The authorship contract

Put two physicists together and sooner or later the conversation will probably turn to complaining 😉 Most likely, the complaints will centre on journals or priority/authorship. I don’t know if mathematicians or biologists or other scientists complain like this, but I’ve sure been involved in plenty of conversations with physicists where we end up whining about author ordering and recognition for contributions to papers.

The story is somehow always the same: person X and person Y have a conversation. Person X tells person Y about some problem. Person Y gets enthused, asks lots of helpful questions, offers suggestions, and maybe works out a couple of small answers. Then X and Y go their separate ways and Y forgets the conversation. After 6 months of hard toil, person X realises that the problem was really a whole lot more subtle than X or Y originally though, but manages to solve the problem using a variety of clever new techniques and new ideas. The influence of the initial discussion is apparent, but much more had to be added to make it work. Person X then triumphantly writes a paper and sends it to Y for comments. But, uh oh! Person Y is extremely offended: Y is not an author! How dare X not offer Y authorship! In the ensuing unpleasantness X makes Y an author so as not to create enemies. The paper is submitted but X and Y do not feel entirely happy.

I have been X and I have been Y (and Z etc…) In the narrative I’ve given here Y clearly seems to be the baddie. But sometimes all the new ideas X came up with are, to Y, trivial. So who is the real baddie? Maybe X and Y are both wrong?

I actually see more than one problem here. Firstly, especially in physics, it is hard to weigh up a good idea vs. hard toil. Sometimes a really good idea, easily communicated during a dinner conversation, can lead to major new results to get a paper. But the hard toil is always an important component. How to weigh these two very different contributions? The second problem is that our recollections of conversations that have taken place can differ greatly: it is natural to see oneself as the major contributor in a conversation. But not everyone can be the a major contributor (i.e., we can’t all have had the crucial idea!) I’m reminded of the quote from the television series Yes Minister:

It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them, and that every member’s recollection of them differs violently from every other member’s recollection; consequently we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials; from which it emerges with elegant inevitability, that any decision which has been officially reached would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, and any decisions which is not recorded in the minutes by the officials has not been officially reached, even if one or more members believe they can recollect it; so in this particular case, if the decision would have been officially reached, it would have been recorded in the minutes by the officials and it isn’t so it wasn’t.

Alas, it is not usual to take minutes of dinner-table conversations at physics conferences.

How to solve these problems? I don’t have any real ideas. But here’s a suggestion, inspired by something the mathematicians Hardy and Littlewood employed. Why not agree on a verbal contract at the end of any research discussion. I don’t mean anything too elaborate. I am simply proposing that, at the conclusion of their initial discussion, X and Y should have said something like:

“How about we agree that whatever happens from now on we will both be authors on whatever publications arise from this discussion. How about we proceed using Hardy-Littlewood rules?”

At least this way both X and Y know where they stand. If Y doesn’t pull his/her weight then, well, that’s another problem 😉

Perhaps this should be called the authorship pre-nup. What do you think?

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2 Responses to The authorship contract

  1. Burt Harrison says:

    I don’t get the idea, although I’d be willing to share any authorship on it 😀
    How could they agree on future common authorship if, at the time of the first conversation, they don’t know what / how much will be required to answer some question of interest.
    Shouldn’t the author list reflect who contributed sufficiently substantial labor and/or decisive ideas? Including anyone who contributed ideas that, in the end, were not useful or not decisive doesn’t sound right to me and would result in an inflation of authorships. Such a policy would certainly favor chatty people, people who have the money to travel a lot, established people … and, probably the most unfair aspect, anyone who is in a network of people using such policies.

    • tobiasosborne says:

      Dear Burt,

      Many thanks for your comment; you strike right at the heart of the problem!

      >Shouldn’t the author list reflect who contributed sufficiently substantial labor
      > and/or decisive ideas?

      I couldn’t agree more! I feel that this is the ideal situation.

      > Including anyone who contributed ideas that, in the end, were not useful
      > or not decisive doesn’t sound right to me and would result in an inflation
      > of authorships. Such a policy would certainly favor chatty people, people
      > who have the money to travel a lot, established people … and, probably
      > the most unfair aspect, anyone who is in a network of people using such
      > policies.

      Also, I agree. The point here is that I think we are unfortunately well and truly in the situation you describe, at least in the subfields of physics I’ve been involved in. The point of my article isn’t to promote or perpetuate this situation, but rather to at least acknowledge it largely exists and make it formally clear that a collaboration is to proceed on these terms, rather than leaving it at some tacit agreement.

      I have heard many tales where people were obliged, after the fact, to include authors “… who contributed ideas that, in the end, were not useful or not decisive”. It is a nonoptimal situation. I doubt it will change soon because of the weight placed on publications in the hiring process. My tiny suggestion is to remove the word “tacit” from authorship agreements and specify clearly what the basis of the collaboration is.

      Best wishes!

      Sincerely,
      Tobias

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