When authorship sails away – Stories of the intricacies of academic accreditation

Papers are the currency in academia, they seem to determine our whole career. So, naturally, we try to publish as much as we can, while at the same time trying to produce good science. But sometimes authorship can become tricky, with hard decisions and disappointment. We share author-hard-ship stories here that cover a range of experiences, from being undeservedly excluded over the impression of getting too much credit to our own case that we consider ambiguous to this day.* All stories illustrate one key advice: Talk about authorship as early as possible in a project. This includes defining who is responsible for what, and discussing who is the lead of this project.**

Collaboration cast-off writes about an experience that involved not only a close collaborator, but someone who was more senior. The resulting imbalance in power makes the situation particularly tricky to navigate:

During my PhD I set up a productive collaboration with a lab in a different field. My collaborator and I developed a new technique while I visited their lab. I planned to keep this collaboration going during my postdoc years as a nice way of demonstrating I had my own independent research program to complement the work I did on my postdoc projects. However, not long after I moved away to start my postdoc the collaboration went quiet. I subsequently discovered that my PhD adviser had gone over my head, dealing directly with my collaborators and collecting data in an identical way, using the techniques my collaborator and I developed during my PhD. Worse, I found out later that this technique had formed the basis for a substantial grant application which would overlap significantly with work I could have proposed myself.

I am now being involved in some of this work but only since I discovered it was going on through a third party. I like to think this wasn’t malicious, just incredibly cut-throat and not at all collegial. Not the academia I signed up for.


Accidental author describes a situation where authorship felt undeserved, another tricky thing. Especially junior researchers and underrepresented minorities tend to underestimate themselves, and thus might feel this way, or you might be correct in the end. Fortunately for us, this story ends with some very good advice.

I had one project that I joined about 3 months after it started. It was a collaboration between my lab and another at a different institution, and most others had been involved in related projects for much longer. I attended all the meetings and gave comments when I thought of something, but I felt more like a supporting, non-core member. This was through no fault of the group. I was encouraged in every way to participate, but I was coming in as the least knowledgeable on the subject domain, and so felt I had little to offer. When it came time to write up a paper I voiced that I didn’t feel I had put in enough work to warrant authorship. My collaborators disagreed, and stressed that I did deserve authorship as a member of the group. So, during writing I tried to “prove” my right to be an author…even if only to myself. I tried to help the main author when asked for advice or thoughts on analyses, and to be timely on giving back comments on drafts. I’m happy to say that the paper has been accepted for publication, and I am listed as an author. It’s nice to see my name there, but if during the final round of edits I had been moved to the acknowledgements section I think that would have been fair. I’ll be honest and say I still have a bit of co-authorship guilt (I think it’s least amount of work I’ve ever done to get my name on a paper), but I’m glad I voiced my concerns early and got the point of view of my teammates before writing started. I would recommend anyone unsure about authorship to bring it up as soon as they can. You might be surprised to find your co-authors are even more supportive of your involvement than you are!


Of course, we won’t hide our own experiences.

Sho: Christina and I actually have a story about a project*** in which I am the lead author, and she ended up not getting authorship at all. It was an ambitious project: To really get at the role of input frequency on infants’ speech sound discrimination (a mainstream assumption in the literature is that discrimination ability improves with the amount of exposure, but little research actually backs this assumption), we would combine behavioral and neuroimaging experiments with computational modeling. I was the PhD student on this project and had knowledge on designing and running behavioral studies, my advisor was going to teach me how to run a NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy) study on infants, and we collaborated with the computational modeling portion of our teams to obtain input frequency counts and distance measures. We were all enthusiastic about this joint effort and were meeting regularly. In the end, some of the measures we had requested from the modelers were never used – in particular, one piece of work Christina had provided. That’s where she fell off the author list.

Am I happy about our decision? It is hard to say. I would say it is justified, since Christina has contributed less to this project than most others, and since she was not one of the very early people involved. On the other hand, we asked for a contribution and accepted her investment, and it was because of various unforeseen factors that we never used it and never gave her the opportunity to contribute more. I even think she would not have fallen off the list had it not been for the fact that it already contained seven names (I know this depends on the field, but this is a lot in ours). An eighth name was even added later on, since we needed another NIRS expert for some aspects of the analysis.

So while I do not necessarily second-guess the decision, I regret having caused such an ambiguous situation. If I could redo it, I would discuss contribution and authorship earlier in the process. It can be hard to do so very early on, especially determining the order of authors. But at least it should be clear what the threshold for being added as an author is as soon as someone starts contributing to a project, so that no one invests in vain. In writing this, I realize I do not even remember whether I ever apologized to Christina, so here you go: I am sorry about how this project ended up for you, and about not handling authorship issues better.


Christina: I might have a very specific fondness for ambitious projects (see ManyBabies and MetaLab), so when Sho with all her enthusiasm told me about the project she mentions above, I was of course interested in being involved. And, to start with the happy end, it was a good way to get to know my future post doc supervisor a bit better and Sho and I went on to collaborate successfully. Maybe this bumpy start improved the way Sho and I work together much more than a smooth first journey would have?

I also learned a lot about authorship and cannot emphasize discussing expectations as early as possible (and get them in writing, ideally), even though that is a very uncomfortable topic for most. But it’s more uncomfortable to end up in the situations we talk about here. Instead of having this discussion, we all jumped right into working on the project, and many of my contributions are actually mentioned in the acknowledgements section. A lot of the things I ended up doing may actually fall under the helpful colleague category – I would not hesitate to ask someone in my lab or network to for example help me with corpus data or be a second tester in the infant lab.
For the key part that would have been a good contribution from me, I had to work closely with another modeller, and for him it was easier to do it all in his workflow. My contribution was a sort of independent module, it makes sense now that it wasn’t used since it was not one of the crucial bits. I did put in the work because I was interested in the topic and, like Sho, wasn’t sure about authorship and such intricacies.

I wonder how it could have gone differently, and I think communication is key. The crucial moment where authorship was determined was a point where I was mostly out of the communication loop, as I was busy finishing my PhD and writing grant proposals – which later allowed me to go to Paris, after all. It didn’t help that all authors were distributed over 3 cities, too. Maybe I could have found other ways to make a more substantial contribution, importantly also during the writing process, if I had followed up more.

But all is well that ends well, and, Sho, I am glad to have you in my network, and I am looking forward to many future co-authored papers and blog posts!

Sho and Christina went on to start this very blog, write a few cool papers together, and scienced happily ever after…

* One type of experience we are not covering here is adding authors, even though it seems quite common, but it is discussed in this article in Times Higher Education.

** If you are not sure how to breach this topic, it might be helpful to suggest a preregistration / registered report, and discuss authorship for those documents.  

*** The results of this project are now published in the form of one peer-reviewed article and one unpublished report.


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