Wherein lies the harm of so-called "courtesy" authorships?

November 4, 2011

The BMJ policy on the criteria for deserving an authorship on a scientific paper raised it’s ugly head today on the Twitts.

For additional edification and background, one @mattjhodgkinson provided a link to his editorial and blog post on the topic. You may also wish to review the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors standards.

My take on these standards is two fold.

First, the exclusion of those who “merely” collect data is stupid to me. I’m not going to go into the chapter and verse but in my lab, anyway, there is a LOT of ongoing trouble shooting and refining of the methods in any study. It is very rare that I would have a paper’s worth of data generated by my techs or trainees and that they would have zero intellectual contribution. Given this, the asymmetry in the BMJ position is unfair. In essence it permits a lab head to be an author using data which s/he did not collect and maybe could not collect but excludes the technician who didn’t happen to contribute to the drafting of the manuscript. That doesn’t make sense to me. The paper wouldn’t have happened without both of the contributions.

Second, and the real topic for today, is the notion of “courtesy authorships”. It is a not infrequent punching bag. What I want to know is, where’s the evidence of a problem? What is the nature of the problem? What is going to be solved by this that justifies the denial of credit to the deserving (see above)?

@mattjhodgkinson offered:

Authors – inc. gift authors – take responsibility for papers. The gift may be poisoned.

Yes…but this is the case for any author on a multi-contributor paper. So I’m not seeing where this specifically affects so-called courtesy authors.

How about you Reader? Can you describe for me why gift authors are a systematic problem?

How frequent are genuine, totally noncontributing “gifts”? Are you sure you are not just whinging about the degree of contribution? Have you never had an offhand comment made in a discussion absolutely crystallize your thinking?

Assuming that we are not talking about pushing someone else meaningfully* out of deserved credit, where lies the harm even if it is a total gift?

Who is hurt? How are they damaged?

__
*by pushing them off the paper entirely or out of first-author or last-author position. Adding a 7th in the middle of the authorship list doesn’t affect jack squat folks.

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No Responses Yet to “Wherein lies the harm of so-called "courtesy" authorships?”


  1. As I’ve said before, I don’t think this is a big issue. The real problem is trying to encode something as complicated as contribution to a scientific discovery in a linear order of authors. Makes much more sense to just describe what everyone did and leave it at that.

    But, we don’t yet live in that world. Today, being the 5th author on a 10 author paper has some small value – it means nothing to your or me, but it means something to an undergrad who did some experiments as part of a bigger project. And, if people have a general belief that 5th authors are often included out of courtesy, it marginally devalues the designation.

    Again, this is not a sufficiently big problem to warrant a targeted solution, it’s just another reason why describing author contributions would be a good thing.

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  2. I also find the practice of compelling people to include you as an author for providing access to data that you have or are about to publish to be bullshit. It’s not exactly “courtesy” authorship, but it sucks.

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  3. drugmonkey Says:

    I have no problem with the “Author Contribution” statements that are rapidly becoming obligatory. Or, at least I don’t go so far as to object to them. It makes some sense to detail this.

    I see a problem lying just ahead, which is that it simply puts the fights over relative contribution at a whole new level. I don’t see anything that says “jones created figure 5 and lin did the analysis for the ChIP/CHIP/slipNdIP experiment” yet. Nothing so specific that you can nail a cheater, for example. Mostly just general statements about data collection, analysis and manuscript drafting. Maybe something about the overall conceptualization of the plan.

    So I see the fights already about who had the original idea, who should be listed first in the statement about data collection (s’okay, listed-second, co-contribution author, we’ll put your initials first in the statement about data collection and analysis!), who did “substantial manuscript drafting” versus who just contributed “critical editing and commentary”, etc.

    but, you know, maybe I’m just a cynic…..

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  4. drugmonkey Says:

    I also find the practice of compelling people to include you as an author for providing access to data that you have or are about to publish

    Not sure I get this. Since publishing first is such a big deal in our world, it makes sense that if someone is likely to get their paper published first, the original data generating person deserves authorship. Same thing with genetic mouse models.

    After they have already published it is another matter, of course.

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  5. Yes – the current system does allow us to sweep various problems under the rug. One can somewhat neatly tie up a debate between two people who both think they deserve top billing for something by making them co-first authors – which allows both to continue thinking (and portraying to others) that they had the original idea, did the crucial experiment, had the key insight or whatever – in a way that a full description might not allow. But I still think it’s a better – if not yet perfect – way to do it.

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  6. Should have been more clear – I’m not talking about individual labs collaborating with someone else and seeking to ensure that they get proper credit for their work. My main complaint is with the still current practice of a lot of genome centers and other big data generators who have the policy that they will give you with access to their data (which is all publicly funded with the idea that they’re creating public resources) provided that you:

    a) make them co-authors
    b) don’t publish until they do
    c) don’t do any of the analyses that they reserve for themselves

    It’s nothing more than a fairly toxic scheme to increase their publication count.

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  7. drugmonkey Says:

    Further musing:

    I am shaped in my views by considering the impact on me of

    1) Pubs where I clearly should have been included as an author but was not (thankfully only about 2 that I know of)

    2) Projects that could have been pubs, should have been pubs IMO, but were never submitted due to collaborators disagreeing about that fact (N=1)

    3) Any supposed BSD courtesy authors on papers that I am on (a handful at best)

    4) Relative evaluation of me by people looking at the length of the author list of my pubs (zero impact relative to the work itself and the journals it was published in).

    5) The fantasy of pure “courtesy” authorships that I have as yet not been extended. IMO, of course 🙂

    In all of this my musing brings me to the simple truth: the greatest impact is when someone does not get credited with authorship when they (in some views) deserve it.

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  8. drugmonkey Says:

    It’s nothing more than a fairly toxic scheme to increase their publication count.

    Yes but given that everyone knows the level of contribution..does it matter?

    Do we really think that raw numbers matter in such a situation? Are you (presumably not a data center) being compared with them where it counts?

    I understand that raw pub count can matter to things like job seeking, promotion and grant review. But since subjective and supposedly objective measures of a scientist’s quality are manifold and subfield variable, I’m not seeing where this is any different. So a data center scientist gets a lot of middle authorships in collaboration. Another person might have C/N/S papers solely by virtue of where s/he trained. Another might have a relatively high number of papers from their graduate or postdoctoral training because the lab prefers to slice the sausage thinly. Another trainee might have a lot of single or two-author pubs because that is the tradition of their fields. Or a lot of authors, all from the same laboratory. Or a ton of collaborators.

    Ultimately, it seems a bit of a fool’s errand for journals and/or editors to attempt to constrain this variety because they decide to select one model for communicating scientific input via the authorship line….

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  9. I tell you what – I’ll make you an author on my next paper, and, as a control, you DON’T make me an author on your next paper, and we’ll compare the consequences.

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  10. Or, better yet, let’s do a RCT. Anyone who submits a paper before the end of the year flips a coin – heads, you include DrugMonkey as an author, tails, you don’t. To analyze the results, we’ll compare the marginal difference on their success in NIH grants in 2013.

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  11. Ultimately, it seems a bit of a fool’s errand for journals and/or editors to attempt to constrain this variety because they decide to select one model for communicating scientific input via the authorship line….

    Agree completely

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  12. drugmonkey Says:

    I suspect if I appeared on one of your papers there would be very few people that would conclude anything other than undeserved shenanigans…

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  13. drugmonkey Says:

    Agree completely

    We haven’t gotten into this on the blog in years but there have been some pretty hilarious discussions involving people who think that authorship tradition in their subfield is the only tradition. And verge on shouting “unethical” about the traditions/practices of other subfields.

    I am amused because I have been fairly firmly entrenched, at times, in different traditions. One in which single- or dual-author pubs are the absolute pinnacle of teh awesome and another in which short author lists show you are doing science of limited interest and scope, working noncollaboratively and basically suck.

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  14. qaz Says:

    As long as merit and success (grants, jobs, promotions, salary) is measured by publications, gift authorships are a problem. They are effectively stealing credit for something they did not do. How is this not theft?

    DM says: “Do we really think that raw numbers matter in such a situation? ” Come on, you don’t seriously believe that do you? Anyone who claims that publication count is not being used for determination of grants, jobs, or promotions is fooling themselves. And, of course, many places that don’t count raw numbers of total publications, do count raw numbers of N/S (why is C in there?) or other glamourmagz.

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  15. drugmonkey Says:

    My point qaz is that if you rely on any one of these “objective” measures you are pretty much hosed anyway. Most of us. You have to trust that that there will be some degree of thoughtful evaluation when it comes down to brass tacks.

    Yes, sometimes your usual excuses for why you don’t measure up on one objective measure will be ignored. But other times the person sitting in evaluation of you will buy the argument that your work is important and of high quality and the fact you don’t have a Science paper is of little importance.

    “stealing credit”? From whom? Like I said, I reject the notion that adding 7th author does anything to the evaluation of the contribution of 1st, 6th, 8th or last author that can be measured.

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  16. Namnezia Says:

    Craziness – I agree that it is impossible to simply collect data. To me all the tweaking and troubleshooting during this process definitely counts as experimental design and intellectual contribution.

    As far as courtesy authorships, I’m not fond of them, but I don’t think they cause harm.

    (So should I list you simply as “Drugmonkey” in my next publication, or as Drug Monkey?)

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  17. Alex Says:

    I have seen situations where if you have even one conversation with somebody about the paper, maybe as simple as “Hmm, software is acting weird today, any ideas on what to do?” or having lunch with somebody who says “Yes, what you’re doing seems to be correct, maybe we should collaborate at some point”, BOOM, that person is an author.

    Yes, yes, there are situations where solving a software problem is an intellectual contribution, but there are far more situations where it isn’t. Yes, the person who collaborates with you should be an author AFTER they do something, but I saw a situation where somebody was being given authorship as payment in advance for whatever they might do in a future collaboration.

    This was in the context of an institute where money was controlled by a Director and doled out to specific labs. You have to prove that you are productive, and you want to help your friends prove that they are productive. Showing a few extra papers on top of your main research focus (i.e. on top of the papers where you can actually make a case for your contribution) is a good way to look good in the eyes of the Director.

    This is not an environment that I currently work in or want to work in.

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  18. drugmonkey Says:

    How are journal standards going to solve those problems, Alex? And why should they when the problem is local toxicity?

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  19. Alex Says:

    Ah, sorry for the misunderstanding. If the question is “What should the journals do about it?” I think the answer is “There is nothing that they can do.” Author contribution lists will simply be revised to say “Dr. So-and-so provided assistance with the analysis and interpretation of the results” and nobody will ever know that it was saying “Sounds good!” over lunch. There’s no way for an editor to do anything about this.

    OTOH, if the question is “Is this practice harmful?” then the answer is “Yes, in some environments.”

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  20. M Says:

    No matter what we do, some people are going to ride others’ coat tails and get ahead for it. Some will work their butts off and not get enough credit. And some will be master leaders and delegators, getting others to work for/with them (in a good way) and be massively successful.

    I’m tempted to agree that it’s probably better to lean toward not offending any colleagues unduly when there are different perceptions regarding contributions or to give someone a little extra credit than they might deserve than to cause bitterness and resentment by not including people.

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  21. Pinko Punko Says:

    Funny story:

    Some Harvard big shot giving a dog/pony presentation to grad students gets asked about a paper upon which he was an author, that may have suggested something he just presented was more complex. His dismissive reply: “that’s just a JBC paper, and we were only authors on it because we gave them an antibody”

    Nice one, cobag! Maybe you shouldn’t have accepted authorship, chunderknob.

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  22. GMP Says:

    I have a sometime collaborator who has included me a few times on their papers without me even knowing about it (I only found out by accident months after the papers had come out). I did know about the work and I suppose I contributed intellectually through discussions, but I did not know about the papers in question being written and didn’t ever get to see them before they were submitted; that in my book is unacceptable. On two of those papers I really wish I hadn’t been included, I am not happy about being associated with them. I am sure the collaborator thought they were doing me a courtesy by giving me coauthorship, but this is indeed the case of a “poisoned gift ” I really wish I had not been given.
    Everyone who appears on the author list should be given a chance to comment on the manuscript and contribute to the writing of the text — undergrads, techs, everyone.

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  23. A. Tasso Says:

    Perhaps all academic endeavors should adopt the economics mode of authorship: 2-3 authors per paper, 4 authors max (any more and your colleagues start to question it), authorship is limited to those who are truly making intellectual contributions (in biomedical research parlance, basically those who are PI’s, co-PI’s, or possibly co-I’s), and authorship is assigned in alphabetical order. Data collectors who are getting paid to collect data (and run experiments) get named in the acknowledgments.

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  24. Confounding Says:

    My primary problem with “courtsey co-authorships” is time.

    Generally speaking, I’ve found the people who have their names added to a paper because of some tenuous but politically useful connection to the paper are generally two things:

    1. Busy, what with being who they are.
    2. Not terribly invested in the paper, having done not a tremendous amount of work on it.

    This tends to lead to delays, because “Could you review this and get back with your comments” so that they’ve at least *seen* the paper with their name on it gets shuffled to the bottom of a pile. In my best example of this, I spent an extra month waiting, for the addition of two sentences. In the worst example, there’s a paper still pending submission waiting on some courtesy authors to get back to us. It’s been waiting like that for over a year now.

    There are of course other problems with the scenario above (why we haven’t kicked them off…), but I do find generally courtsey authors slow down a paper considerably.

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  25. bob Says:

    I’m with qaz on this one.

    drugmonkey: ” “stealing credit”? From whom? Like I said, I reject the notion that adding 7th author does anything to the evaluation of the contribution of 1st, 6th, 8th or last author that can be measured.”

    I agree that it won’t have much impact on the other authors on the paper directly, but it does have an impact on your competitiveness later since, roughly, more papers means more promotions and grants. It also undermines people’s confidence that authorship is meaningful for assigning credit at all.

    It’s a bit like small-time insider trading. If we’re just talking a few hundred thousand profit on an inside trade, you’re not going to bring down the economy and you’re not really stealing directly from someone, but you are unfairly benefiting and it’s bad for public confidence.

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  26. whimple Says:

    “that’s just a JBC paper, and we were only authors on it because we gave them an antibody”

    Pinko: Nice one, cobag! Maybe you shouldn’t have accepted authorship, chunderknob.

    You’d prefer that next time he doesn’t give you the antibody?

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  27. drugmonkey Says:

    It also undermines people’s confidence that authorship is meaningful for assigning credit at all.

    I submit to you that the whinging about undeserved authorships runs far beyond the actual evidence for such a thing and therefore does far more to “undermine people’s confidence” than does the small set of actual courtesy authorships that exist.

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  28. Bashir Says:

    One situation where this can be a bit of an issue is with graduate student training. In this case it hurts the student more than other people. I’ve seen some PIs who are very big on their grad students getting their names on everything coming out of the lab. That can lead to people with papers on their CV that they have only a very shallow understanding of. That can catch up to you in a bad way. It can become particularly clear if the student gives a talk on the paper. It’s a bit of a disservice to allow a student to put their name on a paper they know little to nothing about. Particularly the novice ones who don’t even know what it is they don’t know.

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  29. Junius Ponds Says:

    We haven’t gotten into this on the blog in years but there have been some pretty hilarious discussions involving people who think that authorship tradition in their subfield is the only tradition. And verge on shouting “unethical” about the traditions/practices of other subfields.

    Don’t forget the lay-people who get ideas from Gregg Easterbrook and think it’s the height of hilarity for an article to have more than five authors. “What, did each of these 25 people write two paragraphs each? Are we supposed to believe they all put their own ideas into the manuscript? What will be the effect of this catastrophic devaluation of the word ‘author’?”

    I am amused because I have been fairly firmly entrenched, at times, in different traditions. One in which single- or dual-author pubs are the absolute pinnacle of teh awesome and another in which short author lists show you are doing science of limited interest and scope, working noncollaboratively and basically suck.

    In immunology there are probably less than five single-author pubs every year, other than review articles. It occurs when
    A) Author was just hired as faculty
    B) Author was previously a postdoc who had obtained his own grant, and is taking that money with him to his new institution
    C) Author is following up experiments he did in his old lab with the exact same techniques and materials
    D) Author has been able to set up his own lab very quickly and has had several months available to do experiments while waiting for a grad student or postdoc to join the lab
    E) Author doesn’t need access to any core facilities or informatics or experimental apparatus other than his new department’s shared equipment

    In a journal like Plos Pathogens, seeing a paper where the word “I” appears fifty times looks nothing short of bizarre.

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  30. Janet D. Stemwedel Says:

    Ping! (It’ll be cross-posted in 24 hours on my Scientopia blog, for those not enthusiastic about SciAm’s required registration for commenting.)

    Like

  31. drugmonkey Says:

    Bashir- Don’t you think in such cases it is the obligation of the student to get up to speed on that stuff?

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  32. Pinko Punko Says:

    If they are going to bad mouth the work and disavow the paper in public, then yes, I would love for them to send the antibody and accept an acknowledgement and not ask for an authorship. If they think the paper is a POS, their name need not be on it. For a published reagent. Yes, one of limited quantity. For Western blots. I can set my free Cheerios watch by Whimple taking the contrarian view, nice to know.

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  33. bob Says:

    I submit to you that the whinging about undeserved authorships runs far beyond the actual evidence for such a thing and therefore does far more to “undermine people’s confidence” than does the small set of actual courtesy authorships that exist.

    I totally agree. I don’t personally know of any cases of real gift authorship, I just hear about them…

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  34. drugmonkey Says:

    Janet’s post at SciAm seems really confused on the asymmetrical benefit/cost of an inserted 7th author. Some of the comments here are similarly missing the point. The fact that the courtesy author gets a benefit does not subtract a similar amount from someone else. It doesn’t. Authorship is not finite for a given paper.

    That is why the complaints dissolve into the fuzzy handwaving that I was trying to probe in the post. Yes in a general, very general, sense, one is being judged on relative numbers of pubs….but there would have to be a lot of people getting a LOT of totes undeserved author creds for this to affect any individual. One of these alleged Department Chairs who makes everyone put his name on papers is just one dude…and when it comes down to real evaluation, people know to discount the 300pub list appropriately.

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  35. drugmonkey Says:

    Far more of an impact is caused by minimal-contribution authorships where the intent is specifically to inflate pub numbers. Like the antibody provision and genomic data hoarding mentioned here. But these are not courtesy authorships, nor are they guest authorships. We should all be clear that arguing about what is enough of a contribution to warrant authorship and trying to insist on universal standards is a quagmire of ridiculousity.

    Janet asked on the Twitts, somewhat snarkily, what I would do if I were the boss of science. Well, I would emphasize training the trainees out of their narrow notions of a “contribution” first. Then I would suggest going after specific problems in a targeted way. Like “providing a published antibody or mouse breeders doesn’t qualify”.

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  36. Susan Says:

    I’ll echo what Bashir said. For a recent higher-profile paper, another lab member asked me for a gift authorship – once the paper had been accepted. Basically because that lab member had nothing out or on the way. However, lab member had no basis for understanding the work, and the idea of him trying to explain it … would not reflect well on the work, in the end. So I said no. There was just no way for it to work.

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  37. drugmonkey Says:

    Seems a pretty clear no-no to me Susan. Is this Something the People Think Is Totes Koolio…or do they already know it is bogus? If the latter, any Council of Editorial Blowhardians de Ivy principles are not going to help. Right? What, like the PI will be any more swayed by the BMJ’s web page than by you simply saying it is wrong? …maybe….I guess….. Or, not.

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  38. Isis the Scientist Says:

    I suspect that people like the folks at the BMJ are trying to deal mainly with a very limited problem that is specific to a subgroup of physician ass clowns doing large scale clinical trials where the staff and director of every data collection center are listed as authors. Having participated in that sort of trial, I can tell you that I had minimal role in the design, no real role in the interpretaion, and no role in the crafting of the manuscript. We were basically a fee for service site. It would have been wrong for me to have demanded authorship there, yet some clinical trials are released with copius numbers of authors.

    I never thought I would call anything a tempest in a tea cup, but dudes this is it. I fear that tempest is brewing into an I-Storm.

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  39. drugmonkey Says:

    A paper which addresses the topic,

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3202014/

    Via @mbeisen

    Like

  40. Danita Mulrenin Says:

    Really wonderful site thank you so much for your time in writing the posts for all of us to learn about.

    Like


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