Science - February 27, 2015

Tagalong ‘authors’

Roelof Kleis

It is one of a PhD candidate’s biggest bugbears: co-authors riding piggyback on the work you put into your article. Colleagues and supervisors who have contributed little themselves but still share the credit. Is that OK? It is a tricky problem.

It may sound strange to an outsider that coauthors have sometimes contributed little to an academic article. After all, the word co-author would suggest they’ve done some of the writing, were on the research team and are now publishing the findings? Well, yes, broadly speaking that is the idea. But every academic knows of examples where the concept is more loosely defined. Especially PhD  candidates. Co-authorship is a topic that keeps coming back on the agenda of the PhD council, confirms chair Jeroen Candel. And the main issue is the pressure put on PhD candidates to accept the co-authorship of colleagues who have not actually earned it.

What co-authorship means is a topic that always come up, says PhD coordinator Claudius van de Vijver of PE&RC Graduate School. He gives a lecture on publishing to PhD candidates a couple of times a year. The report ‘In gesprek’, about undesirable behaviour in the workplace, which came out one and a half years ago, also mentioned the false attribution of authorship as a sore point. Whereas the question of how it should work is essentially very easy to answer. There are guidelines. Professor Bart Koelmans (Water Quality) drew them up in 2002. More or less for his own use. ‘I was collaborating with several universities. It seemed to me a good idea to get some clarity from the start of the project on the authorship of the articles it would deliver. And I wanted to have a discussion on this in my own chair group too. There were certain customs and habits within the various academic disciplines, but there was no agreed etiquette.’ Koelmans browsed through the literature and came up with the following simple guideline. You are only genuinely a co-author is you have made an integral, overall and substantial contribution to at least two aspects of the study: the design, the implementation/ analysis, or the actually writing of the article. Not long afterwards, the guidelines were adopted by the Graduate Schools and now stand as the Wageningen norm on this matter.

‘The guidelines still stand,’ says Koelmans. ‘Although they could perhaps have been a bit more detailed. What constitutes a substantial contribution, for instance? I think the person should make a difference to the final outcome. You can do that at any stage of the process, solicited or unsolicited. Someone might notice a conceptual error in the experimental setup and suggest improvements. That is a creative moment that makes a difference. A substantial contribution cannot always be expressed in terms of time or effort put it.’ But it is not always so black and white. Koelmans: ‘I have been involved in collaborations where I thought: this professor is pressing the wrong buttons. He shouldn’t have been listed among the co-authors. In my view it is important that the PhD candidate has a lot of say in who is named co-author. In very many places it is all done very honestly. It is usually done well, but not always. There are also chair groups which say: nice guidelines, but in the end the professor decides.’

Everything revolves around exactly what is meant by an appropriate, serious and substantial  contribution,  says Dolf Weijers. He is one of the editors of Kennis van Publiceren, a booklet by the Young Academy about the dos and don’ts of authorship. ‘Serious and substantial cannot be expressed in percentages and figures. Sometimes someone has done important work which isn’t reflected in the article. Personally I think it’s important that each contribution is weighed against what other people have contributed. To be considered co-author there should always have been an intellectual contribution. I know authorship cases where people don’t know themselves why they are co-authors. That makes a nonsense of authorship.’ Weijers roundly condemns this kind of piggybacking on each other’s articles. ‘I am totally against the practice of making the head of department co-author purely for that reason. This kind of routine habit belongs to the previous century when heads of departments still brought in the funding. Times have changed. Automatic co-authorship is outdated. I have turned down co-authorship of articles in Nature and Science because I didn’t think I had contributed enough. I don’t do that to be noble; that is just my position on this.’

Richard Visser, professor of Plant Breeding, has been involved as co-author in many publications by PhD candidates. Visser admits that he does not follow the guidelines for co-authorship to the letter. ‘The guidelines are a bit scary. I think you need to be able to prove that someone contributed to a publication. But does it need to have been an essential contribution? And if so, what is essential and who decides on that? I started here in 1989. Analysts and the people who tend the plants were never mentioned in publications. That was one of the first things I changed. In plant breeding you work with people who

make the plant material. Without that material you couldn’t do your work. So it is essential. Those people want to be mentioned as co-authors. And then, every co-author is expected to be able to defend the article properly. I wonder whether that is feasible nowadays with multidisciplinary studies by big research teams. I try to sidestep what I see as restrictive guidelines. My rule of thumb is: better one too many co-authors than one too few. To forget someone unfairly puts a lot of pressure on the system.’


The heart of the problem, responds PhD coordinator Van de Vijver, is the question why everyone is eager to be a co-author. ‘That is because of the culture in the university,’ is the answer he provides himself. ‘A culture that assesses you on quantity. Take tenure track, in which academics have to achieve a certain number of points for publications every year. If your head is on the block, because you are short of an article and it is a question of ‘in or out’, what do you do? It is very tempting then to tag along with a PhD candidate. Co-authorship is an ethical issue. And ethics have to be learned. It is a question of what is common practice. The university needs to create a culture in which ethics are held high.’

Likewise, Candel (PhD Council) points to publication pressure and tenure track as driving forces behind dubious attributions of co-authorship. ‘And yet tenure track stands precisely for individual quality and excellence. Co-authorship is no proof of your own quality. It is no proof of quality if you force your PhD candidates to make you co-author. That is exploiting PhD candidates. As one of their supervisors you should be able to distinguish between your role as supervisor and that of co-author. In that respect the whole system is susceptible to fraud. How does a doctoral committee know for sure whether the PhD candidate wrote the article and not the supervisor? Nobody sees. There is money and prestige involved. After all, it pays to deliver a PhD graduate. These kinds of things happen if you start measuring quality with quantitative indicators.’

Weijers totally agrees with Candel on this point. He deplores the emphasis on the number of publications people have to their name and the number of PhD candidates they’ve helped to the finishing line. ‘With those sorts of lists you are providing the wrong incentive. A publication is not a goal in itself, but a means of transferring knowledge. My h-index could easily have been 10 points higher if I had profited from other people’s work. For tenure trackers the important thing is to do independent research and to publish. That your articles are not seen as ‘from so-and-so’s stable’. That you build your own stable.’

Dean Johan van Arendonk, head of the Graduate Schools, agrees that the culture surrounding co-authorship needs to change. ‘As dean I see a lot of theses and when I leaf through them I notice things. You see the range in the number of co-authors. Sometimes three names keep coming back, sometimes there are six.’ According to Van Arendonk this is not because of the guidelines. ‘In general we all agree with those guidelines. They point the way but they are not the solution. What matters is how they are applied in a very diverse field. It is important for PhD candidates and their supervisors to keep on talking about it: when are you a co-author and when are you not? We’ll have gained a lot if we can have an open discussion about that, with the guidelines in our hands.’ Van Arendonk recently wrote to all the professors about the correct way to deal with co-authorship. He realizes more is needed. ‘But have you got a great idea?’ ‘If the guidelines were applied, we’d be a lot further,’ believes Candel. ‘The first step is to recognize that it must and can be done differently. It is not done to put your name to work you didn’t do yourself.’ In Candel’s view, the key to a solution lies in better communication. ‘There are guidelines, but who knows them? Within our graduate school WASS, research has been done which showed that most PhD candidates think it’s totally normal for their supervisors to be co-authors. They don’t even know that it is not supposed to be an automatic thing.’ PhD coordinator Van de Vijver wants to move towards an Agreement on Authorship which would be part of the PhD candidates Training and Supervision Plan (TSP). ‘The problem of co-authorship would be largely removed if there was a good discussion with the supervisors at the start of the process. ‘PhD candidates have often not thought things through at the start of their PhD research. They might know about the guidelines for co-authorship, but not exactly what applies in the chair group. And  because they don’t know that, rows can easily flare up. I am working on submitting a proposal for an agreement of this kind to our graduate school PE&RC.’

 ‘That’s just the way it is’

‘I wrote my first article together with my supervisor and an overseas colleague. ‘Good article,’ said my professor, ‘but it is not going out without my name as last author.’ The other advisors agreed to just a mention in the acknowledgements. There followed a discussion with the professor. He used a tried and tested tactic. ‘It is good to have me there as a senior researcher, because I am an authority. That way your article will be picked up sooner and that is good for you too.’ I left with the idea: OK, I still don’t agree, it doesn’t figure, but it doesn’t bother me. My supervisor agreed but said, that’s just the way it is now, just accept it because there isn’t much you can do about it anyway. I don’t think it was an isolated incident. This happens in other places too and on a larger scale. That people want to be named as co-authors, come what may. Without discussion. And I think that is worrying. It shouldn’t be like that. For me, it’s about the principle: if you haven’t contributed, your name shouldn’t be on it.’

No names are given for reasons of confidentiality.