So You Wanted to be a Co-Author


This case discusses the issue of proper procedures for publishing and collaboration specifically targeted to post-doc fellows, junior faculty and supervisors.


Melissa, an assistant professor, is talking with Sharon, a post-doc who works with her, in the hallway. Melissa is holding a draft of a review paper that the two of them are preparing for a book. The paper is based on work that Sharon has done, partially with the guidance of Melissa and partially with the guidance of Adam, an associate professor at another university. Melissa spoke about the work at a conference a few months ago. Sharon has written her section of the paper based on the older results that have recently been published, and without discussing a biochemical model that Sharon, Melissa and Adam are hoping to submit for publication in the near future.

Melissa: I've read over your portion of the review paper, and right now it's really reading like a student paper. It would be much stronger if we could include the biochemical model. The model really ties things together, but it's not published yet. The editors of this review book seemed really interested in our work when I gave the talk in April, and with my tenure review coming up soon, I'll be asking many of them for letters. I don't want to disappoint them by omitting these ideas. What do you think is the best way to include this work?

Sharon: I've never written a review paper before, so I guess I'm not clear on whether discussing the model here will have an impact on the other paper's acceptance. Since Adam will be second author on the biochemical paper, should I try to get in touch with him and see what he thinks?

Melissa: Adam didn't help me prepare the conference talk, so he isn't an author on this review paper. (pause). You know, people don't really read books as much as they do journals these days, and the book that contains this review paper will take a while to come out; it probably won't be in print until late this year or early next. By that time the biochemical paper should be published, don't you think?

Sharon: Well, the way the experiments have been turning out, it looks that way. Maybe for the review, we could make a cartoon summarizing our older hypothesis about the local metabolism, and suggesting the newer ideas. But Adam's insights have really been instrumental in developing the newer model. You know, I could just send him a quick email and --

Melissa: I don't want to be in a position where I have to ask Adam's permission. I'd really like to include this work. Why don't we each think about this some more and talk again Monday?

Discussion Questions

  1. Should Sharon contact Adam even though Melissa doesn't want her to?
  2. What other alternatives might Sharon consider? What are the consequences, implications and relative strengths of each alternative?
  3. What justifications might Melissa have for not wanting to contact Adam?
  4. How does Melissa's tenure situation affect the scenario?
  5. If you were Adam, how would you define Sharon's responsibility to you? What about Melissa's responsibilities, both to Adam and Sharon as a collaborator, and to Sharon as her supervisor? What responsibilities does each person have to the others?
  6. What are all the ethical issues involved here? for Sharon? for Melissa? for Adam?
  7. Should Adam be an author on the review paper? If not, should he be acknowledged in some way? In what circumstances would you count him as an author?
  8. Would you feel differently about any aspects of the situation if Sharon's proposed cartoon summarized the newer unpublished model, rather than the older published hypothesis?
  9. What effects might mentioning the newer work in the review paper have on subsequent opportunities for publication? Do the consequences differ between scientific disciplines and/or between journals?
  10. Should collaborators notify each other and discuss every instance in which they communicate common unpublished results or ideas to another person? Does it matter whether that communication takes the form of a paper, a presentation or an informal chat?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 1, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1997.

. . So You Wanted to be a Co-Author. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case nicely illustrates how complicated joint research and publication can become. A good ethical rule of thumb, I think, is for collaborators to have open lines of communication with each other on matters related to their research. Dividing things into discrete parts and treating each part as if it has no relation to the others (or the persons responsible for those other parts) does not work well when the various parts also compose a whole (as they do in this case). Since Melissa, Sharon, and Adam are currently working on a project together, the rule of thumb seems to apply in this case.

If Melissa and Sharon were to bear this rule of thumb in mind, Adam would be contacted. Sharon seems to sense that. Melissa's is distracted by something that is, strictly speaking, irrelevant here -- her concern about her upcoming tenure review. It is understandable that she is concerned about the review, but she needs to detach herself from this concern in trying to determine how to proceed in her research with Sharon and Adam. The standards of appropriate research and obligations to fellow researchers do not change simply because of an individual's desire for a good tenure review, fame or money. The integrity of scientific research and accountability come first.

Melissa is setting some bad examples for Sharon. She is prepared to publish the "results" of research before it is completed (because "the book that contains this review paper will take a while to come out"). She is also prepared to publish these "results" without consulting with Adam, another major player involved in the research. If consulted, there is some possibility that Adam would not object. That would not mean that going ahead is all right, however. It would meet only one basic obligation (which follows from the rule of thumb outlined above). If Adam responds appropriately, however, he will object. Consulting with Adam offers two advantages for Sharon. First, not having the same vested interest in rushing things along, Adam can offer a more objective perspective on what it is appropriate to do. Second, Sharon will obtain the views of someone who, presumably, is equally, if not more, experienced than Melissa. (Adam is an associate professor, probably already tenured.) One would hope that Melissa is sufficiently experienced that she would see how questionable it is to publish "results" prior to the completion of the actual research. Unfortunately, she does not seem to. Sharon is uncomfortable about proceeding. She should be listening carefully to Melissa's attempts to justify publishing prematurely. None of her reasons really appeal to scientific justification. Instead, they refer to her professional ambitions and concerns (e.g., a positive tenure review). Sharon should go with her doubts and insist that Adam be contacted.

One thing that might make it difficult for Sharon to take the course of action I am recommending is that Adam is thousands of miles away, whereas she is face to face with Melissa. However, Sharon and Adam clearly will be working together on the project. Sharon should look ahead to how premature publication might affect that working relationship. Melissa is suggesting that they ignore Adam at this point -- that they say nothing. Will Sharon eventually have to say something (either lie or confess) at a later time? Today's actions have consequences down the road. Sharon would do well to consider the potential outcomes of her actions. What if Sharon and Adam discover later that they need to make an important change in their research, but that the "results" have already been published? Although science aspires to objectivity, it also must acknowledge contingency. Good science goes as the world goes -- not necessarily as scientists think it will when they are engaged in a promising (but by no means certain to be successful) research project. Sharon must ask not only what she may eventually have to say to Adam even if the research goes as she and Melissa think it will, but what she will have to say to Adam and other scientists who may have relied on her prematurely published work, should the research go differently.

Determining authorship can be tricky, especially in the sciences. Should Adam be listed as co-author of the review paper in question? Certainly not without his permission. But, given the complicated relationships among the researchers in this case, it seems to me that the rule of thumb I have suggested is all the more important. What is so difficult about taking a moment to consult with one's collaborators before proceeding? If Melissa is right about Adam's role in their joint research, presumably he will agree that it is Sharon's call (although he still might well object to what Melissa is proposing to Sharon). If he disagrees, that in itself is reason for Sharon to reconsider.

I think this case provides a very good opportunity to discuss scientific integrity and the various temptations that may place it in jeopardy. Especially troubling here the extent to which Melissa is driven by timelines that have no relevance to the research per se, only to her professional ambitions. Sharon is well advised to get the views of others in such circumstances.

Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

This case raises several important issues, including collaboration, authorship and supervisor-trainee relationships. Discussions may focus on one or more of these general areas, depending on the interests of the participants. It might be particularly interesting to talk about this case in a group that included people at different points in their scientific careers, i.e., graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, junior faculty and senior faculty.

The interests of this case's characters include the following:

Melissa: She expects Sharon to do the best research she can and to prepare the best possible publications. She is concerned about her own tenure process, and she expects Sharon to do work that supports her advancement.

Sharon: She expects Melissa, as her supervisor and a more experienced researcher, to guide their publications and collaborations. She expects Melissa and Adam to keep her career in mind with regard to publications, exposure within the scientific community, etc.

Adam: He expects Melissa and Sharon, as collaborators, to maintain open communication regarding the progress and presentation of the work they do as part of their joint project.

Conflicts arise between:

  1. Melissa's desire for tenure, and thus her desire to please the conference organizers, which leads her to want to include in the review all the latest research and results from the collaborative experiments
  2. Adam's desire for proper credit and acknowledgement and
  3. Sharon's desire to please both Melissa and Adam, and to do the right thing in the context of the inherent power inequalities. She needs to learn the proper procedures for publishing and collaborating, but she also needs publications and letters of recommendation for her future career. She cannot afford to jeopardize either relationship.

Potential actions for Sharon:

  1. Since Melissa clearly does not want to bring Adam into this situation, Sharon could refrain from contacting Adam and keep the focus of the paper as it is, on the work that has already been published, and
    1. not mention the new model;
    2. suggest the model in a cartoon, with reference to a manuscript in preparation by Sharon, Adam and Melissa
    3. include the model in detail, in essence using this review to introduce it, with reference to a manuscript in preparation by Sharon, Adam and Melissa.
  2. Sharon could call Adam and ask his advice, even though Melissa doesn't want her to.
  3. Sharon could ask another faculty member who is an experienced author for advice.

Consequences of these prospective actions:

1a) This strategy will ensure that there will be no problem in publishing the future biochemical paper. However, Melissa will be just as unhappy as when the initial conversation began. If Sharon opts for this action, she will have to explain why she feels it's inappropriate to mention the new model without consulting Adam. This brings up the more general question of how to resolve disagreements between supervisors and trainees, where there are inherent power disparities. Sharon could present her thoughts to Melissa in the context of ethics, proper accepted practice for publication, and/or specific journals' rules of publication. She should have learned some of these ideas earlier in her career. If Melissa insists on including material that Sharon thinks should not be in the paper, Sharon can insist that her name be removed from the list of authors. This course would have negative consequences for her publication list and probably for her future relationship with Melissa.

1b) This option may be the most obvious compromise for Sharon with regard to the actual material contained in the review and biochemical papers, and Melissa may agree to it. However, it still leaves open the question of whether Sharon and Melissa should contact Adam before referring to their collective unpublished work.

1c) Melissa would probably prefer this option, for the sake of the publication and her tenure process. Before discussing newer, unpublished work in this sort of detail, however, Sharon and Melissa clearly need to contact Adam. Discussion of this option could focus on the conventions about unpublished data and future ability to publish within particular fields of research. It could include the proper acknowledgement of contributions, allocation of credit, and the responsibilities of authors, determined according to journal rules, the field's conventions or conversations between collaborators.

2) Melissa has made it clear that she does not like this option. This scenario also raises the question of how Sharon should present this information to Adam. She could preserve much of the three-way collaborative relationship by mentioning it casually, and asking for his advice on this publication matter with which she is inexperienced. On the other hand, she would probably damage the relationship between Melissa and Adam by saying, "I thought you should know that Melissa is trying to publish without giving you credit." The question also arises of whether Sharon should tell Melissa before, after or at all that she is discussing this question with Adam. Readers of this case would probably wonder about additional information, such as why Melissa doesn't want to contact Adam. What is the past history of their relationship? How does Melissa expect Adam to respond?

3) As in 2), we wonder how Sharon should present the information to the faculty member, with what sort of tone, and whether she should mention to Melissa that she has spoken or is planning to speak to the faculty member. To understand the complexity of Sharon's position, we must consider that post-docs need publications and letters of reference. They also need to make and maintain solid connections and collaborations with more senior researchers. In addition, post-docs often have few institutional advocates or formal channels of support, i.e., there is no postdoctoral correlate to the graduate student thesis committee or council.