Wednesday, October 01, 2008

When does Alice deserve to be a co-author?

When has someone done enough work to deserve a co-authorship? Here are a few scenarios I have seen. I will say what did happen, not what should have happened.
  1. Alice comes up with the problem and makes some obvious observations about it, she shows it to others, who solve it. She writes it all up. (Alice got the co-authorship.)
  2. Alice comes up with the problem and makes some obvious observations about it, she shows it to others, who solve it. She does not write it up but does some proofreading. (I've seen this twice- once she got the co-author, once not.)
  3. Bob shows Alice a problem, Alice makes one observation that is the key. She has put only 2 minutes of work into the paper. (Alice got the co-authorship.)
  4. Bob has already written up the 50 page paper and it has covered all of the cases except for one. Alice solves the one case left. It was not a hard case at all. (Alice did not get the co-authorship.)
  5. Bob and Carol solve the problem together. Alice is in the room and does not contribute anything, but her tenure case is coming up soon and she is a bit short on papers. (Alice got the co-authorship. This is a rare scenario.)
  6. Alice proofreads a paper and finds a serious flaw in it, but fixes tht flaw. It was a rather subtle flaw and needed very clever argument to fix it. (Alice got the co-authorship.)
  7. Alice reads Bob's paper and comes up with a generalization that Bob does not care about, but wouldn't really be worth a paper on its own. (The paper did not have the generalization and Alice did not get the co-authorship.)
  8. Alice makes a key observation that makes all of the proofs shorter. The Conference version has her as a co-author. However, while writing up the journal version it is noticed that Alice's contribution was not correct. It is removed and the journal version is pretty much what it would have been had Alice not been involved at all. (Alice asked to be taken off of the journal version The other authors were surprised by this and did not mind keeping her as an author. They pointed out that there were other people on the paper that were even less involved. But they agreed to take her off on her insistence.)


  1. Hubert Chang's ridiculous excuse for not wanting his name put on the PageRank paper:

  2. Alice, Bob and Carol solve a problem together and publish it. Later, Bob and Carol use the same techniques to solve another, related problem. They write a paper and put Alice's name on it.

  3. To Anon#2:

    The key words are "same techniques" and "related problem". Assuming that Alice played an important role in discovering those techniques, then her co-authorship on the second paper is warranted.

  4. To anon's #2 and #3: my attitude is, once a technique has been published, anyone can use it without paying royalties. In anon #2's scenario, if I were in the role of Alice, and were still easily accessible when Bob and Carol were discussing the new problem I'd be a little miffed that they hadn't talked to me, but I wouldn't want credit for their result.

  5. To Anon#4:

    This is Anon#3. I agree with your first sentence in general. However, what if Alice was the one who did the most important work in coming up with the technique, and Bob and Carol were simply applying it to solve a similar problem. If her name is not on the second paper, Alice might not be given proper credit even for the first paper, particularly if she is a non-tenured female more junior than the other two authors in a male-dominated field. (For example, Alice is a graduate student and Bob and Carol are her advisors. Bob and Carol had been trying to solve a class of related problems but without much success until Alice came along...)

  6. This is about the scenario in anon #2. What if it is only Bob and Alice who solve a problem together and write a paper on it (as opposed to Alice Bob and Carol). Later, Bob, who also did most of the work for the first paper, uses the same techniques to solve another related problem. Then should Alice get co-authorship?

    Also, what if it was Alice and Bob for the first paper, but Bob is Alice's advisor, and he wants another student Carol to look into a second application of these techniques (maybe because Alice is too busy with other stuff or is on a summer internship.) Then, is he obliged to put Alice's name on the second paper as well?

  7. Actually for case #2 in Gasarch's list, I would say that whether Alice should get coauthorship or not depends on how hard it was to formulate the problem. Sometimes, modeling a problem in the right way so that it is solvable can be pretty hard; so if the problem was of this kind, then Alice should certainly get coauthorship.

  8. Off topic: why do people post as anonymous if later they need to refer to their older posts?

    Why not sign-off with a tag? Sure, the tag could be "anonymous" but it would be interesting to see how many people write "anonymous". Actually shouldn't even give the option "anonymous" below.

  9. From what I read on the internet, scenario 5 is much more common in fields other than mathematics or CS.

  10. 1. Alice deserves last co-authorship.
    2. Alice deserves a clear acknowledgment (for posing the problem), but not co-authorship. I imagine this case has happened quite often between advisor and graduate student.
    3. If her contribution is important, then Alice deserves co-authorship.
    4. Was Bob unable to solve that last case and needed Alice's help? If so, then she probably deserves last co-authorship. Depending on how small the case is compared to the rest of the long paper, an acknowledgment may be sufficient.
    5. Shame on all three of them for perpetrating fraud! A tenured position to an undeserving person is one fewer for the deserving person.
    6. Alice clearly deserves co-authorship.
    7. Bob has done nothing wrong. If the generalization is important enough, Alice can write a separate paper.
    8. Alice has made the right (and honorable) decision. Shame on those who include as co-authors people who contribute very little to the new results of the paper!

  11. Some situations that happened either to me or to friends of mine.

    (coauthor, not sure) Advisor did absolutely nothing but hey, he's the advisor.

    (coauthor, disagree) Head of the lab did absolute nothing but hey, he's the head of the lab.

    (coauthor, disagree) Lab mate wrote two paragraphs summarising some well-known concepts. They could have easily been written by the author himself.

    (coauthor, disagree) Developer of an open source tool who happens to be a lecturer. He did absolutely no research directly related to the paper except the open source software itself that was released years ago. Now that's an interesting way of keeping the publications coming!

    (not coauthor, agree) Lab mate helped author to understand the data structures and representations needed to do the research described in the paper.

    (not coauthor, agree) Lab mate suggested an alternative data structure (binomial heaps) and helped author with the (somewhat trivial) complexity of author's algorithms

    (not coauthor, agree) Alice suggested Bob a problem. Alice acknowledges Bob for the suggestion.

  12. In case #2, if Alice isn't a co-author, then shouldn't the *title* be something like "Alice's Question on Foos that are also Barred Bazzes." How many math titles start "On a Problem of Erdos...."?

    Generally, it seems to me that if Bob doesn't think Alice deserves a co-authorship based on her research contribution, then none of the writing should be done by Alice. Once Alice has written part of the paper, she should become a co-author automatically (unless she submitted a sample rewrite of a paragraph as part of role as a reviewer - that should go in the acknowlegements.)

  13. Off topic: why do people post as anonymous if later they need to refer to their older posts?

    Laziness, mainly. I don't care about credit for anything I suggest here, and I like the idea of anonymous posting (with each comment being judged on its own merits rather than based on its author), so I want to obscure my identity. Of course I could sign up for a persistent pseudonym, but keeping track of another account and password is too much trouble. Plus it would kind of defeat the purpose of anonymity, since over time the pseudonym would develop a (small) reputation of its own, so the comments would no longer be completely divorced from any reputation or context (the way I want them to be).

    I rarely refer back to previous comments and identify them as mine, but it's occasionally convenient. I actually rather like the fact that I can't prove they are mine. Whenever someone claims to be anonymous #n, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. :-)

  14. I like the way they typically assign credit in the pure mathematics community: by alphabetical order, with each author contributing roughly equally to the paper. All other contributions--even some that would have earned a co-authorship in other fields--are given acknowledgments instead. And their acknowledgments are very specific and unambiguous too. Not surprisingly, that community, though imperfect, is one of the cleanest there is and least prone to corruption. (Is it because the constant use of proofs in their work forces them to be just as impartial and objective in work habits as well, including proper authorship assignment?)

  15. Not surprisingly, that community, though imperfect, is one of the cleanest there is and least prone to corruption.

    Really? Are cases like the ones described in Sylvia Nasar's newyorker article relating to the Poincare conjecture and other previous stuff involving some of those people common in other fields?

  16. Ah, I knew someone would bring up a high-profile case; that's why I used the word "imperfect." The mathematical community is still one that typically rejects special treatment based on seniority or authority alone. Special treatment common in many fields but less so in math include, for example, gift authorship to advisors, heads of labs, professors who provide funding, and other senior people regardless of actual contribution. Even though such practices violate the ethical codes set forth by their professional societies, they're unfortunately commonplace.

  17. My view (actually also official policy at my institution) is that everyone who makes a substantial intellectual contribution to the work should be offered co-authorship [they may of course decline, if they feel unworthy, or dubious about the quality of the work!]. So what counts as "substantial intellectual contribution? Our university is unclear about the boundary, but it says explicitly that providing funding (eg as lab head) is not such a contribution. In deciding coauthorship, I would use the following principles. For case 3: The time spent on the paper is not relevant as coauthorship is a measure of quantity of intellectual contribution, not of quantity of effort. For case 1 and 2: choosing which problem is worth working on counts, even if it is a well-known problem (and that is why a thesis advisor is often a coauthor even if they didn't contribute the solution idea). Some other cases I have known: proofreading does not count, but creating the expository approach does count as enough contribution.

  18. What if you are working on a long-term project, say you have worked on a problem for two years. At one point, a colleague worked on the project for two months but then dropped out. The colleague did make a contribution to the approach that you were working on at the time, but that approach ultimately could not be shown to work and the problem was solved using a different approach. Should the colleague be a co-author?

  19. Student does work. Advisor disagrees with contents (hey, it's different from what he's been saying all those years!). Buf it there is a chance the paper is going to be published, then he better have his name in it, after all he pays the student's salary. He get's co-authorship.

  20. But it there is a chance the paper is going to be published, then he better have his name in it, after all he pays the student's salary.

    I had heard that this was the norm in systems, but does this actually happen in TCS?

  21. To Anon #16 (and others)
    Mathematicians seemed to have learnt this the hard way though. Consider for example what Caucy did to Abel and Galois. For those interested, E. T. Bell's, Men of Mathematics, is a delightful read.

  22. To Anon #19:

    I think the relevant question in this scenario is : would this paper exist if the advisor was not there? In many such cases, the answer is no; for example, the advisor might have formulated the problem, or chosen the problem, or pointed the student towards the right papers or towards the right technique. All too often, in these cases, the students think it is they who did all the work, because they worked out the details, and that the advisor has no contribution -- and they are wrong. In many such cases, the paper would not have been written if the advisor was not in the picture, and therefore, the advisor's name should be on it.

  23. If one's advisor really did do a reasonable job of training - by providing the intellectual context within which the work is done, then it seems to be that it is perfectly OK to include him as a co-author on all works in that thread.

    On a different note, it seems a bit sad that people are so worked up about credit assignment... seems to give credence to people who think academia is dysfunctional.

  24. There is already corruption on Wall Street, in corporations, and in politics. Increasingly, we are seeing corruption even in academia. Just recently, a famous physics blog reported of plagiarism cases being brought to the attention of certain prestigious journals, but got ignored until they had become an outcry.

    Even though the ivory tower is not yet as dysfunctional as Wall St., I think it is a good idea to discuss ethical issues from time to time in a safe, anonymous forum before certain misbehavior becomes rampant. While most professors would never mistreat their students/colleagues (they are, after all, scholars and typically act scholarly), there are some who do take advantage of the naivete, inexperience, and powerlessness of the junior researcher. I believe bringing issues out in the open is one way to curb misconduct.

  25. Case #2 is something that I can relate very much to. And I would even doubt the coauthorship of Bob in some cases like these. The validity of coauthorship here depends very much on how much effort and intellectual contribution was required in formulating it vs solving it. Very often solving the problem is not so hard if you know the usual techniques, once it is formulated nicely. I have myself once spent months coming up with a good formulation (not too easy not too hard), and before i could spend anytime solving it, I talked about it with somebody and he/she gave me a solution in 2 minutes. Now, I feel that I could have also solved it myself in say 1 hour, had I not discussed it. But the other person still got the coauthorship.

  26. Two other scenarios:

    1. Bob uses Alice's non-public code to perform experiments and reports results in the paper. Alice gets mentioned in the acknowledgments while she knows Bob would have taken forever to write that code. Alice doesn't know how to react but stops helping out Bob.

    2. Alice is the PI on the grant which supports grad student Bob. Alice does no work but still get's co-authorship on Bob's paper.

  27. I agree that, for each co-author, the importance of the contribution and the time spent are, in general, independent.

    However, usually the list of authors is decided once we are confident in having a solution for the problem. It seems to me that those who worked less (those who either had less ideas or spent less time than the others) should then feel more concerned by the writing. I've seen several cases where one of the co-authors becomes unreachable once we collectively decided his name would be on the paper...

  28. A few more I've seen:

    Alice funds a lab, attracts bright students, gets them excited about a problem, they write a paper, she is untenured, writing more grants and doesn't have time to read it, they put her name on it anyway, she gets tenure.

    Bob funds a lab, attracts bright students... he demands they take his name off the paper since he didn't write it, he doesn't get tenure.

    One thing no one has mentioned here is that really you have these conversations in advance. If someone makes a contribution that might be author-worthy, they should take the time to also help writing up the paper, or else accept just an acknowledgement. Similarly, if you have to ask someone to write "a few obvious paragraphs" then you owe them for their time. This isn't just some passive logic-problem set in a book. Papers take time and are negotiated.

    Another thing not mentioned is how great journals like Nature and PNAS are that let you specify everyone's contribution, so you can just put everyone on (and maybe have the reviewers suggest taking some off.)

  29. everyone who makes a substantial intellectual contribution
    _IN EXPECTATION_ to the work should be offered co-authorship. That is anyone who made a serious effort, even if it was not so fruitful.

    I also think that if ALICE is Albert Einstein she deserves co-authorship. alternatively, if Alice is unexperienced female then it is very easy to make her quit her co-authorship, even if her idea was great. and we all know that sometime the question is more important than the answer even if the proof is very clever (and Alice can ask others including herself...)