Have I chosen a great topic for a Friday post, or what? Perhaps I am still recovering from my near-death (or at least, near-maiming) experience last weekend.
Anyway, a manuscript recently crossed my desk and gave me pause. One of the co-authors is deceased. There are certainly many legitimate circumstances in which a deceased person's name should be included on a manuscript to which they substantively contributed, despite their presumed inability to consent to the submission of the manuscript in its final form (and/or participate in revisions).
When I was in graduate school, one of my evil anti-mentor committee members threatened me with failure and ejection from graduate school unless I promised to make him a co-author on every paper that I ever published on a certain topic for the rest of my life, even though he contributed in no substantive way to the research. The department chair was not interested in the unethical nature of this demand/threat, and merely said "I don't envy you" [for being in that position]. I said to the evil professor "But we clearly disagree about some important aspects of my work. Why would you want to be a co-author on papers with me?" and he responded by pinching me. I was not impressed by this inarticulate and immature display, though by that point I did not envy me either.
Long story short: the evil professor died before I finished my Ph.D. Is he a co-author on any of my papers? Over his dead body.. No, he is not a co-author on any of my papers. He did manage to co-author some other papers after his demise, though, including one that was submitted years after his death. It is quite possible that the authors decided to include him as a co-author to honor their former professor and his contributions to the work, but I cannot help but wonder if he made a similar threat/demand to others.
Perhaps my somewhat traumatic and, I think, unusual history with deceased co-authors makes me cynical about them, but it would be interesting to know the motivations of including dead people as authors on papers: that is, what % of these cases involved major contributions of the now-deceased person, what % are motivated by a desire to 'honor' a famous or well-liked person who may have had something to do with the work at some point, and what % have a more bizarre and/or unsavory reason? I presume the latter is a very small number, but I don't know about the other two.
6 months ago