Undeserved authorships: Blog + Poll

Recently, Nature News brought an article about the issue of scientific authorships. A Twitter discussion was started by Dorothy Bishop, neuropsychologist at the University of Oxford, and it can be summarized as such: how can we know that all of the paper’s listed authors have actually read the paper, never mind providing any actual original research or ideas to it?

The issue of who becomes a co-author of an academic publication, and who does not, is a rather old one. Yet even these days many scientists are not always sure what kind of contribution justifies an authorship. As a PhD student, I had to include certain people as authors on my publications, who never pitched in even a single experiment or any specific idea to my research project. Their input was restricted to sharing a certain technology (which they did not develop themselves) and allowing me to use their specially equipped lab.  Back then, I raised the issue with my supervisor, only to be made to understand that these people were strategically important for him.  In fact, where I did my PhD, and at any other medical clinic of a German university, such “political” authorships are rather normal. I was once offered a gene expression plasmid which I thought I needed, by a group leader of my University Clinic, in exchange for an authorship. The plasmid was commercial, but that group leader received it gratis from someone else. Even back then, I considered his expectations ridiculous and was happy that I did not need that plasmid after all.

Authorships are generally the best way to say thanks to or to ingratiate oneself with important peers. Sometimes, even personal friends or  family members in academia are invited as co-authors. Why not simply thanking all those people in acknowledgements? The answer is simple: an authorship on a publication is the best and hardest currency in the career bargain. Therefore sometimes, the most valuable initial authorship positions are granted strategically to those whose career needs them most, while the most senior last authorships are offered as tribute to the all-powerful institute director.

In fact, I was lucky enough to retain the first-authorship of my own research project (twice!), only because our head of institute did not insist on claiming the prestigious last authorship from my advisor. This last-authorship-grabbing is in fact not that uncommon, since senior professors often see every kind of research going on under their roof as their own, even if they have actually no clue what it is about. As paymasters of all research, also of the salaries of their subordinate group leaders, they believe the last authorship on every paper coming from their department is rightfully theirs.

Thus, it can easily happen that a group leader, who in this way lost the last authorship, grabs as compensation the first authorship away from his or her own PhD student. My own PhD supervisor tried exactly this after we received an invitation for a short review article. I was expected to write it, but I was specifically told I would not be the first author. My advisor would be it, simply because our professor wanted the ultimate authorship position. I refused, and the short review was thus never written.

The sequence of authorships is a major issue with every paper, not always does it reflect the extent of the actual contribution. A relatively novel development is the sharing of the first authorship. A friend of mine was made by his principal investigator (PI) to share his first authorship with two of his lab colleagues. Not because they contributed that significantly, but because they needed first author-papers for their careers, as the PI openly argued. Elsewhere, the unwritten tradition often is: after the PhD student or postdoc departs from a lab with a project unfinished, his or her first authorship on the later publication is shared with the project’s successor, regardless of the actual extent of individual contributions, as it happened to me and some former colleagues of mine.

Given the complicated political games played with the means of academic authorships by PIs, professors and senior postdoctoral scientists, it is no wonder that many researchers are confused. Which contributions do actually justify being named as an author, and when is it enough to thank people in acknowledgements?

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) provides a very useful definition on the “Role of Authors and Contributors”, which is also widely accepted by many journals beyond the scope of biomedicine. Four specific criteria must be fulfilled, and the key word is “AND” and not “OR”. It is not enough to satisfy one or some of them to qualify as an author:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND

  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Thus, critical manuscript reading alone (whatever this sometimes may be) is not enough to become its author. Offering lab space or sharing reagents also does not qualify you to be an author (except, when your reagents are non-commercial AND unpublished). Paying your researchers’ salaries does not give you some kind of proprietor’s right to an automatic authorship, and certainly not for the prestigious ultimate one. The acknowledgement section is reserved for exactly such cases.

I myself experienced several times, as PhD student and postdoc, that certain people, who never contributed a tiniest bit of research data or even any specific ideas, were granted authorships on my publications for purely “political” reasons. These people were important to my then-supervisor, career-wise.

I wonder how many of you have been forced to include as authors your superiors, career-minded colleagues or collaborators, whose scientific contribution to your publication was nil or negligible.

Please consider voting below or sharing your experiences in the comment section.

13 comments on “Undeserved authorships: Blog + Poll

  1. From Morocco

    I’ve seen in Retraction Watch, when an article is retracted the ghost authors appear to deny their inclusion, stating that they are add without their consent!


  2. Sam Schwarzkopf

    So, I promised you a reply but it’s really late (writing that blog post took way longer than I planned…) so this is probably incoherent… As I already told you, your story doesn’t really match my personal experience. I have certainly heard of similar stories, especially on the grapevine when I was still an undergrad (which didn’t make a career in science more appealing at the time). I think most people have heard such stories and such things presumably do happen. I just don’t know how common they really are.

    There probably are geographic differences in this and also differences in one’s field of research. I can imagine that in the German academic system with its hierarchical organisation and the senior professors running massive research groups of lots of junior underling professors (I’m basing this mainly on stories I’ve heard from my friends who studied in Germany), such odd senior authorships may be much more common. In the UK research groups, at least in my field, are typically fairly small. Every PI runs their own group and if other senior authors are involved in their publications it is because they are actively collaborating, not because they are the department head. That said, I certainly know of cases where the PIs main reason for being on papers is because they provided the funding and perhaps read a draft manuscript. But this has *never* been my personal experience.

    What you say about stolen first authorships is shocking and to be honest I have never heard of such a thing happening (I although recall one person telling me once that their PI was trying to do that but they didn’t go through with it in the end). This is pretty shocking to me. As a PI I don’t care about first authorships. I have no reason to take them away from junior people working with me. If anything I should care about senior authorships. As far as the research assessment of universities in the UK (the dreaded REF) is concerned author order is completely irrelevant. So I think people care far too much about author order than is necessary (or healthy).

    We have changed author orders at a few occasions and usually this resulted in those odd shared first authorship arrangements. I am not really sure what to think about those but it seems like a reasonable compromise. In a standard situation I would expect the person who did most of the work, including writing the draft of the manuscript, to be first author. I also expect the first author to suggest who should be in the author list.

    Regarding those guidelines you mention, they sound very good on paper but I don’t think they are realistic. The contributions to a publication aren’t as neatly definable as these imply. I think the final two points (approval and accountability) are essential and we try to ensure that these are met. But the first two points are really what makes contributions. The way I was taught and the policy I have always had is that to be an author one should make substantial intellectual contributions to the study. This can take many forms. In theory, just collecting data is insufficient as this is just technical. However, it is very rare for our research that one just collects data without being involved in the design or with the interpretation of the findings. In that case one would also quite likely be involved with the “drafting or revising of the work”. The dichotomy implied by those guidelines also disadvantages junior researchers because students are usually less likely to make significant contributions to the writing even if they have made considerable, valuable contributions to the design, data collection, analysis, and interpretation of the research. Based on these guidelines it would be completely acceptable if I write up my students research myself instead of reworking their dissertation for publication and then publish it as single author. If I did that I would in fact steal a publication from them that I believe they are entitled to.


  3. I agree with Sam that this is very field-dependent.

    My experience is that with medics, it is just expected that anyone who refers patients to a project expects authorship, and they are likely to refuse to help with recruitment unless this is provided.

    I haven’t ever encountered important people demanding authorship just because they are a PI or supervisor. Now I am senior, I get the opposite: people trying to persuade me to be an author for trivial reasons (e.g. they used a checklist I developed), no doubt to give their paper some extra klout. I politely decline.

    Here are some of the complicated issues where it would be good to have some consensus:

    1. Grad students: I don’t think the supervisor should be an author unless they made a significant contribution. Then they should usually be 2nd author. I would only be first author if the student had done a good project and then lost interest, so I had to pick it up and reanalyse it and write it up or it would never get published – that is quite a common circumstance, I think.

    2. Paid research assistants. In psychology, many people include as authors anyone who has been involved in data collection, even if they do nothing else and were employed to do it. With research assistants employed on my grant, I tell them that they won’t get authorship just for doing the data collection, but that if they want to do more (get involved in the literature review, write-up, adding ideas) then I will do my best to provide opportunities for that.

    I was interested to see that Shavran Vasishth has authorship guidelines on his blog that match pretty well my own practice. http://www.ling.uni-potsdam.de/~vasishth/

    3. Datasets that yield many papers. Issue 2 gets compounded if a dataset is collected and then leads to many papers – if you have included people whose authorship claims were marginal on the first paper, do you continue to include them on all subsequent papers? I know of instances where this has happened, which can lead to some people having a string of papers on their CV, despite having made little contribution. In general, this may not matter much, since first or last authorship is what is usually key, but it can lead to an inflated H-index.

    4. Consortia/collaborations. I’ve been involved in collaborative projects where I’ve been told the policy is to include all members as authors on all papers. I try to opt out of inclusion on papers I have done nothing on – not least because I feel I should (a) understand the paper and (b) be able to vouch for the contents.

    Finally, I found this old set of guidelines for assigning order of authorship to be generally useful in cases of dispute:
    Winston RB. 1985. A suggested procedure for determining order of authorship in research publications. Journal of Counseling and Development 63:515-518.


    • Sam Schwarzkopf

      This all sounds really reasonable to me. Regarding 1 about grad students, it wouldn’t even cross my mind to make myself first author on a student’s study even if I had rewritten the whole thing. I did this once as a postdoc (and as already mentioned above, this resulted in shared first authorships) because the student in question had left and the project wouldn’t be completed if I hadn’t taken over the analysis and writing. For a PI to do that does not make the least bit of sense to me though.

      I assume having to rework student projects will be a regular situation for me for some time. I have many MSc project students. I want to publish their work but it is difficult as they are only in the lab for a brief period – this often means some considerable extra work for me even though they are typically quite keen to be involved in the process. But they did the work (and by that I don’t just mean data collection) and I’m the lab PI – it seems obvious what the authorship should be like here. In the future I do hope that postdocs and PhD students can take up more of the supervision burden of MSc projects, in which case I’d happily step back and give the postdoc senior authorship, if my role was more limited to guidance.


  4. Dear Sam and Dorothy, many thanks for your contribution. I do agree there seems to be a geographical difference in senior authorship claims between Germany (and the rest of continental Europe) and UK (and probably USA). I believe this has to do with the Anglo-Saxon tenure-track model, where researchers become independent rather early in their career (sometimes even straight after PhD). In Germany (and also elsewhere in continental Europe), researchers are only independent once they become full professors. Until then, it’s professor-installed junior group leaders or the old-fashioned “Habilitation”.
    The latter means a kind of second PhD (the bestowed title is “Privatdozent”, PD), and is a special postdoctoral training towards obtaining professorship qualifications, which includes student teaching and independent research and publishing. This habilitation-track is still very much the standard in medicine, which is also, even these days, farcically hierarchical.
    This is where the problem of greedy professors or clinic bosses kicks in: if they insist on claiming last authorship on every paper coming out of their lab (as they often do, without having any connection to that research whatsoever), the “Habilitant” is forced to take away the first authorship from own PhD students and even postdocs. The reason is: this habilitant needs a certain number of “own” papers to qualify for the cherished Privatdozent title.
    Luckily, it is different in UK and US. But, as Dorothy indicated, even UK doctors are keen on grabbing an undeserved authorship where they can. Also in German medical faculties, it seems you cannot borrow a pipette without a request for a co-authorship. But I wonder if there are other, Anglo-Saxon-model specific, issues of undeserved or stolen authorships, and would be very interested to learn of such.


  5. I got a murderer as a co-author. He made an RT-PCR (Blinded because I suspect he was cheating) and my boss insisted on adding him to the paper. 2 years later he killed his wife…



  6. I’ve done research in Israel and the US, and while undeserved authorships are pretty common, I have never heard of an example that the PI stole the first author position from his student or postdoc. Professors higher in hierarchy may be included as co-authors, but they are usually placed in the end just before the PI. The common undeserved authorships are credits for people who haven’t been practically involved in the research or people who contributed considerably and pushed to the middle due to political reasons. Nevertheless, if you are first or last author, why should you care if a co-author deserves it (by providing a poor plasmid)!? Nowadays, being a co-author doesn’t add much to your CV. I think the whole authorship order should be stopped altogether. A friend of mine in computer science is always shocked by it, since in his field, the order if authors on publication is alphabetical! When you advance in your academic career, your CV, skill set and references should be the important factors, not where your name us on the publication. This will result in lowered tension, less conflicts and transparency. Obviously, contributions section must be added to each oublication, and the positions of each author.


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  10. Anonymous

    This article makes it seem like the PI is always the evil one. I recently had a student leave my lab while I was on university sanctioned medical leave. Among other things, because in my field leaving a lab is a very bad thing, the student was motivated to have other authors on their papers because then it would look like I had made less of a contribution as the PI. The student claimed that another PI contributed to the work and added them without consulting me. I have repeatedly stated that the other PI has not contributed to the work, which was largely in draft before the student left – with the exception of one analysis that I advised them to do months before they left. The student claims that the other PI helped them with this analysis – however this is a standard thing that I had sent them the code and a tutorial on how to do. I had also been working with the student during my leave, but needed to take a 3-week break, during which time the student left my lab.

    My university claims this is an authorship dispute and does not seem willing to help me at all. The narrative that PIs are the ones that abuse this system, while historically accurate, has allowed in this case this particular student to undermine my rights as a PI that should be able to control the work going on in my lab. There are other issues in what happened that are a problem (I.e, violation of a federally-mandated leave with damage to my professional activities). But, just want to throw this out there to start people thinking about this a different way.


  11. The Ghost collaborator



    Collaboration is increasingly important for researchers in all disciplines. Universities and funding bodies tend to prefer projects that involve interdisciplinarity, collaboration between different institutions, and international consortiums. Such projects can yield great benefits, but they also pose particular challenges for certain aspects of research integrity, and particularly for awarding credit and authorship. In this article, we describe and analyze the phenomenon of the ghost collaborator, who is initially fully involved and makes a full contribution to a project’s design, but then finds him- or herself excluded from meetings and publications.

    The Ghost Collaborator
    David Shaw , Ph.D., M.A., M.Sc., M.M.L. & Bernice Elger , M.D., Ph.D.


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