Undeserved Authorship

I recently discovered that I’m a co-author on a paper that will soon appear in print. The lead investigator once invited me to become an author, but at that time he said he would send the manuscript to me so that I could give him feedback. He never did send it. I only saw the final version once it was accepted for publication. I had no real role in the paper, but it was important to this investigator for strategic reasons (I guess) to put me on as an author.

I feel incredibly uncomfortable about the position this puts me in. I believe that I have made substantial contributions to nearly every published article in which I’m identified as an author--the usual requirement for most scientific journals. The problem, of course, is defining “substantial”. Different scientific organisations have tried to come up with definitions (Wikipedia has a good review of this topic). Back in the ‘90s I remember seeing a list of roles one could have in a publication. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate the source or the original list, but here’s what I remember:

  • conceptualising the study
  • designing the research
  • collecting the data
  • analysing the data
  • writing/co-writing the manuscript
  • funding the research/providing necessary material support

To be qualified as an “author", one has to do at least three of the things in this list. Based on these criteria, I can think of at least five papers where I should have been an author, but was “left off” when it came to time submit the manuscript. In all my published papers to date, however, I can say I did meet at least three of those criteria. But now, with this paper that’s in press (and out of my hands), I can no longer say that.

Many people in my field would find my handwringing ridiculous. They’d say, “hey, as long as you do ONE of those things, you’re making a substantial contribution.” Perhaps this is why some students and colleagues have been reluctant to discuss their work with me, as simply giving my input might mean that I would demand authorship. In fact, many of my colleagues here and elsewhere have many papers in their CVs in which they made the most minimal contribution possible. So, why do I have to get on my high horse and worry about it? Well, to be honest, I don’t have to worry about it one way or the other, as I now have job security. I am, however, mindful of my reputation and legacy. I don’t want to be associated with work that I barely understand or may even be somewhat shoddy. I only want my name on papers that I can vouch for—-that reflect my work (and those of the other authors, of course). This “freebie” pub that I just received doesn’t reflect my work. I had no input.  

I’m resolved not to let this happen again. And if it means telling a few more of my colleagues that I don’t want to be an author on their paper because I wasn’t involved in at least three of those criteria, so be it.