Imagine a hypothetical postdoc that has just left graduate school, although this could easily be an assistant professor that has just left a postdoc. She has some minor publications either published or in press. The draft of her major publication from her thesis work is written, ready for submission, and has been sent to the coauthors for their approval. Her major advisor has approved the work. Of the additional four coauthors listed on the paper, three have replied to the postdoc that they approve of the manuscript . One has been completely and entirely silent for many weeks.
Despite repeated attempts in multiple media (phone calls, email, letters) by the postdoc to contact the missing coauthor, he remains silent. What does our poor, not-currently-publishing postdoc do? Several of the participants in this discussion have suggested the postdoc publish the paper without the missing coauthor’s assent. Almost every time I have heard this type of scenario discussed, the advice is to include the coauthor and submit the work. I’m not sure that is the best course of action.
Of course, this is at least an instance where there was a serious attempt made to contact the coauthor, to show him or her the manuscript before it is sent to the journal. It doesn’t always happen that way.
But, as Dr. Isis notes, this state of affairs is still suboptimal, especially in light of official policies and procedures at a number of the scientific journals that might receive such a manuscript:
[H]ere is the statement of authorship from one of the journals I have submitted work to, emphasis a la Isis:
The Editors of the journals of the American Physiological Society (APS) expect each author to have made an important scientific contribution to the study and to be thoroughly familiar with the original data. The Editors also expect each author to have read the complete manuscript and to take responsibility for the content and completeness of the manuscript and to understand that if the paper, or part of the paper, is found to be faulty or fraudulent, that he/she shares responsibility with his/her coauthors. The Mandatory Submission Form, which is published in the journals, should be signed by each author. In cases in which obtaining a signature from each author would delay publication, the corresponding author’s signature is sufficient provided that the corresponding author understands that he or she signs on behalf of the other authors who have not signed the form. An author’s name can be removed only at his/her request, but all coauthors must sign a change of authorship agreement for any change in authorship (additions, removals, or change of order) to be made.
Key to the publication of an article is the authors’ agreement about the work and shared responsibility in cases of misconduct. So, I wonder about the ethics of including an author who does not explicitly assent to the publication of an article when one cannot guarantee that all of the authors have read the work.
I also wonder why the default is to include the author. Seems to me that, based on these types of statements from journals, the appropriate course of action would be to exclude the author from the authors list and acknowledge their work in the body of the work.
Here, there are several ethical issues that are intertwined.
The most immediate one is the question of whether a manuscript submitted to a journal meets that journal’s official policy as far as who is listed as an author and what responsibilities each of the persons listed as authors have met prior to the submission of the manuscript. If the form that needs to accompany the manuscript requires the signature of all five authors (in the scenario Dr. Isis discusses), clearly it would be out of bounds to forge the signature of author #5 who hasn’t been responding to emails about getting the manuscript polished off and submitted. Such a forged signature would be misrepresenting to the journal editors that author #5 was actively involved in preparing the final version of the submitted manuscript, or that author #5 was explicitly endorsing the submitted manuscript.
Radio silence is not an explicit endorsement under these circumstances.
Now, the statement of authorship Dr. Isis cites does seem to have an exit clause for circumstances in which getting the actual signature of author #5 “would delay publication,” namely, that the corresponding author signs on behalf of author #5. But, is this a good move in circumstances in which author #5 has not weighed in at all on the final manuscript being submitted with his or her name on it as an author?
This may depend on what level of involvement author #5 has had in the steps leading up to the final version of the manuscript.
Has author #5 made an important contribution to the study? Presumably the answer to this question is yes, else the other four authors could simply acknowledge his or her contribution to the project rather than trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to elicit a response on the final version of the manuscript.
Is author #5 thoroughly familiar with the original data? This might be something the other authors can assure if the five authors have had serious discussions about the whole body of results on which the manuscript rests. But if author #5 hasn’t been an active participant in these discussions — especially in discussions about the data obtained by the other four authors — then this might be too big an assumption to make.
Does author #5 agree with the conclusions the manuscript offers about the data? Again, this may be something for which the other four authors can vouch on account of earlier discussions of the results with author #5. But if author #5 hasn’t been a part of such conversations with the coauthors, who really knows what author #5 thinks of the conclusions?
Given that the names in the author line on a published paper are supposed to communicate something to the people reading that paper (and perhaps using it as the starting point for a new research project themselves, and maybe assuming that they can contact the listed authors to ask detailed follow-up questions about the techniques, data, or conclusions described in that paper), it seems like the corresponding authors should get a clear read on where author #5 stands.
In a post about authorship from about a million years ago, I wrote:
I suppose there are possible worlds in which who is responsible for what in a scientific paper might not matter. In the world we live in now, however, it’s useful to know who designed the experimental apparatus and got the reaction to work (so you can email that person your questions when you want to set up a similar system), who did the data analysis (so you can share your concerns about the methodology), who made the figures (so you can raise concerns about digital fudging of the images), etc. Part of the reason people put their names on scientific papers is so we know who stands behind the research — who is willing to stake their reputation on it.
The other reason people put their names on scientific papers is to claim credit for their hard work and their insights, their contribution to the larger project of scientific knowledge-building. If you made a contribution, the scientific community ought to know about it so they can give you props (and funding, and tenure, and the occasional Nobel Prize).
But, we aren’t in a possition to make accurate assignments of credit or responsibility if we have no good information about what an author’s actual involvement in the project may have been. We don’t know who’s really in a position to vouch for the data, or who really did heavy intellectual lifting in bringing the project to fruition. We may understand, literally, the claim, “Joe Schmoe is second author of this paper,” but we don’t know what that means, exactly. …
Science strives to be a fact-based enterprise. Truthful communication is essential, and the ability to connect bits of knowledge to the people who contributed is part of how the community does quality control on that knowledge base. Ambiguity about who made the knowledge may lead to ambiguity about what we know. Also, developing too casual a relationship with the truth seems like a dangerous habit for a scientist to get into.
What does this mean for the four authors who are ready to publish? Do they have to just wait until they hear back from author #5, from whom they have been trying to get a response for what seems like an unreasonably long time?
Surely, in undertaking this collaboration, author #5 assumed some responsibilities to the other four authors.
One of these responsibilities is to actually participate in the collaboration — in doing his or her part of the data collection and analysis, in helping to draw reasonable conclusions from the results, in turning a critical eye to the various places in the work where bias might have crept in or where conclusions are not as well supported as they could be.
Another is to facilitate the communication of the results to the rest of the scientific community. It isn’t knowledge if it stays in the lab notebooks. Especially if the research that built the knowledge was funded in part with public monies, there is an obligation to make the resulting knowledge public.
Here, we might wonder if an author could hold up a submission on his or her coauthors an account of not being as convinced that it’s ready — maybe the results won’t feel like knowledge without more data, or an additional analysis to rule out a possible problem. That seems reasonable provided that the author with these worries is communicating them to the coauthors so they can be addressed. Keeping mum about such concerns is the exact opposite of what a responsible scientist should do.
What if, in a group of five authors, four are satisfied that the data are complete and the conclusion is well supported but one is not convinced? This might be a moment where something like explicit authorship could help.
To the extent that scientific projects are collaborative and that multiple persons have made substantial intellectual contributions to what is reported in the literature, I think the best policy is one of transparency about just what those contributions were. There are journals in which each the contributions of each of the authors on a paper are laid out in detail. Flagging who is responsible for which piece of the research makes it easier for other scientists to direct their questions to the co-author who can best answer their question. As well, in the event of some piece of the project turning out to be … problematic, there’s some sense of who fell down on the job.
While it’s not clear to me that this happens a lot in explicit authorship, I’m not sure why it couldn’t be used to specify: “Author #5 designed experiment X, generated Y data, and was part of the discussions about how to interpret Z. Despite being part of those discussions, Author #5 is not fully persuaded about the interpretation of Z presented here.” This would be a way to acknowledge the real (rising to the level of authorship) contribution of author #5 without erasing a legitimate difference in commitment to the conclusions the other four authors are comfortable presenting to the larger scientific community.
Of course, it’s hard to know whether radio silence is best interpreted as assent, dissent, or just unwillingness to be bothered.
Here, I think it’s probably wise for people who are embarking on a collaboration to discuss what they are promising each other during the phase when it’s time to get the results out to the world. Why not promise to weigh in on the manuscript in its various versions within a reasonable interval of time (and specify it at the beginning, whether it be a month or a week)? Why not talk through what the other collaborators ought to assume if one collaborator doesn’t chime in? Why not affirm the responsibility to make oneself available to participate in the necessary scientific back-and-forth, and to sign off on the finished product (or, if one cannot sign off on it, graciously decline authorship in favor of an acknowledgment of contributions to the project)?
The graduate students and postdocs reading this are already aware of a big flaw in this proposal: sometimes collaborations occur among scientists on different ends of the power gradient. What if it’s your advisor who is being poky getting back to the coauthors (of whom you are one) on the current state of the manuscript? What if you have a serious interest in getting the work published soon, not just because the data is solid and the conclusions are well-defended, but also because your funding is running out and you need to go on the job market and a publication or two would really help with that?
In this situation, it’s quite possible that a coauthor is falling down not only on responsibilities to the other authors, and to the funders (who paid for knowledge to be built and shared), and to the larger scientific community (who are supposed to be a part of the larger project of critically assessing those results, and who might well put the new knowledge to good use to make even more new knowledge), but also to his or her scientific trainees. An advisor (or a PI supervising a postdoc) is in the business of making new scientists as well as new scientific knowledge. Putting aside the legitimate needs of those new scientists in training is not ethical. Moreover, it’s pretty crappy.
The challenge, though, is in figuring out how to hold feet to the fire when those feet belong to someone with much more power in your professional community than you have. Perhaps some of you will offer strategies for doing this in the comments.