(This is a lightly edited version of a post that originally ran in January 2015. But you probably didn’t see it then.)
Here’s a problem you might not have thought of: did you know you can submit and publish a paper with a coauthor who’s deceased, but not with one who’s in a coma and might recover?
A lot of people have never thought of this, and a lot don’t think it’s a problem worth worrying about. Please bear with me, though, because I think it’s a more important problem than most of us realize – but also one that’s easily avoided.
The unavailable-coauthor problem is actually more general than my coma example. It arises because when you submit a manuscript for review, you must generally indicate that all co-authors approve submission of the work. Journals often verify this approval, for instance by automatically generating e-mail notifications to all listed authors, so you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) just fake it. But what happens if you’re ready to submit a manuscript, but one coauthor is unavailable to approve submission?
A coauthor could be unavailable to approve for many reasons. A deceased coauthor is unavailable, of course, but so is one in a medical condition such as a coma, one on stress leave from employment (in which relief from all duties is usually part of the prescribed care), one suspended from duties for misconduct, or one experiencing personal issues such as bereavement. A coauthor might even be unavailable during prolonged field work in a remote area, although the list of (electronically) remote places is dwindling fast. I’ve been assured by journal editors that publishing with a deceased coauthor is no problem – but that unapproved submissions arising from any of those other situations would not be permitted.
None of these reasons for unavailability is frequent, but none is unheard-of either. I know of several manuscripts (so far, knock wood, not any of my own) that have been held up for reasons on my list. In other words, this may never happen to you, but odds are good it will happen to someone you know.
If a coauthor is unavailable for a few weeks, there’s rarely any harm in simply waiting for their return. However, when unavailability is open-ended or stretches beyond a month or two, it can matter much more. In particular, delaying even a single paper by a few months could damage career prospects for an early-career scientist coming onto the job market, applying for a first big grant, or coming up for tenure.
Fortunately, there’s an easily way to make sure none of your coauthors ever has this problem: you can write and file a document I call a “publishing power-of-attorney”, or PPA. This is a short letter authorizing a friend or colleague to approve submission of manuscripts you’ve co-authored, in the event that you’re unavailable to do so yourself. My PPA currently looks like this:
To whom it may concern:
Should I be unavailable to participate in the publication process for a period longer than 60 days, I authorize my colleague Dr. X to approve on my behalf submission of manuscripts co-authored by me for publication in the scientific literature. This authorization applies to any period of unavailability beginning between the date of this letter and December 31, 2019. The Chair of the Department of Biology, University of New Brunswick will confirm my unavailability for the purposes of this authorization.
You should name (as I did) a Dr. X who knows your work well enough to judge the quality of a manuscript your name appears on, who you trust to make authorship decisions you’d be happy with, and who is willing to take on the role. Most likely, this will be a close colleague or frequent collaborator. You should then place a copy of your PPA on file with a colleague or a department office, and routinely tell your co-authors where to find it in case of need.
Publication power-of-attorneys aren’t yet common – indeed, my PPA may be one of only a handful in existence. It’s probably human nature to dismiss the idea until one of the situations I’ve mentioned crops up – but at that point, of course, it’s too late. So why not be the first in your research group to write and sign a PPA? And once you’ve signed one, talk to colleagues and collaborators about why they should do the same. Sure, lightning rarely strikes; but when it does, it hurts.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org); original Jan 17 2015; this revision July 12, 2018
This post is based on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook on scientific writing.