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Benjamin Shapiro
Fischell Department of Bioengineering
Joint appointment with:
Institute for Systems Research
2246 Kim Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742
Tel: (301) 405-4191
Fax: (301) 405-9953

Benjamin Shapiro

This note describes my opinions on authorship of scientific papers: who should be included, in which order, and resolution of conflicts. Two things need to be said at the start:

  1. This is a complex issue, and at best one can only attempt guidelines. These are based on my experience and views.
  2. Different people, in different disciplines, have varying views on this subject. Below is my personal attempt to come up with a fair and justifiable attitude.

There are several ways to acknowledge an individuals contribution:

  • Previous results can, and should be, cited
  • Ideas or suggestions which have not appeared in print can be cited as "personal communication". This is typically used when an individual has made a very specific suggestion or comment which only concerns a portion of the paper.
  • More substantial suggestions can be noted in acknowledgments at the end of the paper. This is typically done for people that read rough drafts of the paper and provided comments, made general suggestions for what areas to pursue and questions to ask, pointed out specific techniques which were useful, or suggested practical considerations.
  • Co-author: Any person that had "significant" impact on the overall content should be included as an author. For students, this will typically (but not always) include their advisor, even if he or she did not directly carry out calculations, or perform simulations/experiments. This assumes there is an active advisor-student relationship where the professor suggests areas of research, provides ideas, and gives advice pertaining to computation, experimentation, and content. The advisor should not be included if all he or she did was suggest the area of research or provided monetary support. Other individuals who have made a significant contribution to the paper should be included. These might include other students, post-docs, faculty collaborators, and people within cooperating companies. To be added as an author, the contribution should be more substantial than a simple discussion, or a presence in the same lab. Co-authorships should not be given out because: the other person is in your lab, the other person does similar research, the other person will "put you in on his/her next paper", or any other indebtness or future pay-back type argument.

In most cases, a single person writes the bulk of the paper. This person should be the primary (first) author! It is this persons responsibility to decide on the remaining authors that will be listed, and the order in which they will appear. If there is no clear ordering apparent based on contribution, alphabetical order should be used for the co-authors. Always list authors based on contribution, and not on seniority.

Since the primary author gets to decide the list and ordering of the co-authors, it is important that he/she do so in a responsible and fair manner. In obvious terms, treat your co-workers as you would like to have them treat you. Before the paper is submitted, send copies to all the authors and people otherwise involved in the paper, so that they can provide you with comments on any problems. If you feel uncomfortable sending someone a copy of your paper, there may be a reason.

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