There's a department at my university where the head of department is routinely put as author on papers he didn't contribute to, and where researchers from overseas who had no input (but who provide funding to the department) are put on papers.

As a pragmatic matter, how should a PhD student respond when they are told to put three names on a paper, when those people didn't contribute? Assume that refusing to put the co-authors on is not an option, because:

  1. There will be bad consequences if they do not, and
  2. This practice is routinely done at a high level, and there is nobody at the university to complain to about it.

This is not a duplicate of this question, because its answer assumes that it is practical for the student to refuse.

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    Obviously, the answer is that she shouldn't say that she can't put them on. However, in my original question (which was changed), I was saying that this is routine practice in the department, and she'll just get squished if she protests, so I was wondering what political or pragmatic options are available to her.
    – user50425
    Mar 8, 2016 at 0:44
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    Please follow these instructions to merge your accounts so that you'll be able to edit your own posts.
    – ff524
    Mar 8, 2016 at 1:49
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    I am not too sure this is a duplicate. As the OP said in the comment, the question is about what political or pragmatic options are available to her, not whether the PhD student should add authors who did not contribute. Knowing it's wrong is one thing. How to counter it is another question.
    – Nobody
    Mar 8, 2016 at 3:07
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    Speak with your dean of research, or whoever is at the top of the research food chain. Get allies from other departments who don't follow this approach. Build a case that emphasizes ethics. Failing all this, leave your program for something legitimate; or just do it and forget about it.
    – ybakos
    Apr 24, 2016 at 20:22

6 Answers 6


The other answers are good already, especially the point that "If you can't change it, do it and move on." I wanted to add that it should be OK to ask a question. You may politely ask a question like

"I wanted to make sure that person A and B shall be added as authors to the paper P. As far as I remember, both people did not contribute to the research or the writing of said paper. However, there may be reasons to add A and B that I do not know and I would be glad to learn them."

It is not impossible that there are fields in which giving funding or providing facilities are accepted reasons to be a coauthor. This may sound strange, but at least if this is agreed upon in the community and the contribution of the different authors can somehow be estimated (e.g. by the order of authors, but I have also seen footnotes explaining different contributions such as "designed research", "performed research") this would be OK.

  • When I see a contribution saying "designed research", I always assumed that there should be more behind it than just providing funding.
    – silvado
    Mar 8, 2016 at 10:23
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    Just giving examples. Actually I don't know if there is some field in which providing funding is a valid reason to be a coauthor.
    – Dirk
    Mar 8, 2016 at 11:02
  • As an extension of the suggested question above, try to quote something from the guidance of the journal. Many will give a description of what is required to merit authorship e.g. here Mar 8, 2016 at 11:05
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    Writing a proposal and successfully getting funding for it involves designing research.
    – gerrit
    Mar 8, 2016 at 11:17
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    If I was insanely rich and build some institutes in fields like astrophysics, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, at various universities for 20 billion $ each and those are all my institutes, although I have no knowledge of any science at all, I'd count as author as well if securing grants is officially agreed upon as contributing to science - which it officially isn't (anymore) according to the "honorary authorship" Wiki article. Otherwise I could claim Nobel prizes etc. due to my honorary authorships of all made breakthroughs in my institutes. To me, only the possibility of this is stupid.
    – Lucas
    Apr 23, 2016 at 14:56

This is a bit field-specific, but in some areas of study most of the credit goes to the first author of the paper. I would say that if it is not possible to refuse, make sure that you are the first author.


I agree with most of the other respondents in that you are stuck. Mitigating this is that authorship beyond the first author is often deprecated (unless you're in a field with alphabetic ordering of authors). In any case, you'll soon graduate (inshallah) and be out of those snake pit.

There is, however, one option: some journals do not allow courtesy co-authors. All authors must have contributed meaningfully to the research in question. If you published in one of those venues, you could ask the journal editor to send you a note to that effect, which you could share with your courtesy co-authors.

This way, it's not you forcing the issue, it's the journal.


Have you thought about engaging these people in some minimal amount of work? For example, arrange to have teleconferences with these "authors" and try to get at least one substantial piece of advice from each of them. If you can do that, the dilemma becomes one of degree rather than substance. Crediting someone as an author when it is unclear whether they contributed sufficiently to the paper is much more of a gray area than when the issue is whether or not they contributed at all.

It can be as easy as giving them a call, saying something like, "Hey, my supervisor asked me to include you as an author. Could you take a look at my curve here and let me know if you think it fits or not? Also, are there any additional papers you think we should mention in our literature review? Thanks!"


This is a dicey situation.

What is your relationship with your advisor like? Have a conversation and try to resist a bit or let him/her know you don't like the idea. Sometimes people try to see what they can get away with but will give up when they are called out on it. Or, ideally this is all a misunderstanding.

Is there an ombudsman or a professor/administrator that you trust somewhere in the university (not necessarily your department)? Try to talk to them and see if they have any advice for you.

If all else fails and you aren't willing to switch advisors or universities, then just do it and move on with your life. It is horrible that your advisor put you in this situation and I'd be worried about what else your advisor is willing to do in the future. This certainly isn't an easy predicament to be in.


I really don't like this practice and fought it at one point (was on my way out the door so it was easy to take a hard stance). All that said, for a junior person, I think you are better off just chalking it up as a minor moral failing of the system that you have to live with.

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