In Part I I suggested a
modest apparently radical proposal. In Part II I laid the groundwork for defending it. Now, let the games begin.
To recap my concrete example, Joe and his team took public data from the HST archive as soon as they landed (this is public DDT time) and have written a paper with it. The proposing team includes PI Candice and departed members Amber and Brie, and Candice has also written (but not submitted) a paper on the data. Should Candice offer Amber and Brie authorship on her paper (yes, I think we all agree). Should Joe offer the proposing team members Amber, and Brie authorship on his paper?
I say “yes,” because they contributed to Joe’s paper just as much as to Candice’s! The whole proposing team should be offered co-authorship. This is not current practice.
The easiest way to defend my proposal is by responding to some objections I saw when I proposed this on Twitter. I won’t link to individual tweets because I’ve rephrased some of these to be easier to rebut (hey, it’s my blog!)
But the data are public! That means I can use the data however I want and I don’t have to include the proposers.
Also: That’s what proprietary periods are for! Once it’s over I no longer owe the proposers co-authorship.
No, data propriety only has to do with who is allowed to look at and use the data. Once the data are public, anyone can look at the data, work on the data, and publish the data.
But that does not absolve them from their duty to properly acknowledge and credit the producers of the data. This is obvious when the data are already published. Of course you cite the origin of data you use in a paper. So ask yourself: why does the lack of a paper to cite make the procurers of the data any less responsible for their production, or you any less responsible for acknowledging that contribution in a way they get credit for?
But if they never publish their data, that’s effectively an infinite proprietary period.
Again, no: you can use and publish the data. That’s a completely separate issue from whether you have to give credit where it is due.
Why should I give co-authorship to someone that didn’t work on the paper?
Because they effectively did work on the paper as soon as you used their data in it. Since you are using their work you have to give them credit they can use.
But I list the PI’s name and the proposal number in the acknowledgements. That’s credit!
It is credit in a literal sense, but not in any sense relevant to the ethical issue here. ADS will not track it, it won’t appear on their CV or h-index, etc. It would be nice if we had a better way to track this kind of credit than these ways, and I would be very open to an overhaul of how academics give and receive credit. But until then we need to act ethically in the environment we do live in.
If they wanted co-authorship they should have published sooner. The fear of getting scooped is what keeps us productive. This would provide a perverse incentive to collect data and never publish it.
These are not ethical arguments. They boil down to: “their sloth justifies my theft.”
But taking on potentially hostile co-authors is not a good idea. Forced collaboration is a terrible idea.
I absolutely agree!
(And let’s put aside the question of why this person would be hostile towards you, and how you’re sure you’re in the right. After all, as I discussed in Part I, being allowed to do something doesn’t mean you’re not being a jerk for doing it. But let’s assume arguendo you’re in the clear and they’re hostile for some other reason than your misbehavior.)
Here’s what I think the radical part of my suggestion is based on:
co-authorship does not have to mean collaboration
The minimal rights of co-authors are actually set out in the AAS Ethics statement:
All collaborators share responsibility for any paper they coauthor, and every coauthor should have the opportunity to review a manuscript before its submission. It is the responsibility of the first author to ensure these.…All authors are responsible for providing prompt corrections or retractions if errors are found in published works with the first author bearing primary responsibility.
See? No real collaboration beyond the opportunity to review a manuscript. If Candice, Amber, or Brie (all of whom have been offered co-authorship) make demands on the paper that Joe’s team disagrees with, Joe has every right to say “no” and the proposers have every right to stay off of the paper.
But that’s not really a choice. If these teams don’t want to collaborate, then the proposing team shouldn’t be on a paper where they did not get a say in the methods and conclusions. They might even disagree with the conclusions! And if they make a principled stand and decline to be on a paper they disagree with, they don’t get the credit they deserve.
This is true, but this is not a problem with my proposal: it’s a problem with the concept of co-authorship in general, and it comes up all the time. Many co-authors do not agree with papers or in some cases do not even read papers they are on. Regardless of how severe a problem you think this is with our current model, it is not an excuse to keep proposing teams off of your paper.
But it’s also not a general solution: ethically people must refuse authorship if they disagree with a paper. As co-authors they would be “responsible” for it, after all.
Because this is a general problem, and not an objection to my proposal per se, I offer my general solution: I favor requesting that every author provide a one-sentence description of their contribution to the paper. If an author is only on the paper because they took the data, they should state exactly that.
So if an author disagrees with the content of the paper they can add that in, too (it would be reasonable to limit such qualifications to, say, 140 characters in most cases; a bit more if necessary). That way everyone’s contribution and responsibility for the result is clear and unambiguous, and credit lands where it is due. I have done this several times, even though there were no contentious issues to hash out. In this way authors can state exactly what their responsibility for a paper is, if they like.
I still think it’s wrong to bring on co-authors from competing teams that didn’t even contribute to the text of a paper!
I don’t think this is really at the emotional core of objections to my proposal.
Many of us have had to deal with that that one senior team member that totally slacked off and didn’t even send in comments and may not have even read the manuscript. They probably don’t really deserve to be a co-author, but we still include them with little more than a tinge of annoyance because that’s the community norm: you invited them on at the beginning, and you should presume that they read the manuscript and were happy with it and had nothing to add, and it would be rude and awkward to take them off. Yes, sticklers should insist will that they contribute or take their name off, but this situation does not arouse the sort of reflexive opposition that my proposal does.
Whereas the thought of adding members of a competing team as similarly “silent” co-authors makes us uncomfortable, even tough they unequivocally contributed much more than the slacker to the science and an equal amount to the manuscript.
Why do we feel so differently about these situations? Not because the proposing team is less deserving of authorship than the slacker, clearly. It’s partly because they are “the competition” perhaps, but mostly, I think, because it’s the community norm that we don’t invite strangers onto our papers.
I assert that this norm is unethical and we should change it.
In the next part: some practical issues and final thoughts, including a skeleton data policy proposal for MAST (for Josh).