Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What's the Co-Author Line?

Continuing the past discussion on authorship issues, I've been considering the questions: at what point has a person involved in the project done so little work that they should not be included as an author?  For today's post, let's not consider the case of advisors, which is arguably a special case that should be considered separately (and we will return to in a further post).

It's interesting that my preferred approach of alphabetical ordering of authors arguably makes this question thornier, since the tendency of alphabetical ordering to equalize the contribution among authors suggest that there should be a contribution threshold below which you should be removed as a co-author.  This is probably still true under other ordering schemes as well, but it seems more striking under alphabetical ordering.

Having thought carefully about it, I've come to a firm conclusion: it seems like a challenging issue with no right answer.  In spirit, I agree with David Eppstein's comment in the previous post:

"The rule I tend to follow is that there are no 1% coauthors. If you haven't contributed an idea that you can point to as part of the paper, or done some of the hard work of turning ideas into proofs, or done some of the implementation or data analysis, you don't get to be a co-author."

In practice, I've found it's a lot fuzzier.  Sometimes the "idea" is the initial formulation of the problem, not the solution.  Should that count as a contributed idea?  Many papers, I find, boil down to one key idea, and the rest is just details.  Four of you spend a bunch of time kicking around ideas that don't work, then one sees the idea that works, and the paper really writes itself from there.  Should the other three not be co-authors?  These aren't hypotheticals.  I've been in situations where I've talked with someone about a problem, which I considered at that point "my" problem, with the idea that we would possibly work together on it, only to have them present me with a finished paper they were submitting on their own a few months later (apparently without realizing that I might be peeved by this).  I've been in a situation where one co-author, after much dead-end work by everyone, came up with the key insight and then thought that the result should be a single-author paper.  I'm sure I (and others) can come up with similarly unclear situations.

I recognize that, in both of these circumstances, one could argue that the other party was in the right.  But it really doesn't matter who was right;  in the end, these became people I would be very wary of working with in the future (and perhaps they felt the same of me).  As we've discussed before, one of the great benefits of collaborating is establishing long-term collaborations over multiple problems.  That didn't happen.  What I've learned was that, in such situations, one should be clear ahead of time what the expectations are.  Being clear when starting a collaboration about expectations might be a little awkward, but seems better than awkwardness later.  If you're telling someone a problem and consider it from that point on a collaboration, tell them.  I personally think the default assumption should be that if you're in the room on multiple occasions when working on a problem, you should be considered a co-author even if you're not the one to make the breakthrough, but if there's a reason that shouldn't be the case, somebody should speak up sooner rather than later.  Different people may use different rules or guidelines for what they consider sufficient for co-authorship on a paper, and setting expectations is really the key.

As another story, I should admit I have been involved in a paper where I was a 1% contributor.  I started working with a group on a problem, but it was a group in a distant location, and while I was there -- for a short period -- no progress was made.  The group, with much more work, eventually solved the problem.  I was asked by the senior author whether I wanted to be on the paper, and I declined.  I thought a potentially awkward situation was handled perfectly by this senior author.  They were up front that, as it turned out, I hadn't contributed tangibly to the paper, but were willing to accept that, in this case, it was an accident of circumstance rather than intent.  I was glad they respected me enough to discuss it openly and leave it as my decision, even though in my mind the proper course was clear.  (Indeed, in this case, I thought it was so clear I would not have been surprised or offended if they hadn't offered.)  I assume that if I had decided otherwise I would have been a co-author on the paper without argument, and they would then have to consider that history in future dealings with me.  I also think that, if I had said I wanted to be a co-author on the paper, it would have been appropriate for them to add me, because perhaps we had had different perceptions and expectations regarding the work.

In any case, I think the issue is a difficult one, made even more so because it's tied to quite directly to one's job performance, which tends to color self-perception.  Perhaps others can add more clarity to the question in the comments.  


Anonymous said...

I think there are two separate issues. First, who is a co-author given the history of the paper's development (which may not be complete at the time you have to decide who is a co-author). Second, who do you work with in the future. I am more liberal about the first than the second.

For instance, if someone has a key insight that is necessary for the paper but afterwards does no work on the paper despite having the opportunity to do so, then they should be a co-author but I will not work with them in the future. Creating a good paper is much more than having brilliant insights. We all wish that science could just be having brilliant thoughts and then some grunt does all the work of writing and looking up references and making figures and adding motivation. But to treat your co-authors like that has no place in my opinion. Maybe if I worked with Terry Tao I would let him get away with that but not most people (and given Terry Tao's blog I can't imagine he is afraid of a little writing).

That said, advisors are a bit different. I think it is okay for an advisor to delegate some grunt work to grad students and postdocs (although they should always be at least willing to roll up their sleeves if necessary). But if this is the case they had better be sure they are contributing in some concrete way: formulating the problem, suggesting techniques for the solution, suggesting generalizations after the first theorem is proven, or something.

Anonymous said...

"contributing in some concrete way"

How about writing proposals and getting the necessary funding?...

Anonymous said...

"contributing in some concrete way"

How about writing proposals and getting the necessary funding?...

My bad, I shouldn't have brought up advisors; looks like Michael wants to save that for the next post. I'm really curious to see what he thinks about that issue.

Anonymous said...

If you are not willing to put as a co-author you shouldn't have research meetings with them. So I think the minute you meet with someone to discuss a problem, it is reasonable to put their name on any results of such discussions regardless of their contribution.

But if they are really not adding much you might consider not inviting them to future collaborations.

So I think I agree with 1st author, put the 1% as a co-author on the current paper but maybe don't work with them in future if you aren't too happy about it.

Mike is right it is a matter of everyone having the same expectations. Personally I think Hardy-Littlewood rules make so much sense but this feeling is hardly universal.

Michael Lugo said...

Perhaps of interest here is Orthographic Correlations in Astrophysics by Zuntz, Zlosnik, Zunckel, and Zwart.

A bit more seriously, the problem with applying Hardy-Littlewood rules now is that present-day mathematicians (interpreting "mathematician" broadly to include theoretical CS) have more collaborators than Hardy and Littlewood did. You can't put the names of all your collaborators on a paper.

Anonymous said...

"You can't put the names of all your collaborators on a paper."

This will surely solve your problem, since if you don't acknowledge people who help you, then they won't work with you again. Then you will genuinely have a small list of collaborators!!

Paul Beame said...

Is there a time-out for co-author contributions?

Consider the following scenario. One summer you spend several weeks working with Person A on a problem - basically getting nowhere, though you do get to throw out some approaches. You haven't talked with them about it since then. Several years later there have been new developments in the field and you work with person B involved in those developments to solve your problem.

Is person A a co-author? What happens if it was two years ago? just last year? just 4 months ago?

I think that most of us would agree that the case of just 4 months ago would certainly qualify but probably not if it was several years ago. (The collaboration had somehow dissolved itself over time.)

It seems that there intuitively is a proportionality to the duration of a collaboration agreement. The length of time that the agreement is in force is somehow proportional to the effort expended on the collaboration.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...


I agree with you (in spirit), but in such situations, I think the line can be fuzzy -- and different people can have different opinions. My own experience is that when such things happen, it's best to let Person A know your intentions -- whether it's to possibly invite them to participate again, or just to let them know you plan to take up the problem again but without them. (Alternatively, after hitting dead ends, you might explicitly declare the collaboration on that problem "over", unless you both decide to work on it again together later.)

Anonymous said...

"If you are not willing to put as a co-author you shouldn't have research meetings with them. So I think the minute you meet with someone to discuss a problem, it is reasonable to put their name on any results of such discussions regardless of their contribution."

I am not sure of this. I have brief research discussions with many people, and talk about my research and theirs. Sometimes these discussions are entirely superficial, but not always. I don't expect coauthorship, unless something happens, and hopefully they don't either. "The minute you meet with someone" is a too soon, maybe the minute you meet with someone for the second time would be better, but I do not know for sure.

Anonymous said...

I've been in situations where I've talked with someone about a problem, which I considered at that point "my" problem, with the idea that we would possibly work together on it, only to have them present me with a finished paper they were submitting on their own a few months later

I think this illustrates a more general problem which is that many people seem to undervalue the ability to generate interesting problems. If you take the view that generating a good problem is a non-trivial contribution then isn't what happened to Michael akin to plagiarism?

Mark Knell said...

> generating a good problem is a non-trivial contribution

My wife did her graduate work in English literature at a school with a strong engineering program. She noticed a certain type of student every semester: undergrads, usually engineering or pre-med, who had registered for her literature course only to satisfy distributional requirements and were very smart, very diligent--but could not manage "interesting" ideas, no matter how hard they tried. She found this heartbreaking--especially the ones who thought that med schools would sneer at a B+. Kids would come to office hours and ask, sometimes in tears, what they can do to turn a logical, systematic, earnest, but dry B+ paper into an A. She'd explain that by the standards of her profession--literary criticism--that it's not enough to be thorough or precise or clear or even persuasive. If you can't pick a topic that a reader would find interesting, you haven't done all your work. In some sense, if criticism isn't interesting, if only to other critics, then it's not valuable.

Worse, a sense of the interesting is the last thing to fall into place. She could work with them on clarity, on use of evidence, on logical structure and rhetorical devices... and there were many kids who, over the course of a semester, could make great leaps forward in those areas. But the judgment of what a finding "meant", of how it contributed to the field, or how one idea seemed more central or intriguing or revealing than another, was too much. She suspected it was because they were excellent at grasping and re-creating rule-based outcomes, but she couldn't give a rule of thumb for what made something interesting.

Myself, I am conflicted about how to value interestingness. I have sympathy for the argument that it's fuzzy, subjective, and sometimes just a codeword for "conventional" or "mainstream" or, relatedly, in the mainstream of the latest fads and trends within the field. At the same time, I'm also moved by the argument that a profession, by definition, has standards, and that for the typical case there's a wisdom of crowds. If you show an idea to 10 researchers and none of them is intrigued, isn't there something we can conclude?

Put another way, as an empiricist, how can you possibly value interestingess? And as a curator of an intellectual discipline, how can you not?

Anonymous said...

I think this illustrates a more general problem which is that many people seem to undervalue the ability to generate interesting problems.

I completely agree with this, and it is certainly one of the main challenges of graduate school: learning how to move beyond solving problems given to you in textbooks for classes or given to you by your advisor (if your advisor does this), to generating your own problems.

But, that said, I think that it is worth pointing out an "inverse" of this, which is that it is often easy to think you made a big contribution by dreaming up the problem, while working it out and solving it was just grunt work that is beneath you, when in fact you said nothing helpful. I have seen this time and again, not only with advisors but grad students and others, who refuse to work on problems and think that they are "more of an ideas person" and basically just spout random crap, and when someone solves a problem with some syllables in common with what they spouted, claim credit for generating the ideas.

To emphasize, I'm not saying this is the only explanation for someone who generates a problem and then doesn't help to solve it; sometimes that is a perfectly legitimate contribution. But I feel it is very rarely pointed out how many people try to fake this aspect of research with unhelpful rambling, compared to how often I see someone point out that generating problems is a useful contribution.

It's like this: generating problems is useful, but if that's all you ever do, then I question not only your ability to solve problems, but even whether you are really generating good problems, as opposed to just mumbling in the hope that once someone completes an actual project you can claim you planted the seed.

Anonymous said...

"That said, advisors are a bit different. I think it is okay for an advisor to delegate some grunt work to grad students and postdocs (although they should always be at least willing to roll up their sleeves if necessary)."

One problem I've run into when reviewing journal versions of papers is a paper by a student and advisor pair where the student obviously wrote the paper and advisor obviously didn't read it!

If all the authors were students, then it is one thing to spend hours and hours making suggestions on how to improve the paper. But it is another thing when one of the authors in famous and clearly didn't bother putting their time into cleaning up the results.

Anonymous said...

But it is another thing when one of the authors in famous and clearly didn't bother putting their time into cleaning up the results.

That the famous advisor could have cleaned up the results assumes that the reputation of the advisor, gained from their earlier, better papers, was of their own making. But maybe they just had better students (or peers) writing their papers for them before, whereas this time around both the student and the advisor poured everything they had into the paper and the result is the pile you were given to review. I know when I work with someone who turns out not to know how to write (or to do research), it is more important to me that my own reputation is preserved, even if that means I have to do everything myself to get it right and make this co-author also look good, than to expose the co-author as a fraud. If all their other co-authors reason the same way then a person can go a very long time without anyone who hasn't worked with them realizing that they are terrible at research. They can find new collaborators because, surprise!, they have built a reputation that makes new people want to try to work with them, and good students want to choose them as advisors.

One way this could happen is an incompetent advisor getting students to do work, but another way is that someone incompetent could have a competent friend who keeps inviting them to work on projects to the dismay of the other collaborators. I know of one case where a student had a competent (research-wise) advisor who kept bringing this doofus friend of his onto projects with the student; the student hated it, but from the outside they look like a regular Hardy and Littlewood.

Anonymous said...

There are other explanations, also.

A student needs to learn to swim, so you push them in. The first time they might nearly drown, but they'll be stronger and more self reliant the next time.

Anon from 2:59 said...

[they] were very smart, very diligent--but could not manage "interesting" ideas, no matter how hard they tried.

This doesn't surprise me. Most people that end up doing math/engineering are people who did well in high school math, on the SATs, in the lower division math classes, the GREs etc...It indeed takes smarts and diligence to excel at these, but it does not require creativity or a sense for what's "interesting".

As a note, by interesting here I am not referring to what most people in the community mean by interesting,i.e., publishable. What I mean (which admittedly is fuzzy) is interesting with respect to the larger goals of a field. Sometimes the two meanings coincide but sometimes they don't.

Stefan Savage said...

The networking community has long used Jon Postel's Robustness Principal -- "be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from other" -- as a staple in designing network protocols. I think it applies fairly well in this situation as well.

Think about it another way. What is really at stake here? If you deny authorship to someone who feels they are deserving you can earn their enmity in exchange. At the same time, the value of their being on a particular author list -- especially when amortized over a career -- is quite low. Generally, relationships trump an nth author addition and this is a no-brainer decision.

Conversely, pushing to get yourself on a paper that you know you don't deserve to be on, or even allowing yourself to be listed through inaction, is both a bit icky but also risks your reputation with those co-authors in the future.

My policy is to welcome anyone who I think deserves to be on the author line or anyone who themselves thinks they deserve to be on the author list (a notable exception to this second case being made for those who mistreat our students... I'm happy to screw such people over if I can). I try to keep my own name off papers for which I can't easily explain my contribution.

Finally, for students who say, "well, its all fine and good to say that it all works out over a long career, but at the beginning of our careers the number of papers you're on counts wrt getting a job and listing minor contributors hurts the competitiveness of those of us who work hard" it is worth remembering that letters are the great equalizer. Someone who has only performed a minor role on 10 research efforts is unlikely to command recommendations that compete with someone who has done significant work on 3 or 4. Might such a thing ever happen? Sure. But the rule is the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Concerning arguments based on credit-sharing (and the potential reduction of credit due to adding an author): it's not just credit-sharing that is the issue. Actually, this series of posts is making me realize that credit-sharing issue is even an issue at all; before Michael's first post I would never have guessed that I might not get a grant because I have too many co-authors on some paper.

But a major component is that any time that resources are scarce, the game will be zero-sum (or epsilon-sum, or something; i.e., for one person to win another has to lose). You might think it is magnanimous to include a co-author A on a great paper of yours who doesn't really deserve it, but you are having a negative consequence on others. What about a single-author paper in the same conference by author B of similar quality? What if A and B compete for the same job? You just made A look a little better than they deserve, and B looks a little worse by comparison. So you hurt B by your "generosity". Same goes for other "generous" acts like giving a good review to a bad paper. Give others the benefit of the doubt, yes, but when the doubt is negligible, then stand tall and do the unpopular thing because it's the right thing to do. Give credit where it is due (or probably due) but nowhere else. That's part of your job as a scientist, not to dole out the feel-goods. If you don't want to have to make people feel bad sometimes or cause conflict, then pick another profession where you aren't given responsibility and power to influence others' lives and careers.

Anonymous said...

What's the rule for including your wife in all of your papers?

I know of an adviser who includes his wife's name on all of his students' papers. His students can never explain his wife's contribution.

Dave Backus said...

Interesting issue. At it's heart, though, it seems to me to be about the nature of knowledge. Many of the advances in science are made simultaneously by two or more people or teams. I interpret that to mean that a large component of progress is "in the air." As they say, on the shoulders of giants. Yet the mythology, and our reward systems (awards, tenure, etc), are based on individual contributions. It's inevitable that there be some difficulty in dividing up credit.

That said, I favor being generous, esp to junior coauthors. It fosters a cooperative spirit, which makes life more fun for everyone.

Norman Ramsey said...

Never mind order, I've been on both ends of omission. A paper describing some of my earliest work does not list me as coauthor because I left the company before the paper was submitted. And I once wrote a paper and forgot to include someone with whom I had repeatedly discussed the questions dealt with in the paper. Luckily my mistake got caught in time! After these experiences I have learned always to err on the side of adding coauthors.

Sometimes I have doubts, but I will express them thus: "Robert, we are about to submit a paper on the work you helped us with on higher-order coffee-making. We'd like to list you as a coauthor; is that OK with you?" I have almost always honored my collaborators' wishes; if Robert feels he has contributed materially to the paper, then he probably has. I have overruled a collaborator only one time; Mary felt that she shouldn't have been listed as a coauthor on a paper, but I insisted that the paper was loaded with things I had learned from Mary, and if we had not collaborated, there would have been no paper. On those grounds she was willing to be listed.

I'm lucky in that ordering has not been too contentious. Most of my work has been in systems, and none of it has used the alphabetical convention. (It's not really possible to do alphabetical in systems work; assumptions are made.) One of the things I do with my coauthors is that if it is not totally obvious we set aside some time, usually about a week before a deadline, to discuss ordering. Another convention that has arisen with repeat collaborators is that usually the first author of the previous paper offers to move lower in the order if he or she feels it is appropriate. Sometimes this leads to strange circumstances; I have recently submitted a paper with two coauthors in which all three coauthors felt someone else should be first author. Luckily author A felt it should either B or C, and authors B and C both felt A should be first author, so the paper was submitted as A, B, and C.

Some interesting things were said during those conversations, such as "I don't feel I have contributed enough to be first author of this paper." and "You've put in an awful lot of work; you should be first author" vs "no, no, I may have put in a lot of work recently but the original idea and impetus were yours."

I think an element that has been common to all my successful collaborations has been that everyone worked hard at something and everyone wanted others to get their fair share of the credit.

I have also heard some interesting tidbits over the years. During a program-committee meeting, I once heard a colleague criticized thus: "I can't believe (Professor) John Doe is the first author on a paper with a student." I have been first author on several papers with students, including at least one where I felt the student could have been first author, but the student declined.

Another favorite tidbit is Jim Gray's line about how the person who puts the words in a row gets to be first author. But not all my collaborations have had a single person who was clearly responsible for the words in a row.

I will leave you with a final tidbit: when I was a young graduate student and I still had dark hair, a member of my thesis committee told me not to worry too much about author ordering in collaboration. Her observation: "In any collaboration, each author gets 90% of the credit."

Anonymous said...

"In any collaboration, each author gets 90% of the credit."

Tell that to this guy who had trouble with a grant when they didn't give him 90% of the credit.

There is a lot of advice about being generous with credit that is based on the idea that everyone is playing by the rules. Perhaps many of these commenters are lucky to have always dealt only with people who play by the rules, and it is clear that in these cases being generous is best since it makes everyone look good and maintains harmony. But a robust system for assigning credit should not fall apart completely in the presence of dishonest or incompetent people. "Always be generous with anyone who managed to worm their way into the room during a discussion" is not robust in this sense.

If I had to succinctly describe the main cause of preventable personal problems in academia (not only this credit issue but lots of others like abuse of grad students, acceptance of papers with false theorems, etc.), I would do so thusly: Talented, honest, generous scientists tend to think that everyone else is as talented, honest, and generous as they are. But these same talented, honest, generous scientists are also the only ones capable of policing their colleagues, due to tenure and academic freedom. It is not necessarily the case that merely being a law-abiding citizen makes one a good policeman. In fact, assuming that everyone else is law-abiding makes one a terrible policeman.

Anonymous said...

Since Michael mentioned that he would discuss about the case between PhD student and supervisor, I'm wondering if it could be meaningful to compare the two contrary cases: (i) PhD student working with his supervisor, (ii) Postdoc working with his professor who is providing financial support to the postdoc.

Here the main difference of the two cases could be that the postdoc is expected to work more, meaning that he has to do more part of the work by himself while his professor deems himself more qualified to be a coauthor of the work due to his financial role in the work, even with his smaller contribution to the work.

If you could deal with this problem also, your discussion could be more interesting.

Living in Trivialities said...

The talks are around that author should pay to publish. Just wondering given that in future, would it count much who be the first, second or third! :)

Anonymous said...

Hypothetical scenario I'm curious to hear responses on:

A and B write a paper together. The paper needed two completely separate components to get the desired results. A did one component by herself, and B the other, and they put it together. After the paper, B's friend C asks B a question, and B realizes that the techniques used in designing A's component easily extend to solve C's problem. B attributes this ability to notice the connection to countless hours of enlightening discussions with A, in which A explained all the ins and outs of her thought process in designing the component. B realizes that if C had been A's friend and not B's, A would have solved C's problem as well, probably even immediately.

Now, C wants to write a paper. Should A be a coauthor?

Anonymous said...

In econ advisors are often not listed as co-authors, i.e. these are two different extreme equilibria.