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…