Which institutional affiliation should you list on a paper?

There are a lot of bits and pieces in a scientific paper. You’ll find advice for writing most of them in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but somewhat to my chagrin I keep finding gaps – most recently when Jonathan Losos wrote to ask me this apparently simple question:

When you publish a paper, where do you list your institution: where you were when the work was done, where you were when the paper was submitted, where you are now, or some combination of the above?

Jonathan, like me, has been in the publishing game for a while, and I think he was a bit nonplussed to realize he had to ask the question.  There don’t seem to be clear guidelines, or at least not universal ones. As Jonathan put it, “A quick google suggested that…everyone, just like me, makes up their own rules”.

My first reaction to Jonathan’s question was “Oh, this is obvious” – but I quickly discovered that my own past practice is inconsistent with my obvious answer. And that made me think… and then sit down to write this post.

My obvious answer was perhaps the same one you’d come up with: I should list as my institutional affiliation the institution where I did the bulk of the work. If I’ve moved since then, my new institution should be a “present address” footnote. After all, it’s the institution where the work was done that ought to get whatever credit accrues (when, or if, people count).

So I offered Jonathan my obvious answer, and then I went to check my own papers. I moved institutions most recently in 2002. After seven years as a faculty member at the University of Iowa, I came home to Canada by moving to the University of New Brunswick. So what do the papers I published in 2003 and 2004 and 2005 look like? According to my own “obvious” answer, they should list my affiliation as “University of Iowa”, and then have a footnote saying “Present address: University of New Brunswick”.

I think you know where I’m going with this: they do not. One of them (this 2004 paper) is pictured above, and you can see that my new institution gets the billing and Iowa isn’t mentioned at all.* And for my papers from 2003-2005, at least, that’s typical.

Two decades later I don’t remember my thinking, but I’m pretty sure I did this wrong. The science those 2003-2005 papers reports was mostly done at Iowa. For the grazer-collector paper, for example, the field work was entirely done there, as was the data analysis and the writing of first drafts. There was probably some revision after I moved to New Brunswick (I’d have to bust out a 3.5” floppy-disk drive to be sure), but it’s not like I can argue that it’s unclear which institution should have gotten the credit.

So what’s up here? Again, I don’t remember what I thought at the time; but I suspect there are two conflicts at play.

The first conflict is a functional one. What is an institutional affiliation for in a paper? So far I’ve been writing about it as a mechanism for allocated credit for science to the institution where it happened. But it’s also a mechanism for people to find authors, and using your newest affiliation makes that easiest for readers – who might include journalists, prospective grad students or collaborators, colleagues looking for data or methods details, and more. Sure, the “present address” footnote makes this possible anyway, but footnotes can be easily missed.** Perhaps putting my new affiliation on those transitional-time papers was me resolving the functional conflict in favour of folks finding me, rather than crediting the older host institution.

The second conflict is a more personal one. What institution might I have wanted to credit, or at least recognize? There are many reasons an academic might move between institutions, but for at least some of those reasons, they might be much more enamored of the new institution than the old one. Perhaps someone moved to escape a toxic department, or a poorly resourced or badly managed one, or even to escape a bad personal situation. Would they feel warm and fuzzy about listing the just-escaped institutional affiliation? Or might they instead want to list the new place, the one they’re still a bit dewy-eyed about?  So perhaps putting my new affiliation on those transitional-time papers was me resolving an emotional conflict in favour of crediting my new loyalty instead of my old one.

Probably, of course, I had conflicts in mind. But I’m bothered by the second one and I think I got it wrong.

What about my earlier moves, from PhD (University of Pennsylvania) to postdoc (University of British Columbia) and from postdoc to my first faculty job? From PhD to postdoc, I seem to have credited the university where I did the work; from postdoc to faculty job, I seem to have been inconsistent. Past me, why are you so puzzling?

What about you? When you’ve moved, how have you handled this? And how do you think we should have handled it?

© Stephen Heard  July 26, 2022


*^Not even in the Acknowledgements, although you could probably figure it out based on thanks to mentions of funding agencies and colleagues. And it’s listed for my coauthor Corinne (a Master’s student with me).

**^Just checking.

11 thoughts on “Which institutional affiliation should you list on a paper?

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    I’ve never thought about this, perhaps because I heard an advice some time ago that I considered a rule and never questioned it 🙂 I usually list both institutions (so, like a double affiliation). It seems that no editors have complained about this yet. And as I am still publishing papers data for which I collected almost ten years ago, I’m still including my alma mater in a few papers. For me, it’s a way to give credit to both institutions.

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  2. Julie Craves

    As an unaffiliated (retired) researcher, I’ve run into the roadblock where I HAD to enter an institution just to begin making a submission. Recently, I published in a major society journal as a first author of three, and none of us had affiliations. I had to stop and contact the editorial office and work through this. The barriers to publishing, grants or awards, conferences, etc. for unaffiliated researchers is a major pet peeve of mine.

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  3. Jonathan Losos

    For me, the primary purpose of the institutional affiliation is to tell people where you are and how to contact you. Credit can be given in the acknowledgments to former institutions. Also, I just don’t think it makes sense to list as your affiliation a place where you haven’t been for many years. And what about research that spans multiples institutions? What if it’s not obvious where most of the work was done? My homemade rule is to list as my affiliation the place where I was when the paper was first submitted to the journal in which it is published. If I move before the paper comes out, I list the new address in a footnote. To the extent that work was conducted at former institutions, I put that in the acknowledgments.

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  4. Eric Lamb

    Given how insistent administrators at my University have been recently on getting everyone signed up for orchIDs so that institutional affiliations are properly counted for the rankings game, it matters to someone. Everyone else rolled their eyes I think….

    They suggested that grad student work should be affiliated with their degree institution, presumably to maximize the capture for rankings.

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  5. Jennifer

    I’m quite pessimistic about these trends because there is no institutional reciprocity – I mean listing an institutional affiliation does not necessarily mean that any salary was paid, or even that the person had an office or access to a campus.

    It appears that the current trend is for institutions to try and claim ANY type of academic production as a hedge against someone making a breakthrough or becoming famous for some future work. Additional financing can then be had through marketing even quite ancient and somewhat dubious affiliations.

    It used to be that the institutional address was also a kind of guarantee of quality: so people had an incentive to carry over old addresses even after they left a campus. Even so, there are many old papers in the literature where the mailing address is not at an institution. On the other hand, today we also have plenty of examples where being associated with an institution did not ensure “good science” was being done by individuals. Taking all this into account, I think we can question what the institutional affiliation actually provides to the scientist who is not in a tenure track position? Why not create some other type of small structure, like a think-tank?

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