A, B — my current bosses. X — my ex-boss.

A — I've spent a semester on sabbatical at the institution of X. Here is some data I produce. You have to write 2 papers.

Me (after 3 month, working completely independent; I am on the stage of the scientific career that does not need any supervision) — Here is your paper (it will be probably submitted to a top journal).

B — Very good, only 2 corrections. Add this to the acknowledgements and X to the authors list.

MeX contributed nothing to the work. Besides, (s)he has already taken advantage of my dfg project and made everything possible that (s)he becomes the formal supervisor of the phd student funded by my project (see this post). Why should I add (her)him?

B — I need a paper with (her)him so that (s)he writes me a reference letter, don't you know I am looking for a prof. position.

A — You have to add X to the list of authors, haven't I told you that I spent a semester there. Besides, it is good for B's career.

With uneasy mind I have done what I am told to do. My health is more precious to me... However, I am recurrently coming back to this issue. Have I done everything right?

Comments in response to questions (edited)

Thank you all for very active participation and numerous questions. Unfortunately, I cannot provide more information as requested. The question can be closed as unclear, however, I do not want to reveal my identity.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Feb 8, 2017 at 13:23

3 Answers 3


Neither of the arguments brought forth to justify X’s authorship is valid. Hosting another researcher’s sabbatical, being the possible author of a reference letter, or being good for somebody’s career are far from valid reasons for authorship.

As others noted, it may be that X actually did something worthy of authorship with respect to acquiring the data. But this poses the question why A and B did not bother to bring this good argument for X’s authorship. Thus we have to assume that this was not the case (or A and B do care so little about authorship ethics that they do not even know how to base arguments on it).

Have I done everything right?

It was A, B, and X who abused their power over you to make you do this and they are the main culprits. Sure, you could have not complied, but at what cost? How much guilt this imposes on you is a question of fundamental ethics and beyond the scope of this platform.

  • 1
    I like your analysis, it resonates with my feelings. Firstly it correctly recognizes insufficiency of their arguments. I am surprised how wide spread is the opinion that either 1,2 or 3 would warranty the authorship. The guess VonBeche was perhaps the first logical conclusion, but as I have said, not to the point. Otherwise they would have already brought these facts to my attention. Or I would have not even question the authorship on the first place.
    – Rama
    Feb 5, 2017 at 21:25
  • Gift authorship is quite common. It's a bit unpleasant when it's one of your papers and someone else is giving the gift. Even I did it twice simply because my boss told me so. In one case, I got a "thanks for the free paper" response.
    – user21264
    Feb 6, 2017 at 12:17

There are a couple of clauses in your question which you may want to reconsider.

  • I worked completely independent — did you? You wrote a paper working on your own, which is indeed a big achievement. However, you've been working with data, and the data have been obtained by A in the lab run by X. This definitely does not sound like a completely independent work to me.
  • X contributed nothing to the work — did s/he not? They set up and run a lab, where the data have been obtained. Could you write the same paper without the data A collected? Could A collect the data without X's lab?

The arguments above do not necessarily mean that X should co-author the paper, but this is a matter of agreement between all collaborators. In ideal world, this should be discussed before the project is started; in reality, discussions like you've had are often held too late into the process, and the frustration you're feeling is understandable. Be strong — you will be a completely independent researcher one day very soon, and hopefully you will manage your projects and relations in much more thoughtful and transparent way. Until then it is best not to waste your life in such battles.

  • 9
    Agree. Especially the part about discussing matter of authorship in advance. Ran into problems myself, a person got disappointed. All because it was not communicated properly in advance. Of course sometimes a study turns into something different. But your story sounds not like that. However, I can imagine it's difficult if it's the senior scientists that refuse to do the talking
    – Gerd
    Feb 5, 2017 at 19:05
  • @GerdHeilemann + for "it was not communicated properly in advance"
    – Rama
    Feb 5, 2017 at 21:42

You'd add X for the same reasons you're adding A and B.

A and B are your bosses, and supervise / advise / host you. Probably they also provide a lot of infrastructure and what I would call "institutional knowledge". Are you sure X wasn't doing anything like that for B?

Also, you sound a little bit hostile (because you think X took your ideas). Hostility doesn't get you anywhere, and this isn't a fight where you were going to win anything. Even if this is an ethical dilemma, you made your case and the decision has to be made by A and B.

  • 2
    No infrastructure or "institutional knowledge" involved. No, i do not think X took my ideas, you cannot take something without doing something.
    – Rama
    Feb 5, 2017 at 15:51
  • 4
    @Rama Since you have used A's data to write the paper, and A produced the data at X's lab, it sounds like X's infrastructure is actually involved. Feb 5, 2017 at 16:09
  • 6
    @lighthousekeeper: Providing infrastructure does not make one eligible for authorship anyway.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 5, 2017 at 19:10
  • 2
    @Rama Can you clarify if the word "there" in A's "I spent a semester there" refers to X's lab or just the university where X's lab is hosted? If he was actually visiting X's lab, that automatically implies that he used X's infrastructure to produce the data. Feb 5, 2017 at 22:00
  • 2
    If he was actually visiting X's lab, that automatically implies that he used X's infrastructure to produce the data -- No, it doesn't.
    – JeffE
    Feb 6, 2017 at 4:05

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