Who Should Be an Author on a Paper? I: AAS Ethics policy

I started a really long Twitter conversation by blurting out a radical-sounding assertion that I’ve been mulling over privately for a long time.  This series of posts is an attempt to justify my (apparently) rather unpopular position.

The AAS Ethics Policy States:

All persons who have made significant contributions to a work intended for publication should be offered the opportunity to be listed as authors. This includes all those who have contributed significantly to the inception, design, execution, or interpretation of the research to be reported.

Sounds reasonable! But—like a lot of ethical maxims—this apparently banal statement can be tricky to apply in practice. I actually like this rule a lot and think it should stand with only minor clarifications, but I assert that it is strongly inconsistent with the norms of our profession.  We could change the norms, or we could change the policy.  I think a compromise is in order.

Let’s look at a concrete example:

Consider a team of researchers that proposes for some Hubble Space Telescope time. After submitting the proposal but before analysis of the data begin, two of the co-I team members (let’s call them Amber and Brie) that worked hard on the proposal leave the group. Amber gets a job in industry, and Brie gets a faculty job elsewhere and has no time to work on the project any longer.

The PI (let’s call her Candice) and the rest of the team get the data and write a paper. Do they have an ethical obligation to include Amber and Brie on the paper? I think it’s clear that they do: they clearly “contributed significantly to the inception [and] design…of the research to be reported.”

OK, that’s an easy one. Now let’s make a minor tweak.  Let’s say this was a DDT proposal. That means that the data have no proprietary period, and go public as soon as they are ready. Simultaneous to the above events, another team (led by Joe) downloads the very interesting and useful data, analyzes it, and prepares their own paper.  Is Joe ethically obliged to offer Amber and Brie co-authorship on the paper?

Our professional norms say “no”: this is a different team using public data; why should Amber and Brie be involved?

But our professional society apparently says “yes”: by the book, this situation is no different than the first one.  Amber and Brie “contributed significantly to the inception [and] design…of the research to be reported.” Full stop. By this rule, the entire proposal team should be on Joe’s paper!

In fact, the AAS policy has things exactly backwards of our professional norms: many astronomers would, I think, consider Joe a bit of a jerk for scooping Candice. Even though he’s allowed by NASA to publish the data, there is a general etiquette that we don’t do that, or at least that we ask first, or at the very least an understanding that Candice is perfectly justified being upset about it. But there is also a broad consensus that Joe doesn’t owe Candice co-authorship.

So the AAS Policy is clearly out of step with our norms. Should we change the policy?

I actually think not. I agree that Joe’s act is poor form, but allowed; my (apparently radical) proposal is that Joe should seriously consider inviting Amber, Brie, Candice, and the entire proposing team to be co-authors on his team’s paper.

In Part II I’ll flesh this out.

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