1435 words • 6~9 min read

To co-author or not to co-author?

Writing an academic paper with multiple authors can be problematic at times (for examples see this article and comments on the article), but when do you even make people a co-author?

There are problems across scientific fields with co-authors being added who did not contribute significantly to papers, for example heads of labs or departments, or prestigious individuals (so- called “honorary authors”). Some laboratories even have a policy of adding everyone in the lab who even passed by a manuscript, in order to bulk out resumes.

Individuals who warrant co-authorship, but who are left off the publication (so called “ghost authors”)  are also an issue. One of the most common examples of this is when an ambitious faculty member leaves off a student who conducted majority of the work (or who possibly even came up with the idea) because they want first (or possibly sole) authorship for the paper so that they can further their academic career. In the biomedical field ghost authors are often pharmaceutical industry representatives who may rewrite sections of manuscripts to show their product in the best light, but exclude themselves from authorship and thus obfuscating conflicts of interest. Such conflicted ghost authors are not unique to the biomedical field though, and industry, military or governmental ghost authors have frequently been known to substantially rewrite (and change the conclusions of) marine environmental science papers, especially when they deal with controversial topics.

So when do you add a co-author? The hard and fast rule is that a notable intellectual or analytical contribution has been made towards the manuscript by the potential co-author. For example:

  • Coming up with the original idea for the project/research question/hypothesis.
  • Developing the initial proposal which attracted funding for the project.
  • A notable contribution solving logistical problems in the setup of the project.
  • Conducting a notable proportion of the experimental/field work/data collection.
  • Organising and logistical support of the project (when this is substantial), including modifying experimental techniques.
  • A notable contribution to analysing the data.
  • A notable contribution to writing the paper.

The order of authorship would reflect the level of contribution provided, but usually the person who did the majority of the work goes first (“first author”) and the  project supervisor/conceiver goes last (sometimes referred to as the “senior author”) unless they did the majority of the work. If contribution is equal, authorship in alphabetical order is common, although other methods can be used such as this example where author order was decided by a croquet competition – which is perfectly fine so long as all co-authors agree to it.

It should be noted that simply proof-reading a manuscript would not be enough for co-authorship. Unless, however, the proof-reader put in a comment that added to the intellectual content of the manuscript. For example, suggesting a reason why certain results were obtained, or an implication of the study that other co-authors had not considered. Technicians who were requested to run routine samples would not normally be given co-authorship, as they had no intellectual input into the project unless, for example, they suggested a novel technique, or modification in methodology, that allowed the project to succeed. Minor advice generally does not warrant co-authorship. So merely suggesting that a student use a different machine, or statistical test would be insufficient, but suggesting a completely different technique that allowed the experiment to work would be considered an intellectual input into the project. Likewise, an administrator who placed text developed by a researcher into a grant application form; who edited such a form; who ordered equipment for a project; or who did project accounting, would not be a co-author unless they actually helped to design the project and research question, i.e., they had an intellectual input into the project.

Therefore, the following would warrant an acknowledgement in the manuscript:

  • Assistance with editing/reviewing manuscript (n.b. editing but not actually conceiving and writing text as noted above).
  • Providing minor advice that may have made the project more efficient.
  • Minor logistical support, such as running samples or some data entry.
  • Members of thesis/dissertation committees should usually mentioned in the acknowledgements unless they qualify for co-authorship as noted above.
  • Reviewers of the manuscript should be acknowledged (even if anonymous), if they made comments and editorial suggestions that  improved the paper.
  • Funding bodies should be mentioned in the acknowledgements. This is also important as it divulges possible conflicts of interest.

Funding bodies should NEVER be co-authors, unless the research question or project was developed by the funding body. For example an NGO who provided funding for a sociological survey to investigate a specific hypothesis they wished testing, would probably warrant co-authorship for the person who came up with the research question.

For a funding body that did not contribute intellectually to the paper to insist on co-authorship is not ethical. Likewise a department, institution  or organisation leader who did not contribute to the intellectual content of the paper  insisting that they be listed as a co-author is also not being ethical. Moreover, deliberately leaving off someone who qualifies for co-authorship (as noted in the list above) is unethical.

If an article comes from a student’s thesis or dissertation, it is usually the case that they should be the first author. Quite frankly, if they don’t warrant being first author then the material doesn’t warrant being in the thesis/dissertation. The only exception might be minor side projects that the student was substantially involved with, although not the lead on, that are peripheral to the main thesis/dissertation. For example, a lab technician devises a novel methodology for genetic analysis that the PhD student pilots and a paper is published on this new technique. The paper that describe this methodology might include the student, but should really be first-authored by the technician. In such a case, the thesis/dissertation should clearly highlight the leading role the technician played in work should the material be included. Many universities now have a thesis/dissertation format which is essentially a portfolio of manuscripts that have been, or will soon be, submitted for publication, with each given a list of authors, rather than the traditional chapter-based format. Such a format makes it easier for side project exemption to be included in a thesis/dissertation.

Although this article hopes to be useful, it shouldn’t be considered a definitive guide to co-authorship. This linked article provides several examples of authorship guidelines used by various professional societies, and is another useful source of advice, as is this Wikipedia article on academic authorship.

I developed these co-authorship guidelines to help students after I heard of a case where a student’s  thesis advisor unethically insisted that they (the advisor) be the first author on a manuscript that was derived from the student’s thesis. I also developed the guidelines because of an experience I had where I had spent considerable time (>2 years) developing a research project, wrote the grant applications, set up the data collection protocol and secured funding, but was “ghosted” and excluded from any of the resulting papers by a senior scientist. Now I’m adamant that young scientists don’t find themselves in similar positions that could damage their fledgling research careers, like I was and … because ghost author busting makes me feel good!


Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology for nearly a decade and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society and the Society for Marine Mammalogy. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.


Connect with SFS