Last week I asked what should be done if co-authors disagree on what their paper should say.* My own view is that all co-authors should agree with and stand behind everything in their paper, so that in the event of a serious, irresolvable disagreement, some co-authors would have to withdraw from the paper. An alternative view is that authorship just indicates that you contributed to the ms in some appropriately-substantial way, not that you agree with everything in it. And there might be other views on the matter as well.
I was curious to get a sense of the range of views out there, so I included a little poll in the post. Most of the votes likely are in at this point. As of this writing, about 24 h after the poll went up, we have 149 votes, distributed as follows:
- 57% think all co-authors should agree on everything in the paper, and withdraw their names if they don’t
- 33% think authorship doesn’t mean that you agree with everything in the ms, just that you contributed to it
- 10% have some other view
I suspected there’d be a lot of disagreement on this–and I was right! Obviously, the poll respondents aren’t a random sample from any well-defined population. But the poll certainly suggests that there’s no consensus on this issue among ecologists.
One consequence of this disagreement is that it makes authorship a little hard to interpret. When I see someone’s name on a paper, I assume that they agree with everything in it and stand behind it. Apparently I shouldn’t assume that! Indeed, I can imagine a situation in which some of the co-authors on a paper assume that the other co-authors agree with everything in the paper, when in fact they don’t. I have no idea if that’s ever happened, but it seems possible.
I’m curious if the poll results would’ve been different if you could go back in time a couple of decades. I wonder if the view that co-authors should agree on everything in the paper is declining in prevalence. That is, as collaboration becomes more common (for both good and bad reasons), norms of appropriate author behavior are shifting in ways that facilitate collaboration. Wildly speculating, I really have no idea.
Formal statements of author contribution are becoming increasingly common, as an antidote to changing authorship practices that make ordered lists of authors less informative summaries of author contributions. Perhaps we also need formal statements of which bits of the paper each author agrees with? After all, back when most papers had just one author, you could safely assume that the author agreed with and stood behind everything in the ms. Nowadays, apparently that’s no longer the case. I’m still deciding if or how much I’m kidding about this…
*I actually have no idea how common it is for co-authors to seriously disagree, and how often those disagreements are resolved in one way vs. another. Maybe I should do a poll on this?