think your question summarizes the cultural background well. However, it fails to explain that gift authorship is misconduct, no matter what the authors' culture says about it. My understanding is that the question is about authorship in western journals, which require the use of western authorship standards. Please revise your answer. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 4:14
  • 4
    @PeterSlattery : I do not agree with the statement "Overall research suggests that networks may be more important in China than in the western world". Do you have any reference to back this? I have seen several times (western) people publishing papers and getting grant just because of "Network". University are having "Networking courses" for PhD and Postdocs. Just because we gave it a fancy name doesn't make it different!!
    – d.putto
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 9:45
  • 1
    Yes, I do. Here is one. "According to Hofstede's (1991) study, students in Hong Kong, who are predominantly ethnic Chinese, tend to have a higher power distance attitude and are more inclined to collectivism. In this context, power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally (Hofstede, 1991)." Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 0:03

I think the current answers are not worded strongly enough.

Going along with this is VERY HARMFUL.

  • Giving a gift in expectation of return makes your friend dependent of these people, whose motivation is already under question.

  • It is rare to point fingers to unsavory scientific practices in public, but people have eyes and ears. Getting associated with a clique that elevates the connections over honest science will tarnish your friend's reputation.

  • Going along gives a little bit more power to the group of people who abuse power. Nobody benefits in the long term.


It is strange that your friend's supervisor has been working in the US for a while, but is unaware of the ethical standards expected there. Clearly, what the supervisor wants to do, is a case of gift authorship, which is unethical. The ICMJE recommends that authorship can be granted only if a person has made substantial intellectual contributions to the work, drafted or revised it for intellectual content, given their final approval for publication, agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work, and be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. Any other form of contribution should not be considered as authorship. To quote from the ICMJE guidelines: "Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged. Examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding; general supervision of a research group or general administrative support...." Your friend should not give his approval on the manuscript. He should explain to the supervisor that this is considered unethical and could even lead to a retraction of the published paper. If this does not work, your friend should try to talk to someone in a higher position of authority.

  • 7
    Sadly, the ethical standards are, in multiple cases, not enforced.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 11:20
  • 2
    Many labs in the US are ethnically homogenous, e.g. all-Chinese labs. This leads to a work environment biased towards alien standards
    – Scientist
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 13:29

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