What’s in a co-author?

I wanted to enter this entry about a delicate issue, but one that is important to many of us: namely, what type of input does it take to be a co-author? This issue is important because many Ph.D students and junior faculty feel obliged to include senior co-authors in their, generally dissertation, work, even though they have done everything and have been working hard for years on a paper. When it comes to tenure reviews, it is all too often that these same people are being accused not to be independent thinkers – sometimes even not getting tenure for influential co-authored papers – even though they have been doing the research on their own all along and someone more established is getting the credit. In fact, I have even seen senior faculty refusing to put their name on papers by juniors they like a lot, precisely to avoid this type of expectation: this type of response by good people is telling.

I will share here an opinion, hopefully it is a positive drop of water on this issue. I have worked with many co-authors and have been very pleased with this, someone once said at the junior faculty consortium “co-authors make better papers” and I entirely agree. I have also seen various cases that did not end well. So, I’d like to share some experience on that. The reader may obtain a more formal discussion by leading scientists here, which largely parallels my points.

(Either of) conditions for a co-author. In my view, any of these things would make for a good, valuable co-authors, and this is hopefully the case for the majority of co-authorship.

  • Writing. Any contribution to writing a full section (such as either intro, main text, or extensive paragraphs on results) is part of a valuable contribution. Good writing is difficult and time-consuming, even when it is just a few difficult sentences to craft, and it requires deep understanding to transmit an argument.
  • Core model/technique. Writing the model (in a theoretical paper) or drafting a new estimation technique is also a core contribution to a paper – by technique or model, I mean more than stating an empirical regression but sufficient details on the design so that it becomes implementable.
  • Proofs/code. Some co-authors will do programming or difficult proofs, which is the unseen part of a paper but, nevertheless, where the true nature of the paper is. Anyone will say that this is perhaps the most important contribution of paper.

Aspects that are not expected. Let me know mention aspects that are not necessary conditions and are typically not true in most successful co-authoring partnerships (as far I could see).

  • are not equal contributors (even without ranking of authors). It is very rare that all co-authors would have spent the same amount of time or effort on a paper; first, skills vary; second, the tasks of each co-author may not be exactly identical; and, third, one co-author may initially be less involved and then catch up on some revision work.
  • are not technical experts. It is not because someone does not contribute to the technical parts of a study (like proofs or code) that this author may not be valuable. As to accounting, any paper is of no value unless the idea is stated in words, and doing this is different from crafting technique.
  • are not friends that help each other. We work with people because we have complementary skills or interests, as in any professional relationship. That someone co-authors with someone else does not pre-assume they have compatible personalities or would necessarily view what the other does with other people as “good work;” i.e., good people have a their own professional judgment independently of their co-authoring relationships.

Should you ever take a co-author out from a paper, say, if all of the either of conditions are unmet? I think the answer here is clear and unambiguous: you should never, ever, remove a co-author. Any attempt to do so will have serious consequences. The reason is simple, even not being interested about a paper (which is fine) is no reason to get as “punishment” some public awkwardness of being forced to step down on a paper. The person would and should respond to this. This cannot end well and will hurt anybody involved, including the research.

There is only one caveat to this, but only because it is, strictly speaking, not removing an author. This occurs if a paper is not working well at all, and does not seem publishable so that one of the authors has an interest in trying something related but different. This can only be done if the new paper does not supersede the prior paper, that is, the analysis of the original paper would still stand on its own. Thus, it is not removing an author but working on a different project on the same general issue. In a way, this simply means that one works with a co-author on one paper, not on an entire stream of research about one topic.

Even then, though, my advice would be to avoid any such outcome and try to keep co-authors as much as possible. This may seem unfair if you are doing all the work but, remember, you did choose to put someone’s name on a paper, and this is like a contract (albeit an incomplete one); one should not renege on a contract without consequences that far outweigh any remote benefits.

For more, see:

ICMJE statement on co-authorship



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