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Context: I am currently working on a rather important paper for my career, in the sense that it is a culmination of the past 5 years of (post Ph.D.) research. I started this particular article with 3 other members but only 1 other member (senior) has contributed. The other two likely cannot even explain our contribution non-superficially.

Trouble: The other two are very senior researchers and influential community members. However, I should note that they are in no way my boss (i.e. I am a junior prof.).

Question: How can I signal that the other contributor and myself are the main (if not only) contributors to the researchers, without changing the author ordering or removing the other two?

I cannot do the latter for political issues and the former is bad practice in analysis…. Any advice? What about putting an asterisk and footnote on our name, flagging principal investigation? I've seen this done in computer science….

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    $\begingroup$ To me this fundamentally looks like a social problem, I don't think there can be a technical solution... $\endgroup$ Oct 29 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ Let me be clear: if some of the listed "authors" literally contributed nothing to the research, then having them listed as authors is academic dishonesty. $\endgroup$ Oct 29 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ See for example ams.org/about-us/governance/policy-statements/sec-ethics "All the authors listed for a paper, however, must have made a significant contribution to its content, and all who have made such a contribution must be offered the opportunity to be listed as an author. Because the free exchange of ideas necessary to promote research is possible only when every individual's contribution is properly recognized, the Society will not knowingly publish anything that violates this principle." $\endgroup$
    – verret
    Oct 29 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ Coauthors that don't work and that don't bow out when they should are an eternal problem. $\endgroup$ Oct 29 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AIM I am not sure there is any formal way to do this by your own action and certainly not one which will not create more troubles than it is worth. However, it seems to me that you should first talk to your other contributing coauthor, maybe they feel differently to you or maybe they have a suggestion what to do. In any case, before you act you should talk to these two other people, separately. This is the fair thing to do and maybe if you will raise the issue, they will agree with you and suggest to remove their authorship. Good luck! $\endgroup$ Oct 29 at 22:40

1 Answer 1

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It seems clear to me that you need to talk to the senior author who actually did contribute and see if they can talk to the other two. You wrote that "one of the authors said that they were experts who are so great (bla bla)" so it sounds like it wasn't really your choice to add them in the first place.

Let's call the good author G. Let's assume G actually cares about your career (e.g., wants to keep working with you in the futute, wants you to get a permanent job, etc.). Then, G should be receptive if you TACTFULLY express your concern to him/her that the paper won't help your career as much with 4 authors as it would with 2. While you feel like you haven't seen any "substantial" contribution from the other 2, it is always possible they have been communicating with G and that some of G's contributions are in fact due to them.

If G agrees with you that the contributions of the other two don't warrant authorship, then G can fight this battle on your behalf, rather than having you try to signal it some way in the writing, which is most likely going to come off looking petulant and unprofessional. If G fights the battle on your behalf, you won't face the professional consequences you fear.

It's also possible that G won't be able to get them off the paper. In that case, G can still soften the blow by giving talks that state that you did most of the work, and writing the same in letters of recommendation for you. At all costs, do not alienate G.

For context, in my first paper, I invited my advisor to be a co-author because he'd made substantial contributions. He declined, telling me that I needed the paper more than he did. I still put a huge acknowledgment to thank him for his help. I have since paid this forward, sometimes helping people a lot but not ending up as an author (especially post-tenure). That's how a good field should function. If G is good, they will understand this and find a way to help you be successful.

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    $\begingroup$ I totally agree! $\endgroup$ Oct 29 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ Agree with most but not with not adding names when substantial contributions have been made. From experience I know from my postdoc in the UK that advisors there tend not to put their name even if they did the majority of the work, but in other countries the usual co-author rule is followed (or worse...). Not putting your name when you did a lot of work gives your students an unfair advantage as they will be perceived as more independent which is far from always the case. $\endgroup$ Oct 30 at 1:49
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    $\begingroup$ Please read this answer carefully. In mathematics, as in almost all other areas, building good relationships tends to be more important than anything else. Don't lose the war over the outcome of a single battle. $\endgroup$ Oct 30 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Kimball, this is not true in all countries, and definitely differs a lot by advisor, thus creating disparities between students applying for postdocs. Some students may have written the thesis without any substantial help but can't be differentiated that way. Making this distinction to some extent would make selecting postdocs easier. Also I don't think contributing a lot (in terms of helping on technical details) was standard practice say 20-30 years ago but is a consequence of the vastly increased number of PhD students. $\endgroup$ Oct 30 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ Remember also that the whole system is unfair. Certain research areas are "hotter" than others. Different areas publish at different rates, with different average waiting times for a referee report, etc. Homotopy theory suffers because our papers tend to be quite long and technical, referee reports often take a year or more, and most mathematicians are not aware of the current state and value of our field. Advisor co-authorship is very different for a graph theorist, who finishes four papers before graduating, than for a homotopy theorist who finishes one, even if they are equally strong. $\endgroup$ Oct 30 at 11:59

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