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What is the standard practice if I can no longer find students that contributed to a paper that we would like to publish now? The students contributed data, but obviously had nothing to do with writing the paper. Still, I feel that they deserve authorship. I can no longer find a current email address for them. Should I put them only in the acknowledgements section?

  • Have you tried asking their former universities alumni program? (I suspect they are not students anymore, otherwise it shouldn't be too hard to find them.) – skymningen Jul 7 '17 at 6:53
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This is a tricky one! Since some venues may require each author to sign over copyright, it complicates matters above and beyond the ethical question of what is right.

If you feel they deserve authorship, you should IMHO make a good faith effort to find them (web search, ask the university for contact info, etc). But in the end, if you can't find someone and they contributed data but not writing the paper, I see no way you can include them as an author. An acknowledgment would be appropriate.

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    I agree with this answer that the best you can do is to do your best to track them down. Also of note is that only contributing data might not be sufficient for authorship (expectations can vary a bit with field), especially if that's their only contribution. Ideally you would invite them to work on the paper with you to reach the authorship requirement, but if they can't be found their contributions may be more appropriate as an acknowledgement anyways. – Bryan Krause Jul 6 '17 at 19:04
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    @BryanKrause, good point, this may vary by field or even not be widely accepted and standardized within a field. For instance, I once had a colleague who said that people who did implementation work that led to a paper should be coauthors. I said essentially what you did: that they were involved and should be invited to coauthor but if they never actually worked on the paper, I didn't see them as coauthors. Here, I was trying not to pass judgment on the OP's claim they deserved authorship, and only saying if they never see the paper, hard to be an author. – Fred Douglis Jul 6 '17 at 19:09
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    Yeah, it isn't always necessary to have worked on the paper to be an author in my judgment, either (though they must at least approve of it), but there must be some intellectual contribution besides technical support (which includes programming, data collection, etc). The main intent of my comment is that, if OP cannot find these contributors, OP may not need to feel guilty about only recognizing their work as an acknowledgment. – Bryan Krause Jul 6 '17 at 19:12
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    It's actually... not a tricky one. If the person complains that you didn't include them as an author, you tell them that it would've been illegal to sign over their copyright on their behalf. End of story. – user541686 Jul 7 '17 at 7:02
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The next answer assumes that the policy of the venue is silent about such situations (otherwise you simply follow the written guidelines). Moreover, let's assume that you failed to find the students or their representatives in reasonable time (otherwise contact these people and proceed from there). To find the people, you might consider asking the officials (administration, government, police, ...), though it might take more time and money than you originally expected. System administrators and secretaries may know more than they are allowed to say in public. Assuming all that fails:

If the students deserve the authorship, put them as authors, otherwise don't.

Of course, "deserve" is vague and open to interpretation, but this is a somewhat separate question. Naturally, most coauthors also co-write the paper. Still, a proof of a mathematical conjecture on a sheet of paper during lunchtime may be a substantial contribution deserving the (co)authorship, even if the coauthor does no paper writing. Similarly, the data your students contributed may be of great value or not. The value in the context counts, and there cannot be a general reply on that.

Next, you have to satisfy the formal requirements of a submission system. Inform the program chair (for conferences) or the main editor (for journals) of the situation and of your best efforts to contact the students. If you don't get an answer by the submission deadline but still have to enter the lost-coauthors' e-mail addresses into some form, use their old e-mails or, if that is not possible, reuse your own e-mail address or (at worst) create dummy e-mail boxes for the purpose of submission. State that you submit on the behalf of the coauthors and inform the chair/editor why you are doing so. (Once, I even had to temporarily add and then remove a new, dummy coauthor like Jane Doe to one of my papers because of certain technical limitations [which are unrelated here]. Upon informing the PC chair, it was not an issue.)

Note: regardless of whether you make the students the coauthors or not, the act of submission might involve risks. (See the comments.)

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    The idea of naming someone as a coauthor who has never seen a paper is awkward at best and unethical at worst. Deserving authorship is a necessary condition. I'm not sure it's a sufficient one, if you really can't reach them to let them actually read the words their name would be put on. +There's the question I raised in my own answer about them needing to sign away copyright. If 1 author is authorized to sign for everyone (as some places do) this is fine. If all are required, I don't know how you get around it. Without approval from chair/editor, guerilla submission seems wrong. – Fred Douglis Jul 6 '17 at 21:44
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    @FredDouglis By no means. Even dead people may deserve coauthorship (take a look at the publication list of Erdös). Regarding copyright: if you cannot reach them, they are likely not to care. I agree it is risky to sign on their behalf, though. – Leon Meier Jul 6 '17 at 21:47
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    It's true that dead people do tell tales. I know of several cases where a professor died but lived on in publications for years. But I think that is a clear exception to the question of including someone without consultation and the need for them to release copyright. If they're alive it's another matter :) – Fred Douglis Jul 6 '17 at 21:50
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    @FredDouglis Hm. But you even don't know whether the students are alive or have been run over by a bus ;-(. I feel that the world is too huge to know that. – Leon Meier Jul 6 '17 at 21:54
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    I just want to restate again: "create dummy e-mail boxes for the purpose of submission. State that you submit on the behalf of the coauthors and inform the chair/editor." - That could be construed as outright fraud. – Bryan Krause Jul 6 '17 at 23:10
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This is a difficult one, but I think in the end you have no choice but to put them in the acknowledgements if you cannot contact them, with an appropriate note regarding the level of their contributions. You should do your best to find them (social media? Contact other past students? Google?), but sometimes this might not be possible.

It is assumed that any author on a paper has given their consent to have their name attached to that particular piece of work. In your situation, the student(s) have not had this opportunity. I would be (rightly) upset if I found that someone had given me authorship on a paper without my consent. It would probably stop me doing any work with this person in future, and if I didn't like the published manuscript it would also involve a letter to the journal editor explaining the situation.

Even worse (I'm not suggesting this is the situation in your case), if the paper is of dubious quality, it may even hurt the student(s) in their future academic life to have their name attached to that paper.

Finally, I think most journals will have you sign off that each author has given their approval to the final manuscript. Are you happy lying about this? If this is discovered, prepare to face retraction of the paper.

I think it's a sign of a good supervisor that you value their contribution enough to want to give them authorship, even though you cannot contact them about it. It's just a shame that the rules of authorship preclude this.

Good luck with the paper!

  • It is very unlikely that a student who has disappeared will have "a future academic life". If somebody has gone on to do a masters at some other institution, there will be people around who know where. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jul 7 '17 at 9:42

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