For academic researchers, professional reputation is everything. It’s built up over years, and is essential to securing tenure, winning grants and otherwise advancing in one’s field. Because a researcher builds that reputation (in large part) through journal articles and conference presentations, it can be quite a shock to see your name listed as a co-author on a published paper that you have never seen before. It happens.
I recently heard of this phenomenon for the first time. A researcher, who I’ll call Dr. X (with apologies to the X-Men), told me that he had just seen a paper that was published by a former student at another institution. The paper listed Dr. X as a co-author, even though he had never seen the paper before – and wasn’t familiar with much of its content. Some of the content reflected work Dr. X had done with the student years ago. But the rest? Dr. X didn’t know anything about it.
This is scary stuff. What if the paper is no good, and reflects sloppy thinking or methodology? That would reflect poorly on Dr. X. After all, no one else knows that he had no hand in writing the paper. What if the paper includes plagiarized passages? That would certainly reflect poorly on Dr. X too. It might even make it difficult for him to publish his own papers – papers he worked hard on – in the future.
Dr. X could contact the journal and have his name removed. But otherwise, there isn’t a lot that Dr. X can do. The lead author of this paper had never told him the paper was coming, or even that he was working on the paper. The lead author hadn’t even checked to see where Dr. X was working, instead listing him at the institution he’d worked at years ago.
In this instance, at least, there was no real damage done. The paper was not awful, and Dr. X will emerge unscathed. He’s contacted the lead author to make sure this doesn’t happen again. But I wanted to know if this was an isolated incident, or if it’s happened to other people.
Through various social media outlets, I asked researchers whether something like this had ever happened to them. And it had. In fact, in less than an hour six different researchers – in different fields and from different countries – reported experiencing this. Some were papers, some were conference presentations. In at least one case, the lead author had tried to contact a researcher about the paper, but couldn’t reach them. While this is a purely anecdotal survey, it suggests that “surprise” co-author credits are not uncommon.
I wrote this post because I think it’s worth letting researchers know that “unanticipated authorship” happens. If it has happened to you, you’re not alone. Hopefully this will generate some discussion, and researchers will be more likely to discuss the protocol of research authorship with colleagues, grad students and postdocs. A month ago, I wouldn’t have thought this conversation was necessary, but apparently I would have been wrong.
Note: I’m collecting more information on how common this phenomenon is. Please take this short (anonymous) survey, and feel free to share the survey (and this post) with your peers.