I am a professor and researcher in mathematics and my research is kind of on the theoretical side. Online, I discovered a mathematician who had written some papers with ideas similar to mine, and we corresponded and discussed possible collaboration. Then he wrote an entire paper, listing both of us as authors on the front page, and sent it to me. I didn't think it ethical to take any credit for a paper I had no part in writing, so I discontinued all contact with this person. Has anyone here had a similar experience? How common is this?

I am becoming very disillusioned with the pure research game. People spend huge amounts of time on self-promotion because there just isn't that much demand for their work.

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    I was with you till you got to "I didn't think it ethical to take any credit for a paper I had no part in writing, so I discontinued all contact with this person." Why not just simply say what you wrote here and ask not to be included in the paper because of this reason?
    – blackace
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 2:33
  • 37
    Why not assuming good intentions? maybe he felt that your conversation was substantial for his result, and didn't want you to feel he is stealing your joint result? Why not just asking him to remove you as a co-author if you believe you didn't contribute enough?
    – Ran G.
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 2:49
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    @blackace + Ran G. You have a point, and maybe I am assuming sinister motives where there are none. Maybe I should just have just asked this person to remove my name from the paper. But in fact our conversation was not substantial for his/her result, and what this person did was pretty strange. I'll consider contacting him/her. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:04
  • I am the first author, because alphabetical order, on a paper to which I contributed some data and some discussion, but no writing. Nothing sinister there. (I did ask to have my name removed, but the other authors said they couldn't have written it without my collaboration and left my name on.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 18:00
  • "I discontinued all contact with this person" > Did you first suggest to him that you wouldn't like your name to be on the paper?
    – user166788
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 3:25

4 Answers 4


I have heard stories about some (mostly weak) young mathematicians include the names of some people (influential enough) to facilitate the acceptance of their papers or to help them for employment, grants, etc. In fact, two years ago, an almost innocent case of this was going to happen to me. In Iran, most departments of mathematics have this (written or non-written) rule that a master or a PhD student should have at least one paper with his/her supervisor, otherwise she cannot graduate or she misses some points from her thesis grade. I had a master student and she wanted to get the highest grade and therefore she asked me if I allow her to write a weak paper and include my name as a co-author of the paper. I deny it and she missed 1 (out of 20) from her thesis grade. Of course, to compensate the 1 point unfair reduction, I defended her and asked the jury to not reduce any more points from her grade.

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    I am not that influential. I do not have a huge list of publications. Maybe this person was looking for a quid pro quo, I don't know. The Iranian rule seems unreasonable to me. If a student writes a good dissertation, they shouldn't have to publish a paper with their supervisor. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 1:57
  • I agree with you that it is wrong to set such a rule for grad students.
    – user4511
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 7:11

Without knowing too many details of your situation, could you perhaps give the other author the benefit of the doubt? Cutting off all contact does seem harsh (unless you have other reasons) for what could simply be a misunderstanding.

I don't know the conventions of your field, but it seems in many science fields that authors are added if they contribute intellectual ideas on the research, not necessarily for doing the research. Other authors simply add support in some fashion, so get added. It is not uncommon to have many authors on a science paper. It does in fact get tricky because one can offend others by not including co-authors.

I'm of the opinion that it's probably better to include someone who contributed in some fashion than not include them. You could argue that this dilutes research and is a "pure research game", but honestly, one paper is not going to make or break anyone's career.

Could this author simply have been trying to extend kindness, or perhaps thought you had a bigger role in the research than you actually felt you did?

  • Thanks for your comment. I will reconsider my decision and maybe contact him/her and request him/her to remove my name from the paper. This person wrote the whole thing and it would simply be wrong for me to take any credit. But we have some shared interests, and might be able to produce some real collaboration. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:08
  • People in math tend to be pretty honest about writing papers and don't claim to be authors merely for "lending support". It is rare for a math paper to have more than 3-4 authors. In some other fields, I have heard that a paper can have a dozen authors, some of whom participated indirectly at best. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:20
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    contribute intellectual ideas on the research, not necessarily for doing the research — In some theoretical fields, there is little or no difference between "contributing intellectual ideas" and "doing the research". And I do not mean that disparagingly.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 6:36

To answer your stated question: the only general requirement for your authorship on a paper is that you contribute to the research significantly, and that generally doesn't imply co-writing it — contributing to the ideas can be significant, especially if the proof becomes trivial with an idea you contributed. (I've heard mathematicians describe "significant contribution" very differently — say, that PhD students are expected to draft papers, get advising and feedback from their supervisor, and not list their supervisor as coauthor — unless the student failed to contribute to the project).

Now, you have similar ideas. In my experience, tracking down who originated an idea among people who did work together can be very hard, and joint credit can be an easier solution which is accepted in our community (in Computer Science, Programming Languages).

However, since all authors are jointly responsible for the claims in the paper, I've been taught it's very bad style to add somebody to a draft without his permission; submitting the paper without your knowledge/consent would be unethical, but dropping contact is not only brisk, but ambiguous. Couldn't he genuinely (in good faith) think you were okay with the draft, but didn't have time to respond?

In fact, if he thinks you contributed to the research, to publish it ethically, he'll need either your agreement to have your name in, or your agreement to have your name out.


You were completely wrong in thinking it was unethical to co-author a paper you had no part in writing, or that the other person did anything wrong. Quite the contrary.

Contributions to papers may take very different form; one can merit a co-authorship without writing a word if one contributed essential ideas. As a famous example, Adelman of the RSA code fame did not participate in inventing the code; what he did was defeating dozens of previous attemps by Rivest and Shamir. When they came up with a proposal he could not defeat, they included him as a co-author.

By doing what they did, your correspondent simply acknowledged that discussions with you helped him to solve the problem, in which case it is customary to offer a co-authorship. Of course, you might feel differently, e. g., that you only communicated common knowledge, in which case it would be appropriate to decline the offer. But from other side, it was just new to them; how could they judge whether it's common knowledge or your unique perspective or the result of you thinking on this problem specifically? For them, it's only ethical to make sure they don't err on the wrong side of it.

  • Sorry, but a person's consent is required before you include them as an author. Required
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 13:39
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    @Buffy, nothing prevents me from typesetting an article, including whomever I deem right as an author and sending the result to them. Nothing. The consent is required before I submit the article to a journal or make it public, but nothing in the OP indicates that ever happened.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 13:57
  • You can send it to them, but not to a journal or conference without their consent as you say. But the first sentence of your answer clearly implies something else.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 14:02
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    It implies what it says: by typesetting a draft, including the OP's name on it, and e-mailing it to the OP, the other person did nothing wrong.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 14:06

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