The “publication power-of-attorney”, and why you should have one

(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.

Sincerely, 

Stephen Heard

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 (sheard@unb.ca); original Jan 17 2015; this revision July 12, 2018

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This post is based on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook on scientific writing.

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7 thoughts on “The “publication power-of-attorney”, and why you should have one

  1. Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar)

    This is a good piece of advice. For what it’s worth, if your co-author was an employee of a government agency (here I’m thinking of Canada, but likely also true in other countries with a similar structure to their public service) then the manager of your co-author likely already has the ability to grant such approval on behalf of the employee.

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  2. Not A Lawyer

    I think this is a really good idea. I think for most practical purposes, that a signed letter should be sufficient to stop disputes especially if the publisher just trusts the corresponding author to sign on behalf of all co-authors. But do you know if publishers are happy to take such a letter as sufficient for the purpose of assigning copyright or granting a license to publish?

    Imagine a formerly lost lab member who returned and claimed that the signed letter was not legally binding because it was not a ‘real’ power of attorney and that you therefore disposed of their intellectual property illegally. I have a suspicion that, depending on your jurisdiction, that you could draw up a real power of attorney specifically for publication issues with no or little cost. Most universities have notaries, lawyers or equivalents who could probably be prevailed upon to witness the signing for free.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      It’s an interesting question how far this could be pushed. Note, though, that the issue in your second paragraph doesn’t arise, because I’m not using the letter to dispose of anyone else’s IP; only to provide a mechanism for disposing of *my own*. It would be difficult for me to argue later that the letter I signed shouldn’t count because it wasn’t real! Or have I misunderstood your point?

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      1. Not A Lawyer

        Yes, I’m imagining someone saying “I signed it, but it’s not legally binding”. For example, our imaginary former lab member might argue that even though their signature appears on such a letter, that it is not binding because it doesn’t meet the requirements for a POA in their jurisdiction. I don’t know what the rules are in your jurisdiction, but in some places if you sign a POA and it’s not witnessed by the right type of person (e.g. lawyer or notary), then it’s not valid (see wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_of_attorney#Execution). There may also be issues with using the POA internationally, which are very likely since journals are based in all sorts of places and POAs are often based on provincial or state legislation.

        And I think if someone is a co-author on an article, they would argue that they are part-owners of the copyright. Although upon commencing at a university or research institute, they have often signed over their intellectual property rights to the university, I don’t think that this covers the copyrights to papers.

        So for the vast majority of reasonable people, signing a letter at the end of their stint in the lab would be fine. If they aren’t involved enough to reply to an email, they probably aren’t involved enough to care that you gave them credit as author on a paper. I’m just imagining the extreme 0.01% of nutcase scenarios.

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Ah, I see, you’re thinking of the situation where I ask a lab person to leave me such a letter, and they do, but challenge it later. Not an issue with my *own* letter, of course, but it would be if I had a practice of requesting such letters from lab personnel. Which is an interesting idea and perhaps something I should do; I’ve been thinking about how to protect everyone else if *I* go AWOL, rather than if somebody else does! Thanks for the comment… I’ll have to think about that.

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          1. Not A Lawyer

            Exactly. Anyone conscientious enough to leave a note about themselves going AWOL is probably not going to be AWOL for very long and PIs are always keen to get a paper out even if other tasks get in the way. But the much more common scenario is a former student running a ton of experiments and either completing or disappearing before their papers get written up. Every lab I’ve worked in has had the problem of the disappearing student who didn’t write up their data.

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