Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When Coauthors Go Missing

I need a break from writing about encounters with annoying/disturbing people, so today I will write about a routine academic issue.

On quite a few occasions, submission of a manuscript on which I am first author has been delayed – in some cases considerably – by a coauthor who is unable or unwilling to provide final comments and/or edits on the manuscript within a reasonable time scale. Each of these cases has been special in its own way, owing to variation in coauthor personality, urgency of the submission, and other factors.

What do you do, however, if you have to submit a manuscript by a particular time, but one or more coauthors haven’t signed off on it? In some cases, delaying submission of a manuscript will harm others involved in the project (e.g., students, postdocs) or have negative consequences for other research or for other papers or grants. It is unethical to submit a manuscript without approval from all coauthors, but it is also unethical to drop a coauthor who has significantly contributed to the manuscript. Is the best option to delay submitting a manuscript, even if other people’s careers depend on it?

I once gave a non-communicative coauthor a deadline, after which I was dropping him from the paper. I think it was a very reasonable deadline (2 months, after already waiting 6 months). He had contributed very little to the paper (no writing, no data, no ideas, just some logistical help at the early stages of the project), so I felt this was reasonable to do; in other cases, however, this would not be an option. He did not respond, I dropped him as a coauthor, and added him to the acknowledgments. The paper was accepted, and he was extremely angry.

This is a problem that has afflicted me for my entire research career, starting with a thesis committee member who wasn’t able to find the time to read my thesis. At present, I am rather desperate to submit a particular manuscript but am waiting (and waiting) for a coauthor to send comments or approval for submission. I am not going to drop this coauthor, or even threaten to do so, as he has been important to the project, but I am wondering how long to wait.

30 comments:

hypnose said...

Question: How come you are a first author on a paper if you are full prof at a research university? It looks incredible. I do not know of any senior scientist that actually carries out experiments. PI's all appear as last author.

Anonymous said...

What I often do is tell the co-author that due to x and y factors, I need a response by z date. I let them know that If I don't hear from them by that date, I'll assume that the paper is acceptable to them and ready to submit. Then, if z date passes, I simply submit the paper, with the author still listed. If the co-author is really unhappy with that plan, they can at least write back a quick email saying that the plan is unacceptable, at which point I can ask them to suggest a date by which they can have comments to me.

By the way, hypnose, the meaning of first (and last) authorship varies by discipline. In my discipline, last authorship is meaningless - it doesn't indicate the PI, and is usually the author who contributed least to the paper.

Plague of Crickets said...

Hypnose: It probably varies by fields, but many PI's actually do run experiments, and many of us do appear as first authors, at least on some papers.

FSP: I had a similar problem with a graduate student who dropped out of our program after finishing a couple of experiments. The tack I took was to send the student an email stating that I would assume he agreed to the submission unless I heard otherwise within two weeks. He never responded and I submitted the manuscript with him as a coauthor. This doesn't really fulfill the requirement of many journals that all authors agree to the submission, but when you're in a bad position, you do the best you can...

mentaer said...

mhm.. difficult.. as you chosed already the acknowledgement option.
An idea would be to send the person every 2-3 days an email and asking for the review.. starting about 3 weeks before a (self-)set deadline. And in the last email - you say you can not wait and submit it - if he has some more comments, then there should be still a chance during the revisions.
But more or less this is a bit unusual if you are the prof and not the ph.d. student ;)

Wendy said...

Assuming the co-author has already contributed enough to earn authorship, I send an email with a statement of "I'm submitting the paper on Monday. I assume at this point that you have no further comments." Below that, I include the previous email with the generous deadline, now long past.

Every time I've tried this, I've gotten a response within hours.

ALH said...

Nice to know I'm not the only one who co-authors ignore. I was starting to think it was just me. I'd give it a month, then a friendly reminder every week for another month, and then one everyday for another week or so, and then...well, I'll tell you next week :)

Ms.PhD said...

hypnose, in some fields, like chemistry, it's often traditional for the PI to be first instead of last. That's just how the field does it. I personally wish my field would switch to the "order of authers was determined by a coin toss" method and make it required policy to always list explicitly who did what, as only a few journals currently do...

FSP, I am constantly in this same situation myself (including now). My advice is simple but annoying for everyone involved: NAG, NAG, NAG. Call all the phone numbers you have, every day if necessary. Leave multiple messages. Set up a script to send an automatic email every day.

That way, when you drop them from the author list after a reasonable amount of time, they certainly can't claim you didn't try to reach them.

I really think there's no excuse for being incommunicado for a long period of time unless you're having surgery or doing fieldwork.

The real reason is usually that they're inconsiderate self-centered assholes, am I right?

I'm only kind of joking here. I've tried sending gifts (I usually give alcohol) as well as threats. Nothing really speeds things along, but at least you'll get an answer, usually an excuse. And simultaneously deliver a dollop of guilt (which usually works to grease the wheels a little bit).

IMHO, the guy who was extremely angry after you gave him 2 extra months should have put up or shut up.

As a postdoc, I'm one of those unfortunate people whose careers are stuck waiting for coauthors, and there's really no threats I can use besides threatening to drop them or what, quit? They'd probably be relieved if I did that!

But I do know of one PI who has in the past called a journal to block a paper after her postdoc begged repeatedly to get feedback on it and then dropped the PI's name and submitted it. Apparently this PI has done this on more than one occasion, since she's a legendary perfectionist/procrastinator type.

What I don't understand is how those people ever make it in this business long enough to screw it up for everyone else. Who nags them normally if you're not doing it? How do they ever get anything done?

Anonymous said...

I'm in the social sciences, so it's a little different, I work with one or two coauthors at most on a project and we work pretty closely (talking every day or every few days). But I've had them disappear just the same, either because they were being passive aggressive after I said something that offended them (still haven't heard back from that coauthor) or when they have a mental block for some reason about working on the project or doing whatever it is they promised to do. It is infuriating. The last time this happened, we had split a list of tasks between us, but he never did his. After a few weeks I sent the guy an email listing, task by task (including his) what I had done, and asked him to sign off on it so that we could resubmit. (The goodwill of the editor and referees runs out after a while, plus I'm not tenured.) I was seriously contemplating what to do if he did not respond within a week or so, but luckily he did. Bottom line, though: never coauthor with good friends.

Anonymous said...

The 'deadline after which I will assume you are happy with it as it/will be dropped' approach has worked for me everytime, often getting me the reviews long before my deadline. I tend to go with telling people I will assume they are okay with the paper as is rather than telling them that they will be dropped from the author list, though.

Lab Cat said...

As you want this research to remain a co-author, can you submit the paper without the co-authors signature? If so, I would do that after giving them a deadline as anonymous and Wendy suggested.

It is not unethical to submit a paper if you give them the opportunity to comment on the paper and they don't give any feedback.

TW Andrews said...

The suggestion of giving a deadline after which you assume approval for the most recent manuscript seems to be the least-bad option.

If the paper is submitted and accepted without the co-author's comments, it's still a publication on which the tardy commenter is a co-author. The potential for harm is that there are things in the paper which they would have changed and so they are possibly associated with work with which they are not in full agreement.

However, given their (presumed) initial involvement in drafting the paper and doing the research, it seems that any such undesired associations will be minor.

On the other had, the consequences of continuing to wait (or dropping the co-author in other cases), seem to be much greater for everyone concerned (risking grant opportunities, careers on hold, etc.)

a grad student said...

Wow, you are so much nicer/more patient than my PI. He gives off-site co-authors one week to decide if they have comments, and then out it goes!

Schlupp said...

I'd also suggest to give a deadline (mentioning why timely submission is necessary), after which you consider no response to mean agreement.

Anonymous said...

I'm not comfortable with the "no response" = "approval" and I suspect the journals wouldn't be, either. Does an email count as "service"? I, personally, am in favor of dropping the author, if they don't respond. That way, they haven't approved of the paper. But, there are authors you can't drop, in particular, anyone who did something significant for the paper that you can't sign off on yourself. For example, if they collected the data (and the data isn't generally available or published), you are relying on them to sign off on the procedures used in collecting the data -- you can't do it yourself.

bj

hypnose said...

Ms. phd, I am familiar with chemistry. Can you show me a paper where george whitesides or charles lieber appear as first authors?

a grad student said...

So glad to hear that I'm not the only one with this problem, but sorry to hear that it does not disappear with seniority...

Anonymous said...

FSP, your post is amazingly timely. I'm twisting in the wind right now waiting for a coauthor's comments on a manuscript that we're going to submit to a glossy journal. She's told me at least twice that this is her top priority, and she's had the finished manuscript for ten days, and still no feedback. Gah!

Schlupp said...

hypnose, naming names doesn't make sense here, because it varies even within fields. Even in a field that I suspect to be not too far from yours, I know of at least two PIs (one of them reasonably well known), who occasionally are first authors. They've just remained active researchers despite all that paper work and whenever they do most of a paper, they are first author.

On the other hand, if they don't participate in their students' or postdocs' work, then they are not authors at all.

Anonymous said...

FSP, would you consider a guest blog entry? This one reminded me of an ongoing saga in my own life, about a paper, authorship, and (un)ethical behavior. I think I've handled it reasonably well so far, but I could always use the feedback. Plus, it might mitigate some of the "what crazy place do you live in?" comments you get.

If so, I'm sure we can figure out some anonymous way to get in touch.

Ms.PhD said...

I think the reason we balk at saying "we assume you approve" is that some of us have had the experience of not seeing the final draft of a paper and having our names on it...

... and then having people ask us what our contribution was to that paper, we find ourselves wondering if we shouldn't drop it from our CVs.

Have you ever been so annoyed about a paper that you couldn't even bring yourself to read it and find out how bad it really is?

Or maybe that's just me.

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous - extended comments are welcome, or you could send a link. If you write a comment, it will go first to an email account and not appear directly. I can move your text into a post if that seems like a good idea.

Mad Hatter said...

I was struck by your comment about "a thesis committee member who wasn’t able to find the time to read my thesis". I'm convinced none of my committee members read my thesis prior to my defense. Even my PhD advisor hasn't read the whole thing!

Anonymous said...

Dear Science-Prof,

This was an interesting post. I think that the commenters probably offer the best compromise (no reply=assumed approval).

I have had related (but opposite) problems: lead author taking more than a year to start writing, or the lead author submitting a manuscript I haven't even seen. Thankfully I have always had prompt replies from co-authors on the papers that I have written.

SASWATA said...

My coauthors once agreed (in written) to submit a paper to a Graph Theory Conference but one of my coauthors later withdrew it claiming that the results were incomplete. I am the main contributor of the paper and I know very well that the results in the paper are correct and complete. The conference committee, too, went ahead to accept the paper, ignoring his comments. Later, that coauthor forced the conference chair to withdraw the paper. I also contacted the conference chair but he replied that he had no choice but to remove the paper from the list of accepted papers. What can one do in such a situation? I am PhD student and the paper was supposed to form a part of my PhD thesis.

Anonymous said...

Question:What do you do if one of the coauthors, after multiple delays in reviewing the paper, followed by requests for multiple small modifications( which were all promptly done) , decides he now will sign the paper only if some of his generalizations to an already complete paper(my PHD thesis) are included.To be properly discussed in the paper, these generalizations would require months of work, which, of course,he wants to be done by me,since I am the (former) student.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe you have already done these things, but some suggestions are:

- Did you try explaining to the coauthor why it doesn't make sense for you to do this extra work now? Perhaps he will listen to your arguments.

- Who is this coauthor: your advisor or someone else? If not your advisor, perhaps your (former) advisor or some other senior person can step in and explain to the difficult coauthor why this manuscript needs submitting now.

- If nothing else works, the steps you take next depend on how essential this coauthor is, what the other coauthors think, and how important this coauthor is to your career/future work.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,
Thank you very much for your very thoughtful reply.
I tried what you suggested, and the difficult coauthor does not seem to understand how important it is for me to publish this article ASAP.
He is a former research associate of my supervisor,and was a co-supervisor on my thesis. He has now left the academic field, although he still publishes occasionally.
I'll follow your advice and try to get my supervisor to speak to him . You mentioned other options could be considered if all else fails. Would it be possible for you to please discuss this further?
Anonymous from Feb 20, 2011

Female Science Professor said...

I hope your advisor can solve the problem; sometimes that is what it takes. If not, an extreme measure (best avoided) would be to remove the coauthor, if it is ethical to do so, after proper warning etc. My bet is that he would back down before it came to that, but you never know. I once had to remove an extremely unresponsive coauthor.

Anonymous said...

wow, glad I found this. I am in the situation right now. Paper has been submitted to co-author twice now, the original paper is more than a year old. Second paper is two years old. We've been sorta scooped already. I'm being ignored (including all deadlines). As a recent PhD I need every publication right now. I will use the "no response means acceptance" this time. Is there an update/ new advice?

Anonymous said...

I want to send my manuscript to the co-authors asking their permissions/comments/feedback within 15 days.
Does anyone have a sample/template/letter for this please?
I am not a native speaker