APS News

Ask the Ethicist

ethicistEditor's Note: Ethical issues have been much in the news recently, and the APS has revised and extended its guidelines for professional conduct, with regard to both research and publications. There is an APS Task Force on Ethics, which is expected to report to Council this fall. This month, APS News is inaugurating what we hope will be a continuing series of columns addressing ethical issues that are submitted by our readers.

Anything is fair game, and we encourage questions relating to research practices, to authorship and other publication-related issues, and also to the propriety of research in certain ethically sensitive areas. Readers should submit questions to ethics@aps.org or by mail to Jordan Moiers, c/o APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. They should identify themselves and provide contact information, but their identities will be jealously protected.

In order to be ethically aboveboard ourselves, we make two confessions: in this first column, we faced a chicken and egg problem, with the result that the letter below was not actually submitted by a reader, but was constructed by our staff based on an actual incident within our experience. We hope that reader response will help us avoid this expedient in the future. The second confession is that Jordan Moiers is a nom de plume, which we hope will insulate the author of this column from undue influence and unwarranted reprisals.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of either the APS or APS News.


My former collaborators recently included me as coauthor on a paper that I never laid eyes on prior to its publication. I wholeheartedly respect the authors and have absolute faith in their work. I am also grateful that they feel my earlier contributions warranted coauthorship. However, is it ethical for them to add my name to a paper if I didn't have a chance to review it? What should I do to correct the record now?


Dear O.H.,

In years past, your former collaborators' generosity technically did not reach the level of an ethics breach. After all, you are probably intimately familiar with the subject of the paper if you were an important member of the collaboration a short time ago. Recent, highly publicized ethics violations, however, have raised the bar with regards to assigning physics paper authorship.

The original APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct, which were adopted in 1991, state "Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution or interpretation of the research study. All those who have made significant contributions should be offered the opportunity to be listed as authors." It is entirely conceivable that you made significant contributions that warrant coauthorship. New language in 2002, however, complicates things a bit.

According to the updated guidelines, "Every coauthor should have the opportunity to review the manuscript before its submission. All coauthors have an obligation to provide prompt retractions or correction of errors in published works. Any individual unwilling or unable to accept appropriate responsibility for a paper should not be a coauthor."

Clearly, you didn't have the opportunity to review the manuscript prior to submission, although multiple use of the word "should" in the guidelines still leaves a bit of wiggle room. You could approach the level of a legitimate coauthor now if you review the paper with an eye toward providing "retractions or correction of errors," but I doubt your friends would appreciate it if you exercised your responsibilities (assuming that any corrections are called for), considering the fact that you are a former collaborator. In fact, the level of comfort you and the other authors feel with you taking responsibility for retractions or corrections seems as good a test as any for coauthor status.

Apparently your former colleagues included you as coauthor out of respect and admiration for your previous, crucial contributions. An acknowledgment would not only have been more appropriate, but would have also given them the opportunity to express a heartfelt sentiment such as "Without the dedication, insight, and pigheaded determination of O.H., none of this work would have been possible."

Attempting to correct the record at this point by publishing a modification of the paper's author list seems extreme, and could even offend the other authors. You might consider brushing off your old notebooks and taking a close look at the paper in order to fulfill the letter of your ethical obligation. And when you have a chance, whip off an email to your friends to let them know that a simple "thanks" will be enough next time around.

Best wishes,
Jordan Moiers

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette