If you’ve been working in science for long enough, perhaps not very long at all, you’ve heard about (or witnessed) scientists in your field who get listed as co-authors on papers for political reasons alone. They may be an uninvolved but domineering professor or a fellow co-worker, a friend, a political ally, an overly protective museum curator, or just a jerk of any stripe. I read this article recently and felt it was symptomatic of the harm that bad supervisors (or other collaborators) do to science, including damage to the general reputation of professors and other mentors. There are cultural differences not only between countries (e.g. more authoritative, hierarchical cultures probably tolerate behaviour like this more) but also within institutions because of individual variation and local culture, tradition or other precedent. But this kind of honorary co-authorship turns my stomach—it is co-authorship bloat and a blight upon science. Honorary co-authorship should offend any reasonable scientist who actually works, at any level of the scientific hierarchy. So here’s my rant about it. Marshmallows and popcorn are welcomed if you want to watch my raving, but I hope this post stimulates discussion. A brief version of this did do that on my personal Facebook account, which motivated me to finish this public post.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 but it may provoke indigestion if you’ve been a victim of co-author bloat.
At its root, honorary co-authorship (HONCO) shows disdain for others’ efforts in research. “I get something for nothing, unlike others.” It persists because of deference to pressures from politics (I need to add this co-author or they’ll cause me trouble), other social dynamics (this person is my buddy; here’s a freebie for them), careerism (oneself/ally/student needs to be on this paper to boost their CV and move up in their career; or else), or even laziness (a minimal publishable unit mentality- e.g. any minor excuse for being a co-author is enough). All of these reasons for tolerating it, and apathy about the status quo, keep the fires of HONCO burning. My feeling from my past 20 years of experience in academia is that, as science is getting increasingly complex and requiring more collaborators and co-authors, the fire is raging to a point where it is visibly charring the integrity of science too often to just keep quiet about it and hope it doesn’t cause much damage.
There’s a flip side to HONCO, too– it’s not that, as some might take the article above to imply, we all need to boot senior authors off of papers. Senior authors, like other collaborators, have a reason for existing that encompasses — but is not limited to — boosting the careers of those they mentor. We scientists all want the satisfaction of doing science, even if the nature of our involvement in research evolves (and varies widely). Part of that satisfaction comes from publishing papers as the coup de grace to each project, and it’s a privilege that should be open to being earned by anyone qualified. Indeed, if adding HONCOs to papers is fraud, then removing worthy contributors from papers can be seen as a similar kind of fraud (unless a result of mutually agreed I’ll-help-you-for-nothing generosity). The broader point is, authors should deserve to be authors, and non-authors should not deserve to be authors.
On that latter issue, I think back to my grad school days and how my mentors Kevin Padian, Rodger Kram, Bob Full and others often gave me valuable input on my early papers (~1998-2002) but never earned co-authorship on them (exception: mentor Steve Gatesy’s vital role in our 2000 “abductors, adductors” paper). And frankly I feel a little bad now about that. Some of those mentors might have deserved co-authorship, but even when asked they declined, and just appeared in the Acknowledgements. It was the culture in my department at Berkeley, like many other USA grad schools at the time and perhaps now, that PhD students often did not put their supervisors on their papers and thus published single-author work. I see that less often today — but still varying among fields; e.g. in biomechanics, less single-authorship globally; in palaeontology and morphology, more single-authored work, but perhaps reducing overall. That is my off-the-cuff impression from the past >10 years.
I was shocked to see less (or often no) single-authored papers by lab colleagues once I moved to the UK to take up my present post– the prevalence of supervisors as senior authors on papers was starkly evident. On reflection, I now think that many of those multi-authored papers deserved to be such. It was not solo work and involved some significant steering, with key ideas originating from supervisors and thus constituting valid intellectual input. Yet I wondered then if it was a good thing or not, especially after hearing student complaints like waiting six months for comments from their supervisor on a manuscript. But this gets into a grey area that is best considered on a paper-by-paper basis, following clear criteria for authorship and contributions, and it involves difficulties inherent to some supervisor-supervisee relationships that I will not cover here. Much as supervisors need to manage their team, their team needs to manage them. ‘Nuff said.
Many institutions and journals have clear criteria for co-authorship, and publications have “author contributions” sections that are intended to make it clear who did what for a given paper – and thus whose responsibility any problems might be, too. HONCOs take credit without responsibility or merit, and are blatant fraud. I say it’s time we stand up to this disease. The criteria and contributions aspects of paper are part of the immune system of science that is there to help defend against academic misconduct. We need to work together to give that system a fighting chance.
There are huge grey areas in what criteria are enough for co-authorship. I have to wrestle with this for almost every paper I’m involved in– I am always thinking about whether I truly deserve to be listed on a paper, or whether others do. I’ve been training myself to think, and talk, about co-authorship criteria early in the process of research— that’s essential in avoiding bad blood later on down the line when it’s time to write up the work, when it’s possibly too late for others to earn co-authorship. This is a critical process that is best handled explicitly and in writing, especially in larger collaborations. What will the topic of any future paper(s) be and who will be involved as co-authors, or not? It’s a good agenda item for research meetings.
There are also grey areas in author contributions. How much editing of a paper is enough for co-authorship justification? Certainly not just spellchecking or adding comments saying “Great point!”, although both can be a bit helpful. Is funding a study a criterion? Sometimes– how much and how directly/indirectly did the funding help? Is providing data enough? Sometimes. In these days of open data, it seems like the data-provision criterion, part of the very hull that science floats upon, is weakening as a justification for co-authorship. It is becoming increasingly common to cite others’ papers for data, provide little new data oneself, and churn out papers without those data-papers’ authors involved. And that’s a good thing, to a degree. It’s nicer to invite published-data-providers on board a paper as collaborators, and they can often provide insight into the nature (and limitations or faults!) of the data. But adding co-authors can easily slide down the slippery slope of hooray-everyone’s-a-co-author (e.g. genetics papers with 1000+ co-authors, anyone?). I wrote up explicit co-authorship criteria here (Figshare login needed; 2nd pdf in the list) and here (Academia.edu login needed) if you’re curious how I handle it, but standards vary. Dr. William Pérez recently shared a good example of criteria with me; linked here.
In palaeontology and other specimen-based sciences, we get into some rough terrain — who collected the fossil (i.e. was on that field season and truly helped), identified it, prepared and curated it, published on it, or otherwise has “authority” over it, and which of them if any deserve co-authorship? I go to palaeontology conferences every year and listen over coffee/beers to colleagues complain about how their latest paper had such-and-such (and their students, pals, etc.) added onto the paper as HONCOs. Some museums or other institutions even have policies like this, requiring external users to add internal co-authors as a strong-arm tactic. An egregious past example: a CT-scanning facility I used once, and never again, even had the guff to call their mandatory joint-authorship policy for usage “non-collaborative access”… luckily we signed no such policy, and so we got our data, paid a reasonable fee for it, and had no HONCOs. Every time I hear about HONCOs, I wonder “How long can this kind of injustice last?” Yet there’s also the reality that finding and digging up a good field site or specimen(s); or analogous processes in science; takes a lot of time and effort and you don’t want others prematurely jumping your claim, which can be intellectual property theft, a different kind of misconduct. And there is good cause for sensitivity about non-Western countries that might not have the resources and training of staff to earn co-authorship as easily; flexibility might be necessary to avoid imperialist pillaging of their science with minimal benefit to their home country.
Yet there’s hope for minimizing HONCO infections. A wise person once said (slightly altered) “I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” Problems can have solutions, even though cultural change tends to be agonizingly slow. But it can be slower still, or retrograde, if met with apathy. What can we do about HONCOs? Can we beat the bloat? What have I done myself before and what would I do differently now? I’ll take an inward look here.
Tolerating HONCOs isn’t a solution. I looked back on my experiences with >70 co-authored papers and technical book chapters since 1998. Luckily there are few instances where I’d even need to contemplate if a co-author was a HONCO. Most scientists I’ve worked with have clearly pulled their weight on papers or understood why they’re not co-authors on a given paper. More about that below. In those few instances of possible HONCOs, about five papers from several years ago, some colleagues provided research material/data but never commented on the manuscripts or other aspects of the work. I was disgruntled but tolerated it. It was a borderline grey area and I was a young academic who needed allies, and the data/specimens were important. Since then, I’ve curtailed collaborations with those people. To be fair, there were some papers where I didn’t do a ton (but did satisfy basic criteria for co-authorship, especially commenting on manuscripts) and I got buried in Middle-Authorland, and that’s fine with me; it wasn’t HONCO hell I was in. There were a few papers where I played a minor role and it wasn’t clear what other co-authors were contributing, but I was comfortable giving them the benefit of the doubt.
One anti-HONCO solution was on a more recent paper that involved a person who I had heard was a vector of HONCO infection. I stated early on in an email that only one person from their group could be a co-author on the resulting paper, and they could choose who it was and that person would be expected to contribute something beyond basic data. They wrote back agreeing to it and (magnanimously) putting a junior student forward for it, who did help, although they never substantially commented on the manuscript so I was a little disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this strategy worked in beating the HONCO bloat. I may have cost myself some political points that may stifle future collaborations with that senior person, but I feel satisfied that I did the right thing under the constraints, and damn the consequences. Containment of HONCO has its attendant risks of course. HONCO-rejects might get honked off. Maybe one has to pick their battles and concede ground sometimes, but how much do the ethics of such concessions weigh?
Another solution I used recently involved my own input on a paper. I was asked to join a “meta-analysis” paper as a co-author but the main work had already been done for it, and conclusions largely reached. I read the draft and saw places where I could help in a meaningful way, so with trepidation I agreed to help and did. But during the review process it became clear that (1) there was too much overlap between this paper and others by the same lead author, which made me uncomfortable; and (2) sections that I had contributed to didn’t really meld well with the main thrust of the paper and so were removed. As a consequence, I felt like a reluctant HONCO and asked to be removed from the paper as a co-author, even though I’d helped write sections of the main text that remained in the paper (but this was more stylistic in my view than deeply intellectual). I ended up in the Acknowledgements and relieved about it. I am comfortable removing myself from papers in which I don’t get a sense of satisfaction that I did something meriting co-author status. But it’s easier for more senior researchers like me to do that, compared to the quandary that sink-or-swim early-career researchers may face.
More broadly in academia, a key matter at stake is the CVs of researchers, especially junior ones, which these days require more and more papers (even minimal publishable units) to be competitive for jobs, awards and funding. Adding HONCOs to papers does strengthen individuals’ CVs, but in a parasitic way from the dilution of co-author contributions. And it’s just unethical, full stop. One solution: It’s thus up to senior people to lead from the front, showing that they don’t accept HONCOs themselves and encouraging more junior researchers to do the same when they can—or even questioning the contributions that potential new staff/students made to past papers, if their CV seems bloated (but such questions probe dangerous territory!). Junior people, however, still need to make a judgement call on how they’ll handle HONCOs with themselves or others. There is the issue of reputation to think about; complicity in the HONCO pandemic at any career level might be looked upon unfavourably by others, and scientists can be as gossipy as any humans, so bad ethics can bite you back.
I try to revisit co-authorship and the criteria involved throughout a project, especially as we begin the writing-up stage, to reduce risks of HONCOs or other maladies. An important aspect of collaboration is to ensure that people that might deserve co-authorship get an early chance to earn it, or else are told that they won’t be on board and why. Then they are not asked for further input unless it is needed, which might shift the balance and put them back on the co-author list. Critically, co-authorship is negotiable and should be a negotiation. One should not take it personally if not on a paper, but should treat others fairly and stay open-minded about co-authorship whenever possible. This has to be balanced against the risk of co-authorship bloat. Sure, so-and-so might add a little to a paper, but each co-author added complicates the project, probably slows it down, and diminishes the credit given to each other co-author. So a line must be drawn at some point. Maybe some co-authors and their contributions are best saved for a future paper, for example. This is a decision that the first, corresponding and senior author(s) should agree on, in consultation with others. But I also feel that undergraduate students and technicians often are the first to get the heave-ho from co-author considerations, which I’ve been trying to avoid lately when I can, as they deserve as much as anyone to have their co-author criteria scrutinized.
The Acknowledgements section of a paper is there for a reason, and it’s nice to show up there when you’ve truly helped a paper out whether as quasi-collaborative colleague, friendly draft-commenter, editor, reviewer or in other capacities. It is a far cry from being a co-author but it also typically implies that those people acknowledged are not to blame if something is wrong with the paper. I see Acknowledgements as “free space” that should be packed with thank-you’s to everyone one can think of that clearly assisted in some way. No one lists Acknowledged status on their CVs or gets other concrete benefits from them normally, but it is good social graces to use it generously. HONCOs’ proper home, at best, is there in the Acknowledgements, safely quarantined.
The Author Contributions section of a paper is something to take very seriously these days. I used to fill it out without much thought, but I’ve now gotten in the habit of scrutinizing it (where feasible) with every paper I’m involved in. Did author X really contribute to data analysis or writing the paper? Did all authors truly check and approve the final manuscript? “No” answers there are worrying. It is good research practice nowadays to put careful detail into this section of every paper, and even to openly discuss it among all authors so everyone agrees. Editors and reviewers should also pay heed to it, and readers of papers might find it increasingly interesting to peruse that section. Why should we care about author contribution lists in papers? Well, sure, it’s interesting to know who did what, that’s the main reason! It can reveal what skills an individual has or lacks, or their true input on the project vs. what the co-author order implies.
But there’s a deeper value to Author Contributions lists that is part of the academic immune system against HONCOs and other fraud. Anyone contributing to a particular part of a paper should be able to prove their contribution if challenged. For example, if a problem was suspected in a section of a paper, any authors listed as contributing to that section would be the first points of contact to check with about that possible problem. In a formal academic misconduct investigation, those contributing authors would need to walk through their contributions and defend (or correct) their work. It would be unpleasant to be asked how one contributed to such work if one didn’t do it, or to find out that someone listed you as contributing when you didn’t, and wouldn’t have accepted it if you had known. Attention to detail can pay off in any part of a research publication.
Ultimately, beating the blight of HONCO bloat will need teamwork from real co-authors, at every career level. Too often these academic dilemmas are broken down into “junior vs. senior” researcher false dichotomies. Yes, there’s a power structure and status quo that we need to be mindful of. Co-authorships, however, require collaboration and thus communication and co-operation.
It’s a long haul before we might see real progress; the fight against HONCOs must proceed paper-by-paper. There are worse problems that science faces, too, but my feeling is that HONCOs have gone far enough and it’s time to push back, and to earn the credit we claim as scientific authors. Honorary co-authorship is a dishonourable practice that is very different from other “honorary” kudos like honorary professorships or awards. Complex and collaborative science can mean longer co-author lists, absolutely, but it doesn’t mean handing out freebies to chums, students needing a boost, or erstwhile allies. It means more care is needed in designing and writing up research. And it also means that science is progressing; a progress we should all feel proud of in the end.
Do you have abhorrent HONCO chronicles of your own (anonymized please; no lynch mobs here!) or from public record? Or ideas for handling HONCO hazards? Please share and discuss.
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