APS News

Ask the Ethicist

Editor's Note: This is the second in our series of "Ask the Ethicist" columns, designed to highlight ethical issues of interest to the physics community. We are pleased that the first column stimulated several letters with new questions, one of which is dealt with below. The continued success of this column depends on our readers letting us know either of situations within their own experience, or more general questions with ethical implications.

Please send your questions or comments to: ethics@aps.org, or by mail to Jordan Moiers, c/o APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740.

Contributors should identify themselves, but their names and addresses will be held strictly confidential unless they request otherwise. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of either the APS or APS News.


The new column is an excellent and timely addition to APS News. The following is my ethical dilemma. It is not conjecture; it is from personal experience. I used to work as a research scientist at a government laboratory. While there, I was pretty much on my own in terms of the experiments: I thought them up, did the design, built the apparatus, wrote the data acquisition programs, analyzed the results, presented the results at conferences, and wrote the papers. I was obligated, however, to include manager types as co-authors on publications despite the fact that they did not even remotely meet the APS guidelines for co- authorship. In addition, they were in a position to block manuscripts from getting the necessary security clearances if I felt aggressive enough to push for sole authorship. That hurdle would have been the least of my potential problems—such a posture would likely have cost me my job. I took the low road and made them co-authors.

I know this type of situation happens all the time. I've been told by colleagues to accept it as part of the game. Since these unqualified co-authors have little scientific reputation to protect, the only harm I see is the perceived dilution of credit for what was entirely my own work.
(Name and address withheld)

Jordan Moiers responds:
Beyond any doubt, it is a violation of the APS ethical guidelines for managers to insist that they be included as coauthors on papers that they did not contribute to in a material way. I'm not sure I agree with you, however, that the only harm is the perceived dilution of your credit for your own work. Co-author status conveys real responsibility for the research presented in a paper, and it should not be treated as a gold star to be slapped onto a manager's annual performance review.

Clearly, you have little recourse as long as the culture of the laboratory allows managers to hold your career hostage. What is unclear is just how pervasive this problem is. Although there is probably little advice that we can give people facing the sort of administrative arm-twisting that you suffered, this column is intended to raise awareness of ethical issues in the physics community by printing letters such as yours.

In order to help gauge the pervasiveness of the problem, Ask the Ethicist would like to hear from other APS News readers who have been coerced to include unqualified coauthors on their papers.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette