Ethical Question About Journal Publications

I have a question that I’d like to pose to the very small community of people which read my blog.  First, some backstory.

I did some testing a few months ago and the results were interesting enough that one of the senior managers in my company asked me to submit an abstract to an industry conference and try to publish what I’d done and how. Sounded pretty good – I’d read a lot of journal articles before, but had never made any contributions of my own, so I was excited at the opportunity. Since I’m fairly new in this industry, he wanted me to work with this other guy, a chief engineer, and have him as the second author on the paper.

The guy that’s helping me, my alleged co-author, isn’t contributing anything at all. He has no idea as to the work that I did, how I did it, or even what the results are. I’ve tried to explain it to him several times, but he just doesn’t get it. and isn’t really all that interested. Mine is a very specialized field – probably only 500 people in the world work in it. – so it’s not too surprising.  I read an article yesterday from the organization my paper will be accepted by, and I quote:

It is unethical to be a co-author of a paper without making any contribution in the paper. In the same way, it is not ethical to add the name of the project manager, financial supporter or department head as co-author unless they have made contributions.

The chief engineer that I was assigned to has been absolutely zero help. No suggestions, no review, nothing. I let him read the abstract and he complained because he didn’t like the word “ubiquitous” since he didn’t understand it. Other than that, I’ve gotten no help at all. Is this a standard sort of thing when it comes to assigning credit for work? Is it common for co-authors to be attached, even though they’ve made no real contributions?

Not to sound like a pre-med gunner type, but I’m also a little uncertain as to how an admissions commitee is going to look at industry research and whether I’m the first author or the only author on a publication.  Anyone have some thoughts?


6 Responses

  1. Have you talked about this with your senior manager? It seems like the only reason why this engineer was to be second author was because he’d be HELPING you out with your first journal article for publication.

    If he’s done zip all, why should he get the credit?

  2. The aerospace industry has a very hierarchical structure – we pretty much just follow orders or wind up hoping to not get whacked when layoffs show up.

    I’m kinda wondering whether or not others from industry (medical or otherwise) have experienced the same sort of thing, with people further up the food chain taking credit for their work. I’ve spent the last year or so working on this subject and I’m a little bit upset about the fact that another guy, who has no idea what I do, is going to be credited in some fashion with my work.

    On a more selfish note, I’m a little bit worried that an adcom will look at my work and conclude that someone else did it…is being first author really that big of a deal?

  3. Hello,

    I just found your blog. It is interesting.

    On the ethical dilemma of journal publications: If I were you, I would try to put myself as the first author and then I would put the others as second and last authors (I am assuming there will be three authors). Being the first author is a big deal. The last one is usually the principal investigator.

    I am surprised to read: “…it is not ethical to add the name of the project manager, financial supporter or department head as co-author unless they have made contributions.”

    It seems that assigning co-authorship varies from scientists to scientists depending on how they define “contribution”. Some co-authors have their names on a paper where they did not significantly (scientifically) contribute but they may have helped otherwise, i.e financially (getting research grant)…

    • Hi. Thanks for the comment.

      There will only be two authors on the paper and I’m the first. I’m not really worried about whether that makes me inferior somehow in the eyes of an adcom. I was just wondering if academic research was similarly flexible with its definition of “contribution”.

      Honestly, his biggest contribution is his name – I have no publications to my name and he has many, so it’s actually going to work in my favor.

  4. I work in a consultant company as an engineer. The project manager got a big project (several sites) but didn’t have any technical contributions. I found he wrote 4 abstracts and got accepted to present in the conference. He put his name as the first author but did not list everyone contributes to the design as other authors. He took credits from our hard work. How should I do? He has been doing it for years. Thanks.

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