Recently, I learned about honorary authorships in papers and publications - e.g. the head of an institute or person who secured the financial grants.

If you are in an inferior position, like a PhD student or not being the head of an institute, and you do not believe in giving credit via authorship to anyone who was not significantly involved in the studies directly; (by the way, according to some scientific boards, not even securing grants or offering the lab counts as such), can you successfully deny adding an honorary authorship for your supervisor or other superior without having to bear negative consequences for your work and later supervision?

After all, honorary authorship has a bad influence on life balance of scientists if seen on a large scale.

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    "or person who secured the financial grants": Given the difficulty of securing financial grants, I wouldn't underestimate this role. Apr 23, 2016 at 13:58
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    What are "respective moral standards" and what have they got to do with the question? It's hard to understand, because you are asking about cheating a supervisor out of authorship.
    – 410 gone
    Apr 23, 2016 at 15:26
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    Most of the time, just add the authors. This was advice I had from a good mentor. Sure, they may not have done the requisite work, but if they think they and there's some policy that they should be added, make them happy. In the end, it's a practical choice of making friends/enemies with the higher ups. Apr 23, 2016 at 15:51
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    It depends on how much of an unethical jerk the person who wants honorary co-authorship is. Obviously.
    – JeffE
    Apr 23, 2016 at 20:38

1 Answer 1


I'm surprised this is still an issue - though I guess not as surprised as I'd hoped to be. It's rather sad that there are still people out there who demand to be credited for work they haven't done.

Some journals have clear guidance for what merits authorship. For example, pretty much all medical journals sign up to guidance from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html#two) which requires

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work AND

    • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content AND

    • Final approval of the version to be published AND

    • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

(So in the example above, getting the grant money would probably count as contributions to conception or design, so warrant authorship as long as the putative author then didn't abandon the project but could meet the other three criteria; but providing space for the work e.g. in a lab or recruiting participants, on it's own wouldn't be enough)

Most journals then require a statement of what the authors did to meet these requirements which is published with the article - so in order for someone who doesn't warrant authorship to claim it they, and their 'co-authors' have to lie in print.

So in the unlikely event my head of department, or anyone else, insisted on being added as an author when I thought they didn't warrant it, I'd ask them to justify the request using the ICMJE criteria.

Of course - thats the easy bit.

If you're working in an area which doesn't work like this, you have to think about keeping on board with the community. If someone senior really thinks they deserve authorship on your paper, and you don't, you have to decide whether you're going to keep them happy.

I'd suggest you may need to find someone else to persuade them they should't be named. That may be someone superior to them in your institution, or you may need to discuss with the editor of the journal you're submitting to - who can then ask for justification of contributions should they see fit.

Fundamentally though it seems that attitudes like this may suggest something rotten in the culture of either a department, or possibly a discipline. And culture change like this will take years.

  • And if you're a last-year PhD student trying to get the final few publications out, paying the journal fees depends on an advisor who's primary strength was always networking and not so much research content, who now finds you "sufficiently independent" to do only basic grammar checks in manuscript revisions, and ignores your e-mail about "how should I phrase your contribution please, the journal requires it?" -- that's exactly what you do. Or, at least, what I did; kept it as vague as possible, but ultimately invented his contributions in print beyond 'space/money'. Feels bad, would do again.
    – penelope
    Feb 6, 2020 at 12:36

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