To Author or Not To Author?

Apr 12 2011 Published by under publishing

When a paper is published with a particular list of co-authors, the assumption is that all co-authors participated in the work represented by the paper, that all have read and approved the submitted version of the paper, and therefore that all agree with the content of the paper. That last assumption, however, may have a substantial gray zone in which various authors have different opinions about how the work is presented.

A mild version of this would be if a co-author would have written the paper in a different way. This may well be the case for most papers, as we all have different styles of writing and preferences about how to construct an argument.

A more complicated version of co-authorial disagreement occurs when co-authors disagree about major aspects of the substance of the research that will be presented in a paper. For example:

Let's say that you provided some important data for a colleague's research project, and the colleague is now writing a paper using these results. The plan all along has been that you will be a co-author on the paper, but you find that you disagree with the colleague's interpretation of the data. It is not possible for you to reach an agreement on the interpretation, but it's also not possible for the colleague to use the data without somehow mentioning you or your lab. The colleague needs to finish and submit a manuscript using these data. Do you:

1. Let the colleague include your name as a co-author anyway but perhaps include some sort of indication that not all authors agree with all aspects of the paper.

2. Ask that your name be removed from the author list, and have your contribution indicated only in the acknowledgments section of the paper.

3. Refuse to let your colleague use the data.

4. Let your colleague use the data however s/he wants, but write your own paper with an alternative interpretation.

5. Other.

In many cases, I don't think options #3-4 are feasible, and these can be particularly problematic if students and/or postdocs are involved.

I think I would go for option #2, perhaps also asking that the authors include a statement that the interpretations are theirs alone. I have seen examples of this in the literature, and it can be done in a non-weird, professional way.

A long time ago, I was a co-author on a modified version of option #1 and it worked pretty well. In that situation, option #1 was acceptable to me because other authors agreed with me about our preferred interpretation, and the group as a whole worked together to find a way to represent all of our different points of view. In that paper, we presented the data "objectively" and then included two possible interpretations in the discussion. I don't think I would have gone for a version of #1 that was too far away from my preferred interpretation; in that case, option #2 would have been more reasonable.

Have any of you been in a situation in which you were an important-but not-primary-participant in a paper, and you disagreed with the interpretations of the lead authors? What did you do?

28 responses so far

  • Anonymous for this one says:

    This is a very interesting post and comes at a great time for me. I have recently written a paper with coauthors, and that paper has been submitted by one of the coauthors without me (or any of the other coauthors) approving the submitted version. There are no major disagreements over the content of the paper, but there are definitely some points that I would have wanted presented in a different way. Any advice on how to proceed?
    Coauthor knows we are not happy but doesn't care at all, and I don't think that a resubmitted version after reviews would account for any of our points (assuming they are not brought up by the reviewers, too).
    Should we just let it go? Or involve the editor/the university's committee on scientific conduct/his mom/...? What would you do in that kind of situation?

  • David Gaba says:

    Such situations are never easy. Technically it is highly inappropriate for the coauthor (presumably the first author) to submit a paper without the coauthors approving the submitted version. In some cases this happens because the coauthors are busy and delay their approval unnecessarily, and/or the coauthors don't seem to care very much. But you certainly do. So, what to do? Making a formal complain (also known as "making a stink") with the committee on scientific conduct is almost sure to be opening a can of worms that may have repercussions that you don't really want to do deal, all for a paper you don't really disagree with but wish could be better. Yes, the submitting coauthor is a jerk, but making a formal case probably isn't worth it. Contacting the editor is possibly not quite so inflammatory but still makes a formal issue out of it.

    The major problem is that "coauthor knows but doesn't care." Thus, the primary ways of dealing with this are typically to confront the coauthor directly. It sounds like there are hierarchy issues here. One choice -- as FSP suggests -- is just to pull your name from the paper. If you are a senior scientist having your name on one more paper doesn't mean much. If you are a junior scientist and it DOES mean much, then ask yourself, "do my disagreements on the presentation of the paper outweigh my desire to have another paper on my CV?"

    There is another issue -- generally whoever submits the paper is the primary author of it. In general, when multiple authors disagree on issues of presentation or other "non-critical" points, ultimately it is the primary author who gets to decide. Yes, it should be a consensus, but sometimes you have to choose one way or another and just move on. To have multiple coauthors unhappy with primary author is very unusual. However, as a very senior scientist in my field (and a Journal Editor in Chief) I might well decide to "go it my way" even if some of my coauthors disagree.... however I would get them to formally give approval (if if grudgingly) for submission rather than submit behind their backs. This is very rare, but somebody has to decide what to submit, and if it's really a big deal you can bow out {and if absolutely necessary one could take your data with you}.

    One point -- when the coauthor is a junior scientist (but not a trainee) I will furiously wield my red pen with critiques and suggestions (and sometimes significant re-writes) but ultimately I let them write THEIR paper, even if I think I could have done it better all by myself. Yes, the paper might not get published (and of course I help with the revisions or submission to another journal) but they need to take ownership for their not-so-stellar writing or their (IMHO) poor choices of how to present. As long as it is scientifically honest and accurate, there comes a point where I have to stop meddling and let them submit what they think is their best shot.

    Good luck!

    • geo_lindsay says:

      Hi--It is very interesting to hear the point of view of a senior scientist on this issue. I have one question about your comment, if you happen to see this: How do you proceed differently if a manuscript is written by a 'trainee'/student vs a junior scientist? Help them more w/ the writing?

      As a recent student, I found that my co-authors tended to take the approach that you describe.

      Thank you!

    • Anonymous for this one says:

      OP here. Thanks, David, for your very thoughtful comments. To answer the (implied) question: I am a junior scientist, and I obviously want the paper on my CV.

      There are further complications:
      "generally whoever submits the paper is the primary author of it" - well, in this case who submitted the paper is the first author on the submitted version, but not on earlier (and agreed-upon) versions. But this issue is very difficult to address (think big gradient in academic standing), and I am not even sure if it is worth the try.

      I would very much appreciate any further comments or advice you - and others - might have on the situation!

  • also anon says:

    Also in the middle of a similar situation. With two important caveats.

    -I'm not TT but will be going on the job market soon. So it seems silly to take my name off a potential pub for anything short of serious ethical reservations.

    -I don't disagree per se, so much as think the direction of the conclusions is very so-so. Let me put it this way, I don't want to have to defend the paper. If I were in charge we'd be going back to the data analysis drawing board, not trying to push the current set of conclusions out.

    Fortunately I have a lot of other projects going on. My solution has been to focus on those and remove myself from the bulk of the work on the project in question.

  • Susan says:

    Long story short: I chose (2), and was not acknowledged in any way.
    Long story, condensed:
    - I was a postdoc. I could really have used the authorship.
    - First author was a (male) grad student who I was nominally supervising and who utterly ignored any and every variation of suggestion &/ demand I made. His conclusions were derived from my experimental data, but applied in a range where they were almost certainly inapplicable. When I did insist that he try to apply the data in a realistic, meaningful range - the results were opposite to his previous. You can guess what the paper was written on.
    - First author (foreigner) also directly requested that I edit his English. I did so, which was very painful in Adobe, his software of choice. The next round he gave to me had NONE of those corrections in it. Ug.
    - The project had sputtered along for 2+ years, and seemed nowhere near a conclusion. I left on a one-month trip where I would be unplugged, and duly notified everyone and made arrangements in advance. During that month I got a "this is the last round and I'm submitting tomorrow" email. That version still had horrid English, and bad science. I found the timing questionable, to say the least.
    - Of course, mid-vacation I dropped my plans and called the PI (a dept. chair), with whom I'd never interacted before. I asked what he knew about the project, and whether he knew that grad student was barreling ahead without agreement amongst authors. PI's response was very concerned, will get to the bottom of this, ... and then tried to recruit me. I tell him I'll let him talk to grad student, and that we'll speak again in two days.
    - Next day, I get an *outraged* email from grad student. How dare I call the PI? Who do I think I am?
    - Next phone call with PI/chair: blows me off, and still tries to recruit me.
    - Email from grad student: We're submitting.
    - My reply: "take my name off"
    - Two weeks later: I am asked to review the paper. I am sorely tempted, but decline.

    Grad student also voluntarily entered an arranged marriage. I was and am strongly suspicious that my gender may have played a role in his lack of respect for me, and for the PI's actions. I'm recruitable, but my ideas and objections aren't even notable.

  • Social Scientist says:

    I've only had something like this happen to me once, but in that case it wasn't an issue of ethics, per se, but rather that the writing was just *so incredibly bad*. I frantically tried to edit the document, but then realized that I was basically rewriting the entire thing. I stepped away, took a breath, evaluated the time I had for such a pursuit . . . and let them submit it anyway. Not surprisingly, it was rejected, the colleague in question decided not to resubmit, and the problem was solved!

    I am a terrible person.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    I did (2). This was not optimal for me, as someone who applied for tenure-track jobs a few months later. But I decided my publications list was solid enough that it wasn't worth agonizing over this one (actually I think that if my publications list was sufficiently iffy that I had to agonize over a single paper then I would have had to rethink the idea of applying at al...)

  • I would take my name off a paper that I thought was badly wrong. I have left my name on a paper that I thought was only so-so work, because I did not want to redo the poor work (by a grad student of a colleague). They were using some of our data (hence the co-authorship). I did provide some editorial assistance and the final paper was only weak, not wrong or fraudulent, so I let it go.

  • Anonymouse says:

    #1 then #5

    #1 because you need to get credit where it is due. Otherwise you are the skirt, that did the menial task of collecting the data, who was rewarded with a mention in the acknowledgements. Who would give tenure to that person?

    #5 is where you collect more data so that there is less doubt in the interpretation and then publish.

  • TK says:

    when I was a grad student, all my papers had at least 3 "honorary co-authors" - professors who were co-PIs on the mega-grant that funded my research (as well as that of several other students), but who personally had little to no interest or involvement in my research. I remember that those honorary authors did not even attend technical meetings on the work, read drafts of manuscripts nor respond to requests for input on the drafts on which they were co-authors. And yet my PhD advisor told me I needed to include them as co-authors out of courtesy despite their complete lack of interest/involvement, but because they were co-PIs on the grant. I think they just assumed that quality-wise my advisor was making sure everything was "OK" as far as the content and thus they were fine with having their names on more papers of which they had no knowledge of the content.

    therefore, I can say that I have several papers where the co-authors did not read nor were aware of the content of the paper. But that was because of their own lack of interest and my advisors' insistence on including them as co-authors despite their lack of interest.

  • EngineeringProf says:

    #1. If I trust your coauthors, but have an honest disagreement over interpretation, I demand that the paper include both interpretations. I write some text with my own interpretation and add it to the paper, and they write some text with their interpretation and add it. I demand that the paper not be written in a way that downplays or demeans either person's interpretation. It's a perfectly reasonable position.

    Alternatively, if the paper is horrible across the board and there is no easy fix, then #2: "take my name off".

    If the coauthors are not acting in good faith or refuse to consider my concerns, and if the paper could not have happened without my contributions, I might probably insist that the paper not be published until my concerns are addressed. I would probably have some reluctance to say "take my name off" if the paper couldn't have happened without me, but I might do it just to extract myself from an uncomfortable situation.

  • editor_gal says:

    As an editor, I'm saddened by the idea that people would take their name off a paper which included data that they collected. Who else then can take responsibility for that data? Instead, I think this is the exact reason why author contributions statements were invented (along with spotlighting the courtesy authorships, referenced by TK). It provides a clear opportunity to say 'XY collected this data, YZ collected some other data, and YZ and AB interpreted the data and wrote the paper.' To me that makes it clear that XY was a consulting expert who had access to a fancy machine or something similar, but was not involved in (and may or may not agree with) the overall presentation and conclusions.

    • TK says:

      I agree. Seeing as how many journals have the practice of printing author biographies (and photographs! which I never understood why) at the end of each article, why not replace those with these statements of contribution.

      I would love to see how the courtesy authors' contributions (or lack thereof) are justified. Although I suspect that I would probably have been made (by my advisor) to fabricate something to make it sound like they contributed something, or just put some generic bland and totally meaningless statement like "Prof's so and so contributed technical insight and discussions. " (even though in my case they did not do even that)

  • Janos says:


    You should have accepted to be a referee, then asked for the textual revisions you felt important, voiced your objections to the conlusions and data ranges, and, possibly asked for details about the data gathering process.

    All emails have discussed the individual gains and career advantages of the different options, but there is an important aspect that should not be neglected: namely the real purpose of a publication is not a stepping stone in a research career, but a contribution to science. If the way a paper is written in a way that distorts the findings, it is one's duty to prevent its publication.

  • Joe HourclĂ© says:

    I think this brings up a completely different issue, so I'll go with #5 ...

    There needs to be a way to cite data, and for providing data itself to be considered either publishing, or in some way considered towards tenure. It's been mentioned a couple of times on Christina's blog, but really there needs to be some formal way of both acknowledging that you used someone's data, and of putting data out there so that others can reference it.

    I fully admit, I'm biased in the matter, as I've been trying to push the issue of data citation for years, and helped to organize the session on data publication at RDAP 2011.

    I just think that this is one of those cases where one of my favorite lines from the Town Hall on data citation at the 2009 AGU -- "a person who publishes really good data is given less credit than someone who publishes a bad paper".

    In the case that Susan mentioned -- if her data were published with appropriate documentation and use caveats, and referenced as such in the paper that the grad student published, it should've been easy for the peer reviewers to check the data, realize he had a selection bias, and rejected the paper. Without the data being in a place where it can be checked by the peer reviewers, we're actually doing a disservice to the science community, as it allows this type of bad papers to get through unchecked.

  • ecologist says:

    A very interesting question and set of comments and insights. I'll add a few opinions.

    If one author submits a paper without approval of all co-authors, a simple note to the editor of the journal, saying "Please be aware that the paper "A study of X", contributed by So-and-so et al., has been submitted without approval of all co-authors, in violation of your journal's policy." That will let the editor handle it (I'm guessing that the paper would be bounced back with an instruction to come back when all the co-authors have approved it.)

    If co-authors can't agree on interpretation, there will often be room to include alternative views. Personally, I have always thought it would be great to see this more often. "Figure 2 shows that blah blah, but there are different opinions about the implications. Author A thinks that blah blah, but Authors B and C feel that, on the contrary, blah blah blah. Future research to distinguish these interpretations would be valuable..." Or something like that.

    If the disagreement was so bad that I had to remove my name from the paper, I think that when I left, all my data/methods/analyses would go with me. It would be up to the other authors to craft a paper without any of my contributions. If they can't do that, too bad; maybe they should be a little more flexible in coming to a consensus.

    And some direct, frank, discussions (confrontations, even) are probably called for in any case.

  • Thaira says:


    I did some research and now this is being used to write a paper and is going to be published however I have been told that my name will not be included on the paper is this allowed?

    • Science Professor says:

      Based only on the information you have provided, I would say that this is now allowed. Is there someone you can talk to other than the person who made the decision to leave you out of the author list? You should also be able to see the paper before it is submitted.

  • Sara says:

    Hi everyone,
    I have a very difficult situation and I hope that someone would have a good advice for me.
    I am the first author and the corrisponding author and I submitted a paper recently. One of the co-author after mounths of silece and minimal contribution to the writting the manuscript, after the submittion decided that he want to include another co-author.
    The submittion is already done and he want to write to the editor. What would be the risk for me and the paper? Can I write to the editor asking to include another name?
    Thanks a lot

  • Mike says:

    This was a therapeutic read.

    I have been fretting for the past week about a situation, where my manager has rewritten my paper, inserting factual inaccuracies, conclusions not drawn from the evidence and deleting swathes of relavent analysis, and then, although asking me for comments but not waiting for me to provide them, submitting it to the client for their consultation in my name (not his).

    When I did come to provide comments outlining the points mentioned above he started by saying that he would be happy to take them into account. However he then qualified that by saying he had the responsibility for ensuring the quality of reports, adding that whilst he was happy to explain the changes he had made, he was not willing to debate them.

    I have not replied and am waiting to see if I get the opportunity to review the revised report before it is finalised.

    It may be that he submits the report listing me as the sole author, with the report containing the same factual inaccuracies, conclusions, and omitting the relevant analysis.

    I would think that this practice contravenes the right of an author to agree on the content of a report issued in his name?

    Also, it may pose problems down the line when I am asked to comment on the veracity of the stated facts and the reasoning behind the conclusions.

    It is frustrating because I know the client is missing out on data that would be of interest to them.

  • Mike says:

    By the way, does anyone know of any ethics frameworks, which delineate good practice in this area?

  • unlucky student says:

    Have a question what happens if a professor forgot to include my name in a publication and my contribution was crucial in making the difference in getting work accepted.

    Professor acknowledged it was an oversight but wasnt able to do anything as by the time I found out, the paper was published

  • Saransh Khandelwal says:

    I worked on the project but my guide did not included my name in the co-authors in the abstract submitted to Neuroscience publication. How to get judgements ?

    • Jay U says:

      Had the same issue, is there anything that can be done to fix this? or does anyone know of a procedure to follow?

  • changikudi says:

    Recently my mentor gave my name on a paper for which I collected the data. It is my very first paper and he has asked me to give my comments. I agree with all that is on, coz I ardly have an experience. I do not have any major comments. How should I proceed?
    I mean, is there some speicic language or sentences, I should use while writing back to him ?

    PLease help!

  • Yogita Sharma says:

    I was one of the co-author for a paper which is now published in IEEE.

    My name was removed two days before the final submission deadline and settled down in acknowledgment section.

    I have all proof's, email communication which can prove that the paper content say upto 50-60% was written by me.

    Pl. let me know what should i do? How to complain and Where? (Conference held this year only in Jan. 2013, India)

    At present Authors are : One PhD student and Professor (who is my PI as i am working as RA).