Case studies in coauthorship: what would you do and why?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post by Greg Crowther.


We academics sure love to discuss authorship, don’t we?  Previous posts on this blog have addressed authorship issues such as author order and criteria for authorship.  The latter post dove deeply into the issue of defining what sorts of contributions are substantial enough to merit authorship.  I thought this post and the corresponding comments were great . . . but too focused on one side of authorship at the expense of the other side.

Before I explain what I mean by that, consider the following mini-case studies:

(A) You are a Ph.D. student wrapping up your dissertation. As you finish, a side project to which you contributed substantially is also being written up.  You are slated to be a middle author on this paper, but you don’t agree with the way some critical calculations were done.  You have mentioned your concerns to the PI, but he wants to keep the calculations the way they are.  You fear that if you ask to have your name removed from the side-project paper, the PI will be insulted by your pull-out.  You don’t want to spoil a generally good six-year relationship; also, you also will be relying heavily on his letter of recommendation in your job applications.  Should you nevertheless ask that your name be removed from the paper?

(B) A coworker is struggling to write a paper that is due soon for a special issue of a journal.  It is not clear whether he will meet the deadline.  Recognizing your writing skill, the coworker asks you to help revise the paper.  You meet with him and provide substantial editorial feedback on two drafts of the paper, addressing both large issues (narrative flow, justification of claims with evidence) and smaller ones.  You were not otherwise involved in the planning or execution of this project.  Should you accept your coworker’s offer to make you a coauthor?

(C) You are writing up a study in which you were assisted by several undergraduates, who performed biochemical assays under your supervision but are not involved in the preparation of the paper.  If you list them as coauthors, their chances of getting into medical school will go up, and you and your department will also be lauded as providing undergrads with substantive research experiences. Should you include the undergrads as authors?

I don’t think the answers to these questions are immediately obvious.  They weren’t obvious to me, at least, when I was the “you” in each scenario.  But maybe they would be if we could all agree on common standards for authorship!

One standard that I like was articulated in this comment by Jeremy on the post cited above: “Authorship is about responsibility and credit.”

Some may find that too terse to be useful.  To me, it cuts right to the heart of an important issue.

Credit and responsibility should go hand in hand — i.e., people should get credit for taking responsibility — but too often we focus mostly on the credit side.  For example, many discussions of authorship state or imply that certain activities are sufficient for authorship in and of themselves, irrespective of whether the contributor is aware of and agrees with the resulting paper.  This was true of the Dynamic Ecology poll on author contributions, where 65% of respondents thought that collecting lots of data itself justified authorship, and substantial minorities thought that other roles independent of manuscript preparation were themselves sufficient for authorship.  While respondents may have assumed that these choices implicitly included “and also read and approved the paper,” I have my doubts.  Moreover, published studies such as Marusic et al. 2006 (Current Medical Research and Opinion 22:1035-1044) have identified situations in which over half of coauthors do not review and approve the manuscripts on which they are coauthors!  (Perhaps some of them reviewed an earlier draft rather than the final submission, but still. . . .)

Why is this responsibility aspect important?  Well, loading papers up with peripheral coauthors leads to the dilution of responsibility.  If I am a middle author on a 10-author paper, I might decide that the limited credit I’ll receive for the paper absolves me of any need to sweat the details. I might even convince myself that I’m doing the lead author a favor by not troubling him/her with my nitpicky concerns.  Multiply this attitude by seven or eight and you have a situation where the lead author’s attempt at a coherent story, however earnest, has not been vetted adequately.

One common-sense counterweight to this dilution-of-responsibility problem is to reaffirm that all coauthors do bear responsibility for their papers, and to enforce this standard consistently in our own paper-writing.  While this step alone will not eliminate problems of muddled methods, misplaced data, overstated conclusions, and so forth, it will surely help.

What does it mean to take responsibility for a paper?  I suggest the following rule of thumb: each coauthor should attest to both (1) the integrity of his/her parts of the study and (2) the plausibility of the rest of the study.  By “plausibility” I mean that the coauthor has reviewed the entire study and considers it reasonable to the best of his/her knowledge.  Thus, while middle authors will not generally inspect all of the raw data or sources cited, they should still confirm that the entire paper makes sense to them and seems defensible.

A similar (though even more stringent) rule of thumb is offered by Oikos in its author guidelines: all authors “should be able to present and defend the work in a public forum.”

Thinking of responsibility as a critical component of authorship is not only the right thing to do, it also brings clarity to certain authorship decisions.

For scenario (A) above, if you are focused only on the credit side of authorship, you might elect to remain a coauthor; after all, you did a lot of work on the project.  But I claim that if you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the paper, you shouldn’t be included.

Scenario (B) is in some ways the opposite of scenario (A). Here you were not involved in the experimental work, so perhaps you don’t deserve credit for it.  But in carefully going through the entire paper multiple times with the lead author and checking for internal consistency, clarity, etc., you took on substantial responsibility, perhaps moreso than most other authors.  Here, the credit-AND-responsibility model of authorship suggests that a borderline case might actually have a decent claim to authorship.

Scenario (C) is essentially a variation on scenario (A), and my conclusion is the same: those who can’t or don’t vouch for a paper should not be coauthors, even if their experimental contributions were significant.  Undergraduates who carefully check a manuscript may well deserve authorship, but those who don’t probably don’t.

If I seem smug and self-righteous in making these assertions, what you are perceiving is mostly my disappointment in my own limitations and weaknesses.  At the time of (A), I chickened out and left my name on the paper.  For (C), my desire to be generous led me to include students whose contributions would have been better acknowledged in the Acknowledgments section.  I am trying to learn from these experiences, though.  Why, just last week I removed my name from a PLoS ONE manuscript!

In conclusion, I hope readers agree with me (and Jeremy) that responsibility is a central part of authorship.  But I trust that you will offer caveats, exceptions, and protests in the comments!

Acknowledgments: Jeremy Fox read a draft of this post and made helpful comments.  However, he does not bear responsibility for the author’s attempt to turn personal authorship melodramas into a serious blog post, and thus is not a coauthor.

tl;dr: Authorship shouldn’t work like the second panel of this cartoon. 🙂


47 thoughts on “Case studies in coauthorship: what would you do and why?

  1. What seems to be missing here is the Acknowledgements section and its thanking folks for input short of co-authorship; and the standard declaration that they are not responsible for its final content. oops, it is included…sort of. I have read zillions of buddies papers/books in draft and provided lots of input, disagreement, etc, and never once thought I thus earned coauthorship by that alone. I think the standard for coauthorship are much lower today; lets call it the great dilution.
    The emphasis on responsibility also seems odd; perhaps you assume some-big-things about the paper will be wrong? I assume the paper will be technically correct, but maybe dull, or not. The papers long term influence will depend on that, provided the methods are ok, and math derivations not wrong.

    For A it depends upon the strength of disagreement, if the alternative changes the conclusions a lot. I find it puzzling that the immediate career aspects of the collaboration are discussed; the real issue is whether 5 yrs down the road you would regret seeing others get credit for your ‘ideas’, your’ stuff’. you can include in the acknowledgements section that you prefer alternative methods.

    For B…..nope, someone who aids writing, who edits ,deserves warm acknowledgement, but not coauthorship. Besides the scenario seems very unlikely.

    For C, the answer is also no, at least for the reasons given; putting undergrads on a paper they have not really earned for career boasts alone is improper, in my opinion. having said that I think we have an obligation to include undergrads and grad students as substantial coworkers, if we can. We should make clear what that means when they come into the lab. or begin writing equations.

    • Ric, thanks for your thoughts.
      * I agree that I should have said more about Acknowledgments as a middle ground between authorship and non-authorship.
      * I am emphasizing responsibility here because of my sense that there are lots of incentives to accumulate credit for research, perhaps beyond our ability to take responsibility for all of what we get credit for, which worries me.
      * For A, I was describing the scenario as I experienced it at the time. I was not thinking about 5 years down the road (though one could argue that I should have been).
      * Scenario B, unlikely or not, happened to me essentially as described. (The paper is PubMed ID 21904041.)

      • FWIW, I see scenarios similar to B a lot, especially among grad students (or in labs/collaborations with many non-native speakers of English). I don’t think this deserves authorship, but I also wouldn’t be affronted to find out that somebody was given authorship in this case, particularly if the parameters were slightly broader (say, being a sounding board during the “ideas” stage as well as the writing-up stage).

        Come to think of it, I can’t imagine very many scenarios where I’d be affronted about someone being _included_ on a paper. (Being excluded is a very different matter!) People are put on and taken off papers for all sorts of bizarre political reasons, and it’s not really my place to worry about other people’s business.

      • “Come to think of it, I can’t imagine very many scenarios where I’d be affronted about someone being _included_ on a paper. (Being excluded is a very different matter!) People are put on and taken off papers for all sorts of bizarre political reasons, and it’s not really my place to worry about other people’s business.”

        Which is a big reason why authorship lists are getting longer: the benefits (or perceived benefits) of including people as authors go only to them. The costs, such as they are, are diffused widely.

  2. Re: scenario A, I have a couple of old posts on what coauthors should do if they disagree with one another on what the ms should say:
    I think that if you’re a co-author you should agree with everything in the ms, except minor things (e.g., maybe you think a particular point should’ve been phrased slightly differently, or emphasized a bit more). Meaning that, if you seriously disagree with what the ms says, you should pull your name from it (and re: Ric’s comments above, I disagree that recording your disagreements in the Acknowledgments makes it ok for you to remain an author. Basically nobody reads the acknowledgements, and in any case they’re not the place to discuss substantive scientific matters.). But many ecologists disagree with me that all co-authors should agree with everything the ms says. As for the possibility that pulling your name from the paper might upset someone with some power over your career, that gets into a different issue that has nothing to do with authorship per se. It’s an important issue, but not specifically authorial: How much are you prepared to compromise on *anything* to stay in the good graces of someone with power over you? And what practical steps can you take to protect yourself when doing the right thing might mean upsetting someone with power over you? (Also, in practice, my hope and expectation would be that in the large majority of cases, one could eventually compromise with one’s co-authors as to what the ms should say, with no one holding any long-term grudges against anyone else. If the sort of disagreement you describe would lead to your supervisor writing you bad reference letters, then surely that disagreement over what one paper should say is merely a symptom of some much bigger underlying problem between you and your supervisor…)

    Re: scenario B, I’d lean towards saying you shouldn’t be an author, but really I think it’s fuzzy and depends exactly how much your editorial feedback shaded over into actually writing the paper (e.g., telling the other authors exactly what to say and how to say it). I’m thinking for instance of the much-deplored practice in medicine of “ghost authors”–paid writers who write papers for the authors without being listed as authors themselves. If your only substantive contribution to the ms is writing it, or writing a large chunk of it, or doing such substantive and detailed editing that you effectively wrote it, you should be an author.

    Scenario C is very clear-cut to me: no, those undergrads should not be authors, they should merely be acknowledged. If they also involve themselves in the writing in a substantive way, then yes they should be.

    • Hi J; we probably must agree to disagree on A; In metabolic ecology I disagree with most of my coauthors about how mortality rate links [ or more likely not] to metabolic rate, and mostly their views are found in the joint papers. this is a contentious issue in all metabolic studies, going back a century. I would be foolish to not be a coauthor on these influential papers to which I contributed in big ways;Even if the disagreement is pretty big. I have many other examples.

    • No, one should not be a coauthor for even extensive editing/rewriting. Only if one contributes to the ideas, analysis,….the whole science..should one be a coauthor.A close friend is a professional editor, and has often worked through my papers, and yes, improved them; But he/she never asked for coauthorship for the task. I think its pretty clear when someone has really contributed to the science, and writing itself is not really there.
      On the other hand if someone reads a ms for me and really does change the science in substantative way [ not just correcting my misspelled words] I would probably ask them to be a coauthor.

  3. An issue that is now in play in Entomology (with two different faculty members); what do you do when your collaborator is arrested for sexual misconduct? What do you do when your major professor is fired for sexual harassment?
    The co-authorship scenarios there are nightmares, and I can’t get my head around it. Would love to see that discussion.

    • That is a nightmare. Very hard to think about authorship in such situations because it’s mixed up with so many other considerations. I think Terry McGlynn might’ve had a post on this a long time ago at Small Pond Science?

    • How terrifying a situation. If an author was one of the victims of the conduct, that would make it especially terrible and challenging to deal with.

      In such situations, many universities have an “ombudsperson” who can discuss difficult circumstances with anyone in complete confidential (e.g. and provide clarifications on University policy from a supportive but neutral point of view.

      Most people are sadly unaware that their University even has an ombudsperson [often called ombudsman]. It is a really important resource.

  4. If someone writes part of the ms and participates in ms revisions, they are an author. That’s easy.
    People who do not write but shape or influence the story in a substantial way are likely deserving to be authors. They have assumed some share of responsibility for the end product. Substantial involvement in study design, framing questions, interpreting results, and ms revisions all merit authorship.
    Handing over data, providing lab space, performing analyses, proofing a ms, are all valuable contributions to be acknowledged but do not merit authorship.
    For example, an editor/reviewer can clean up a ms without influencing the story at all. Not an author in that case. Or an editor/reviewer can do the same and also substantially influence the story (emphasizing a different main conclusion, reframing the question…). Depending on the degree of influence, perhaps they are an author. In the first case, the editor helped tell the story as it is in a more organized, cleaner way perhaps. In the second, the editor helped to tell a different story.

    • “performing analyses … does not merit authorship” – this depends on how much creativity is involved, if someone is effectively given an exact recipe on how to analyze the data by someone else on the project, then data analysis is not an intellectual contribution to the paper. However, if someone is handed a data set and a scientific question and told to analyze the data (and figure out the best way to do that on their own), that almost certainly merits authorship.

      An analogy: you give a student an experimental design and they collect the data (not co-authorship). You give the student a question and they develop the experimental design (co-authorship required because they effectively wrote a section of the methods).

      As an aside – I think it is morally questionable [in many situations] to have a student do a task that does not lead to co-authorship if the student is not paid to complete the task. If the task is so menial as to not warrant co-authorship, exactly how valuable is it for their education? I am concerned about students being exploited for free labor.

      • It’s great that you keep an eye on whether you are exploiting students, and try to avoid doing so. But I don’t think lack of authorship = exploitation if valuable skills are being taught and learned, etc.

      • “However, if someone is handed a data set and a scientific question and told to analyze the data (and figure out the best way to do that on their own), that almost certainly merits authorship.”

        Oh, yes. I certainly agree. They have influenced the story in a large way.

        RE: Students. It seems to me that if an undergraduate is motivated to do the work to be a coauthor, then perhaps they should be given the opportunity to do so. Even so, we all have to start somewhere and I volunteered my time just to get into a lab as an undergraduate and over the course of a few months I proved I had the motivation to get into active research. I have not observed any outright, clear exploitation of students, but maybe I just wasn’t looking for it.

      • It should be noted that not everyone, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can afford to work for free [and this can really hinder diversity]. If the job involves mostly menial tasks like cleaning equipment, pipetting, data entry, etc, we should be honest with ourselves. After perhaps a few days, the student isn’t really benefitting enough educationally from those tasks to warrant working for free. We definitely do have to start somewhere but note that the ability to volunteer one’s time is a privilege that many of us are born with and that some do not have. We should ask ourselves, “Will the student benefit more from this task than taking an extra course related to their research interests?” if the answer is “no” we should pay that student to do the task. I think that question is a good litmus test – it doesn’t exactly solve the problem of diversity but at least it allows students to enter these labs who can only do so if they are paid a very modest wage. What do you think?

  5. Scenario B happened to me more than once, and I must say that I would vote for coauthorship given the amount of time spent on the manuscript (we are not dealing here with a simple and quick read of the paper I guess).

    Scenario C give me a problem. I agree that the answer is theoretically no, but what if the bulk of the people is going for a “yes” and I stick with no co-authorship? I’m basically penalising my students compared to others in the same university just to stick with my idea. I usually do it, but I must say that I do it with some difficulties.

    Scenario A also is also problematic. I’m totally for a no, but I’ve been in a couple of times, and although I asked for being removed from the author list, I was kept in without actually knowing! this happened to me two time (one last month), with people almost feeling offended by my request!

    • I agree, this aspect of Scenario C (among others) is hard. It’s like, do you refuse to cave into grade inflation if everyone else is doing it? My hope would be that one could write letters of recommendation that made students’ talents/contributions clear, irrespective of coauthorship, but there are contexts where students may want to claim ownership of the work where they don’t have a letter to fall back on.

  6. Does anyone have any experience with what is common/acceptable practice for co-authorship outside of academia? I know non-profit and for profit organizations contribute to the peer-reviewed literature, but I can see how standards for co-authorship might be different in this arena (even if maybe they shouldn’t be). I’m thinking of how organizational hierarchy might play into co-authorship. Specifically, I had an experience where a ‘boss’ who implemented a project but did not write the manuscript – but who did edit – did not want to include the actual ‘writer’ of the manuscript as an author because this person was not involved in the beginning stages and on-the-ground implementation of the project (and presumably because they were of a lower organizational rank). Is this common, and are there different, generally-accepted standards for co-authorship in non-academic circles?

  7. Its seems like there is a lot of inconsistency among people about whether:
    a) editing the manuscript
    b) conceiving of the research
    c) collecting the data
    is the primal contribution to research (e.g. Ric argues no amount of (a) is enough to overcome absence of (b)). But in a lot of working groups I am part of, being there for the whole development of the ideas (b) & (c) is not enough – you have to change some words in the drafts so you can say you did (a).

    I guess I cannot agree that there is a primal dimension. Contributions to any of these areas counts equally in my book.

    I do agree with Greg that my main thought is “am I willing to have my name associated with this research” which basically comes down to an assessment of how confident I am in it being honest and correct.

    • I tried working groups, and learned they were not for me; But of course I was not referring to working groups, but the more usual ways of doing science. My working group made me coauthor for barely showing up, at least for a while; but then all my ideas were just ignored!
      Of course there is a primal dimension; sometimes ideas lead, sometimes experiments, sometimes a clever comparison, or an imaginative technique. Depends upon circumstance. Plenty of boring science is honest and correct;
      My question is ….is the science interesting, imaginative, likely to be an advance, etc..

      • Just a side note – but not all working groups are created equal. I’ve had some that were wildly successful and others that were utter failures…so I think it’s more a function of how well a collaboration works rather than it being a ‘working group’ per se.

  8. I’m interested to see how much disagreement there seems to be regarding whether or not writing is a primary/”primal” contribution to the work. As someone who is only a competent experimenter, but a better-than-competent writer — and also as someone who hates reading poorly written articles — I tend to put high value on the writing, and link writing closely to authorship status. But I can see how others might feel differently.

    • I tend to agree. Collecting data and writing tend to be the bulk of the work. Designing an experiment and running an analysis can in extreme cases be as little as a few hours work and almost always a small fraction compared to writing and data collection. Yet they are “the real work”. People say it is because its the intellectual contribution. But: a) why is intellectual the primary source of credit and responsibility and b) good writing involves not just the intellect of writing but the intellect of understanding the research well enough to communicate it clearly and compellingly (I could make a case about how many intellectually non-tirivial decisions are made during data collection too).

      Thank you for a constructive and thought provoking post.

  9. Is there an analogy here with song writing credits? There’s basically two models that bands adhere to. What we can call the REM model is one in which all band members get a credit for all songs (Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe) regardless of their contribution, but in the acknowledgement that all contributed in some way, even if it was “only” playing the drums. The second is the Led Zeppelin model where only the “songwriter(s)” get credit – usually Page/Plant – unless one of the others has added words/music, despite the fact that no Led Zeppelin song would sound the same with Bonham’s drums or Jones’s bass and multi-instrumentalism.

    So different research groups adhere to different models of being more or less inclusive in who they add as co-authors, and that seems to me to be fine as long as everyone in the group knows what the score is (though there’s lots of examples of band members suing for royalties for songs years down the line).

    Personally I’m more at the REM end of the continuum and do include, for example, undergraduate field assistants as co-authors if I was not able to do the work without their assistance. That seems like a fair deal to me – “credit” to me includes “contribution”.

    One final thought: the Oikos “should be able to present and defend the work in a public forum” rule of thumb seems like a rather loose one to me: any reasonably experienced scientist can present the work of their peers even if they had no involvement in that work at all. In fact we do it all the time – it’s called teaching! I know that this isn’t the spirit of the rule, but it’s certainly the letter.

  10. Back when I was a grad student, a senior academic told me that you should put absolutely everyone on your author list if they made any contribution at all. His rationale was that it costs you nothing, they would then do the same in return, and everyone ends up with more papers! It rankled with me at the time (it still does) but I’ve come across a number of groups who work on this principle. We can debate the moral high ground as much as we like, but is there any serious downside to someone adopting this strategy? All the incentives seem to favour people who set up ‘authorship clubs’.

    • Well, except in most contexts the benefits to those added as middle authors are very small, and I think getting smaller. Because outside of a few specific contexts (which I’ll get to in a sec), my experience is that basically no one cares very much if you were a middle author on a many-author paper. And I think people are caring even less as author lists grow.

      I think the only context in which this practice really helps those added as authors despite their very small or non-authorial contributions is competitions for student awards. For instance, in my department there’s an annual competition for various small scholarships, for which all grad students can apply. Having even one paper as a 1st or second year grad student can set you apart from the pack a bit, even if it’s only a middle authorship.

      We should do a poll on this. How much do you care if somebody’s a middle author?

      • Jeremy – when you say “no one cares very much if you were a middle author on a many-author paper” who is the “no one” you’re referring to? The authors themselves care, and the universities they work for care as well because it adds to stats on numbers of publications each year, gives opportunities for press releases and media coverage, gives staff publications from which to build and evidence funding bids, etc. etc. It’s my impression that a lot of people care!

      • “The authors themselves care,”

        I hope it was clear from the context that I was talking about whether *other people besides the authors* care.

        “the universities they work for care as well because it adds to stats on numbers of publications each year, gives opportunities for press releases and media coverage”

        Yes, I wasn’t thinking of the British REF context (it’s still called the REF, right?). Though I think it’s a bad idea for an evaluation exercise based on quantitative metrics to use metrics that give equal weight to middle-authored and first-authored publications.

        As for it being a good thing for more universities to have more excuses to issue more press releases, we’ll probably have to agree to disagree…

      • No, I read it as “no one cares about middle authorship so person x shouldn’t care about whether or not they are included as a co-author” – which is what we’re talking about after all. But maybe we’re speaking at cross purposes on that.

        REF is just one aspect of why universities care; even in countries that have no formal assessment exercise, universities and their Deans/senior management care about how many papers their staff are producing, it’s used as measure of productivity, rightly or wrongly, and in some systems (e.g. South Africa) funding is directly linked to outputs.

        My point about press releases was that it’s almost the only way in which science news stories get into the media, so if we want the media to cover science (and can we agree that we do want that?) then press releases have to be, err, released.

      • “No, I read it as “no one cares about middle authorship so person x shouldn’t care about whether or not they are included as a co-author” – which is what we’re talking about after all. But maybe we’re speaking at cross purposes on that.”

        Well, insofar as other people don’t care that much whether you were a middle author on a paper with a bunch of authors, maybe you shouldn’t care that much either.

        For instance, you have good reason to care how search committee members will evaluate your application for a faculty position. If they’re not going to evaluate your faculty job application any differently because of one additional middle-authored paper, maybe you shouldn’t care too much one way or the other about whether you get listed as a middle author on some many-authored paper to which you made a minor contribution.

        Re: press releases, I don’t see why any fewer press releases would get released in a hypothetical world with stricter authorship standards and thus fewer middle authors. Surely the number of press releases is related to the number of papers, not the number of authors per paper?

      • Hmmm, well, I care about the multi-author papers on which I’m a middle author because I care about the collaborations that they are part of, and the science that’s being produced by those collaborations. That’s always been my motivation.

        “Surely the number of press releases is related to the number of papers, not the number of authors per paper?”

        Not with multi-author papers, and especially not those with an international set of authors: quite frequently different universities will put out their own press releases and news stories on their websites. Sometimes these releases are coordinated between institutions in-country, sometimes not. The latter can lead to situations where the non-lead institution gets all the credit for the work (yes, I’m looking at you, University of Reading…..) but that’s uncommon.

      • “Hmmm, well, I care about the multi-author papers on which I’m a middle author because I care about the collaborations that they are part of, and the science that’s being produced by those collaborations. That’s always been my motivation.”

        Of course!

        ““Surely the number of press releases is related to the number of papers, not the number of authors per paper?”
        Not with multi-author papers, and especially not those with an international set of authors: quite frequently different universities will put out their own press releases and news stories on their websites.”

        Ok, but in that case I’m not sure of the point. Does the world really need a bunch of uncoordinated duplicative press releases and university-written puff pieces about the same study? I mean, is the idea that it’s good if papers have more authors because then more institutions have an excuse to issue a press release? I mean, yes, I’m sure each institution individually is happy to have more reasons to promote itself. But collectively, are either the institutions or the world at large better off because of all that self-promotion? Sounds like a tragedy of the commons to me.

      • “I mean, is the idea that it’s good if papers have more authors because then more institutions have an excuse to issue a press release?”

        No, that’s not what I’m saying at all, what we are discussing here is who cares about being in the middle of a multi-author list. The point I’m making is that the institutions which employ those authors care.

        As for your final point, journalists in, say, Canada are not likely to pick up press releases from institutions in the UK unless it’s a really earth-shattering piece of research. Likewise for regional journalists and their newspapers/tv shows/radio programmes – locality matters. So it makes sense for there multiple releases from institutions.

      • I agree with Markus on this one.

        I think it is becoming increasingly “old school” to focus just on major contributions (e.g. 1st, 2nd, last author).A lot of people I observe these days just look at total papers one is an author on. Certainly my understand is that in Europe with the formalized rankings they mostly all count the same. I have mixed feelings about this trend. Cynically, its too much work to do more detailed parsing of crediting than just counting the length of the CV (and looking at the journals published in*) and people are exploiting that. More positively, I do think science is more collaborative and that is beneficial to science and that it is probably a good trend to be inclusive.

        I think that survey on value of middle authorship is needed!

        *To be clear I’m not advocating journals published in as a measure of scientific quality – just reporting on reality.

  11. Signatory authorship is an interesting twist on the classic “who’s an author” question. These are the published papers where apparently one person writes it and those Names invited to concur do so.
    A few examples:
    Gleick, P.H. and 252 co-authors. 2010. Climate Change and the Integrity of Science. Science. 328(5979): 689-690.

    Nosek, B.A., and 38 co-authors. 2015. Promoting an open research culture. Science. 348(6242): 1422-1425.

    Jefferson, T. and 55 co-signers. 1776. The Declaration of Independence. Open Letter. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,

    I suppose the last example shows this isn’t that recent of an authorship development.
    My minor protest to the practice is refusal to list all the sign-on names, although I’ve had copy editors look them up and add them. Maybe that would be a good query for a future post. Does anyone care if publishers have copy editors anymore? I certainly make mistakes, but I’m tired of looking for dumb things like changing “Chironomus dilutus” (an aquatic insect) to Chironomus dilutes (a short active sentence), and Cottus confusus (a fish) to Cottus confuses. Yes, fish do get confused but I have enough confusion in my life without wondering what the copy editor slipped in.

  12. Being more inclusive than strictly necessary in authorship lists is also a boon to all authors because (I think) it tends to drive up citations…more authors means more opportunities for self citations, which boosts everyone’s various impact indices. Not saying this is good or bad, but for junior authors especially, it makes sense strategically to include the borderline cases.

    • Thanks for this link, Meg. While the Kosslyn authorship criteria don’t exactly address my concern about responsibility vs. credit, I applaud the detailed pre-specification of authorship criteria, which should make things fairer for everyone.

  13. Very insightful post, Greg. I face a dilemma and I do not how to address it. Well, I am a postdoc and I am the lead author of an article where at least five researchers (in addition to my boss) have been invited. It is a meta-analysis and I am carrying out the literature search and collecting the data. I want all potential coauthors to be clear about coauthorship. How can I politely tell them that authorship will have to be won and that I would like to apply some objective criteria to designate order? Thanks in advance.

    • Hi — not sure if you’re asking me or the entire readership of this blog, but here’s my 2 cents…. First, I’d raise the authorship issue as early as possible, so people aren’t surprised or angered when the paper is about to be submitted and their name isn’t on it. Second, I’d get some specific criteria out there as early as possible after discussing them with your boss. I think you can do this in a very neutral way so that nobody feels as though you are questioning their particular contributions or potential contributions. You can just communicate an attitude of, “Hey, I’m a relatively junior person who hasn’t written a ton of papers, and fairness in coauthorship is important to me, so rather than making authorship decisions ad hoc I would prefer to use some pre-specified criteria to reduce the chance that someone is undeservedly included or excluded. Do the criteria below sound good to you? If not, what changes would you suggest?” That way you are not unilaterally imposing an approach to authorship, but signaling that people need to speak up now or live with your approach. I hope that helps a bit.

      • Oh Greg! That sounds very useful. Definitively, I will follow your advice to communicate these ideas to my potential coauthors. I have already identified some articles present and discuss criteria to assign coauthorship. Thank you for your time!

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