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A collaborator sent me an abstract he's submitting to a conference, listing me as a co-author (middle position, implying not a major contribution). It's for a conference presentation, not a manuscript, and it will not be published in e.g. a supplement or anything like that.

I've spent a fair bit of time with him discussing and planning the project, I'm listed as a co-PI on the grant, and I expect to provide important contributions later in the project, but at this point I haven't specifically contributed, in any hands-on way, to the exact work described in the abstract.

I thanked him, made some minor suggestions about the abstract, and suggested that he didn't need to include me as I hadn't contributed enough yet. He replied saying that he was happy to include me.

The work is fine and I have no concerns or reservations about it. We're roughly at equal career stages and neither of us is new, so neither of us is looking for extra prestige etc. If we cared about fine balances, I'm probably helping him more than he's helping me in the project, but I'm happy to do it. I have made significant contributions to the overall experimental design and planning, and it's not ridiculous to be an author, but it is for a smaller contribution than I consider authorship-worthy.

Should I continue to battle to be taken off the authorship?

  • Are you asking if you should be listed as author or what you need to do to be taken off as co-author? – Ric Jan 28 '16 at 17:20
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    @Ric the impression that I get is that OP is asking an etiquette question, how much should OP object to authorship when OP feels s/he hasn't contributed enough to deserve it. Although for the record, it sounds like OP has contributed if s/he's co-PI on the grant :) – la femme cosmique Jan 28 '16 at 17:40
  • Yes, as @samanthapants says, it's a question of how hard I should insist on having my name removed. – iayork Jan 28 '16 at 18:10
  • @iayork Are conference presentations a big deal in your field? In many fields they don't really count for much. They are good for networking and getting feedback, but they don't contribute to academic evaluations. Of course in other fields, conferences are very important to academic evaluations. – Jeromy Anglim Jan 29 '16 at 5:31
  • Look at the problem from the other side. How would your collaborator feel about not including you? – silvado Jan 29 '16 at 9:09
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My answer is based on experience in the field of applied mathematics. I'm assuming (as stated in the question) that there is no written publication involved -- just a talk.

Don't worry about claiming unmerited credit

You have made some contribution. Coauthorship on a conference presentation carries almost zero significance for purposes of evaluation. It's not something you list on your CV, no matter how "early career" you are. Usually, if you are not already well-known and the results are not earth-shattering, then nobody will even remember, five minutes after the talk, that you were a co-author.

When to insist on being removed

Obviously, coauthorship of the talk has some significance to you and to the presenter. Since the presenter has already made it clear that he wishes to include you as coauthor, I would only insist on being taken off if:

  • The scientific work or the quality of the talk is so bad that you think it will reflect negatively on you; or
  • Your involvement is so minimal that you couldn't say anything interesting about the project (if asked by someone who attended the talk).

It doesn't sound like either of these conditions apply, so my advice is to let it go.

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    Coauthorship on a conference presentation carries almost zero significance — ...except, as usual, in computer science, where conference papers are the primary venue for peer-reviewed research. – JeffE Jan 29 '16 at 13:10
  • @JeffE I'll clarify -- the OP stated explicitly that there was no publication. Even in applied math, a conference publication has some (albeit small) significance, and I would apply higher standards of contribution for coauthorship. In CS, I believe that if there is no publication (unusual!) then it's still almost zero significance, right? – David Ketcheson Jan 29 '16 at 16:41
  • Right. Without a publication, "coauthorship" in a talk is insignificant. – JeffE Jan 29 '16 at 23:03
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I am relatively new to science so my answer is from a perspective of a young scientist. It seems to me you contributed enough to be one of the authors so you certainly can be included. Sometimes a beginner can spend months working on something and accomplish less than an experienced scientist can contribute within a few minutes by a good comment or suggestion. Ultimately, it is the results that count, not the amount of time and effort spent.

If you also happen to be an expert in what the conference presentation is about, then you should be included as one of the authors. On top of acknowledging your contribution to the research, it tells everyone that there is another scientist out there who knows a lot about the particular subject. Other scientists and students can then contact you for advice, recommend you as a reviewer, or even choose you to be their PhD supervisor. So excluding yourself from authors may also seem a bit unethical as hiding your expertise from the world.

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This feels like a question of ethics rather than just etiquette, because based on etiquette it's somewhat expected that people offer co-authorship to those who in their eyes spend a significant amount of time and effort on the project, whereas you are asking whether it is ethical to not protest being a co-author when you do not feel you have contributed enough to deserve it.

Since it's subjective, you could also ask other people in your area whether they think it's reasonable for you to be a co-author. If they do, then since you also think you have contributed a fair bit of time and effort, then I don't think you have a moral obligation to get yourself removed from the authorship, despite it being less than what you feel deserves it.

After all, your main moral obligation is not to give a false impression due to appearing as a co-author, so if people generally have the correct impression then there is no ethical issue, in my opinion. Your viewpoint may differ, in which case you should just do whatever you think is right.

Note that if I were your collaborator in question, I would feel that anyone who contributed a non-trivial part deserves to be a co-author, but at the same time I would respect their wishes if they insist on not being named. That said, your collaborator may be different, or find it uncomfortable to exclude you, which you've to take into account as well.

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Besides ethics, another thing to consider in insisting on being taken off the author list is the "human factor". In general (or at least judging from my limited experience), refusing to be listed as co-author implies that you want to distance yourself (esp. in the context of a more collectivist culture), either because you find the research quality unacceptable to your standard, or because you do not wish to be academically associated with colleagues that have dubious reputations. Of course, as you explained in the question, this is not the real reason in this case. But the problem is, your collaborator offered you authorship because he felt that you had contributed enough (and judging from his reply he was not persuaded by your reason). Thus your refusal could very likely be interpreted as a gesture to distance yourself. If conferences are not a big deal in your field, this could be especially irritating to your collaborator (regardless of whether such feelings are justified) if you insist on what at most seems like a minor ethical breach.

In sum, you should consider the bigger cultural context, general practice in your field, your collaborator's personality, and your communication skill in making the decision.

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Here is a simple perspective on the matter:

Co-authorship implies a contribution to the work, which doesn't necessarily mean adding actual data or making figures for the paper and so on. If your colleague feels that the discussion with you was productive and helped his process in understanding the problem and coming up with a solution, then I imagine he wants to list you as an author.

Most of the work towards a scientific publication happens in our head, so contributions to our thoughts need to be equally acknowledged and recognised as the more practical ones.

Although, at the end of the day, it really comes to the individual sensibility about authorship. If you feel like you shouldn't be in the list, it's fair for you to ask to be pulled from it.

Hope this helps.

Cheers, Andrea

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