Who gets to be a coauthor?

Andy Gelman’s coverage of a recent economics article has led to a rowdy set of comments about co-authorship norms in economics and political science.

From one commenter:

“Heavy lifting and ground organization” during data collection are not substantial intellectual contributions and rate acknowledgements, not coauthor status. That distinction is not just a norm but rather explicitly imposed at many journals. For example, the (flagrantly violated) ethical rules for coauthorship at most medical journals are clear that “acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.”

From another:

I think a reason for this MIGHT be that in economics, authors are cited alphabetically (people with A as first letter of last name are cited first); and professors are probably reluctant to having their names cited after the name of their PhD student. This probably contributed to this low coauthor count equilibrium. Where this alphabetical convention comes from, I know not.

A couple of years ago, partly to answer a reader’s question, and partly to head off misunderstandings with my growing gaggle of RAs, I decided to write an advice post on the subject. Colleagues tell me that they send their RAs to the link as well, which makes me hopeful that I struck the right balance.

As usual, I bloviate, but the nub:

For new RAs, the people that hired you are going to wait and see if you’re pleasant to work with, willing to stick around and work hard, and able to bring in new ideas. At the point you begin to analyze the data, they might offer you co-authorship (especially likely if they are short of money to pay you for all that analysis time). But I don’t think most researchers would regard granting co-authorship an obligation unless you make a substantial original contribution–something that transforms the paper.

That said, most of my grad student RAs do write a paper with me, often (though not necessarily) the paper they first started assisting on. That’s partly because they go beyond heavy-lifting into long term leadership of the field work–no easy task. It’s also because I’m pretty sure they’re all smarter than me. Which is actually a nice problem to have.

Reactions from spurned RAs? Nightmare stories from the lead author’s point of view? That’s what comments are for…

6 thoughts on “Who gets to be a coauthor?

  1. The one paper I worked on where it was close, I had a good idea near the end, so I got promoted at the last minute.

  2. My general worry is not that RAs etc get co-authorships that they don’t deserve, but the reverse: they DON”T get adequate credit. Makes me wary about co-authoring when the co-authors are not equals (in terms of job, status). For instance, it can be hard for grad students to refuse to co-author a paper with an adviser who will be writing their letters of recommendation, even when it will be a lot of work and the students may not get the credit because people will assume what is outlined above – the student did grunt work only.

  3. As I understand it, the alphabetical norm (at least in international relations/poli sci) is meant to imply equal participation/partnership in writing the paper. Going non-alphabetical signals that the lead author did most of the work and the final author did the least, but was still a co-author. Of course, the signal isn’t clear when the lead author’s name comes before the co-author’s, but there you go. David Lake (http://weber.ucsd.edu/~dlake/documents/LakePSessay.PDF) argues that there are no consistent norms in poli sci, and a contribution-based norm would go a long way to provide information to grad schools, hiring committees, etc.

  4. Co-authorship debates aside, not at the very least acknowledging RA’s who make a substantial contribution to the project is not cool. And that’s all I have to say about that.

  5. International journalism faces a similar problem with “news assistants.” Who get no credit for anything, and are often dealing with a lot of danger.

  6. I find the economics system very straightforward, actually: if you make a substantive contribution to the “good idea” of the paper – the part of the methodology that gets the paper published -and your contribution is at least close to equal to the other authors, then you’re a coauthor. Otherwise, you’re not. Putting in time, even if it’s a lot of time, has nothing to do with it. My understanding is that a certain prolific economist (without naming names, he’s Turkish and a future Nobel Prize winner…) is known for literally contributing only the main idea and a sketch of the proof, leaving details to coauthors and their RAs.

    In the econ context, only on really rare occasions could I see more than 3 or 4 co-authors fitting that schema. Having more coauthors than that is just a giant signal to other economists that you don’t understand how the field works, right?