The case of the disappearing author

As collaborations get larger, more international, and more likely to involve coauthors who don’t actually know each other well, a problem that’s always existed is getting more troublesome. I’ve just seen the next step, and it isn’t pretty. It arises from the case – and the consequences – of the disappearing author.

I think (I hope) that we all know that coauthorship involves both rights and responsibilities. The most obvious right is that as a coauthor on a paper, you get to “count” that paper in various ways as yours: on your CV, on your Google Scholar page, in your h-index. But that’s not the only right you have; as a coauthor, you also have the right to approve, or not, the appearance of a paper with your name on it. That’s important because, as a coauthor, you also have responsibilities. The responsibility that gets the most attention is that you have to stand behind the paper. All authors should be able to explain the paper’s method and its findings; and if the paper turns out to be in error, or worse, fraudulent, then all authors will be asked to explain that.*

But there’s another responsibility that arises from the intersection of the approval right and the stand-behind-it responsibility. If authors have the right to approve, or not, publication of a paper with their name on it, then they also have the responsibility to be available to do that.

It’s been true for a while that, when a coauthored manuscript is submitted for review, the journal emails all coauthors to notify them that their name is on a submission and to give them a chance to object. This is, essentially, an opt-out system: if you don’t respond to the email, you’re assumed to have approved publication. But a few weeks ago, for the first time I ran into an opt-in system. The journal emailed all coauthors, informing them that before the manuscript would be sent to review, each coauthor had to approve it (by logging into the journal website and clicking a button**).

You can see the problem. With three authors who know each other well, this wouldn’t be a big deal. For us, with 15 authors – many of whom have never met – it was moderately painful (nobody, fortunately, proved impossible to find, but it wasn’t trivial). With a bigger collaboration, like this 287-author one, it would be almost certain that one author would forget, or ignore the email, or be traveling, or sick, or whatever. And God help the particle physicists.

If this opt-in system catches on, it has the potential to really hamstring an early-career researcher who depends on timely publication – or at least timely submission – to build a career. And the only solution will be for coauthors to take seriously the responsibility to be available. If you accept coauthorship on a manuscript, you don’t get to disappear. If you move and change email addresses, you need to inform your coauthors. In case of overzealous spam filters or other email breakdowns, you need to give your coauthors alternative contact information. If you plan to be away and out of touch, you need to make arrangements for someone, somehow, to execute your responsibility on your behalf.

That last point, actually, is a more general one. It’s not just if you plan to be away. There are all kinds of reasons why someone might be out of touch or unavailable for a while. They might be seriously ill, or bereaved, or suspended by their university, or any number of things – each of which is unlikely, one at a time, but with a large authorship team it becomes more and more likely that someone, at any given time, won’t be around to approve a submission. And with an opt-in system, publication can stall, and all authors suffer. This is why I’ve argued that each of us should have on file a document I call a “publication power-of-attorney”, that explicitly names a colleague to act in our stead when we’re away. The publication power-of-attorney is the best idea I’ve ever had that’s had absolutely zero traction: I have one on file, but I may be the only scientist in the world who does. I like thinking I’m special and unique (just like everybody else), but it would be better for all of us if it wasn’t in this way.

© Stephen Heard  February 14, 2023

Image: Gone Fishing, by Frida Toth, free to use via

*^This can be messy, especially for junior authors caught up in malfeasance by someone more senior. In my own field of ecology, there are recent examples of early-career scientists spending huge amounts of effort doing the right thing in the face of more senior wrongdoing. Among them: hugely admirable responses to Pruittgate and Newmastergate.

**^Oh, how I wish it had been that simple. To “log in”, I had to register for an account, wait for 2-factor authentication of my login to it, fill out a profile, and just generally grit my teeth and pull my hair for about 15 minutes. Then I could click the approval button.


9 thoughts on “The case of the disappearing author

  1. Mark Shore

    If the journal in question runs multiauthor papers, that policy displays a fundamental kind of innumeracy. It’s a variation of the birthday problem (how many randomly selected people do you need in a room for a >50% chance that two of them have the same birthday?)


  2. Peter Apps

    Opt in would put paid to my dastardly plan of writing a drivel paper and sending it in with the names as co-authors of everyone who has ever insisted I add their name to a paper they had no input to.


  3. baskin2013

    I think the ‘opt in’ system is not going to take off, for many of the reasons you mention. If it did, it would make it much more difficult to include undergraduate co-authors. I sometimes publish their work several years after they have graduated. And sometimes I have no current email for them. I believe that these students could fully stand behind the work they contributed (should some problem arise) and I think it makes no sense for a person who contributed to, say, the FTIR experiments to take responsbility for, say, the RNAseq, done by different people possibly in a different place. I also think that a student who contributed a chunk of data/analysis/work that I am publishing deserves to be a co-author, even if they don’t participate in writing the text.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. baskin2013

      I belive in G.Aad. Reminds me of old stories about I. Rabi and also Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow. But the other day I found a bibliography in a published paper citing:
      “McMichael BL, Quisenberry E, Systems C, Stress P ,and Conservation W.
      (1993).” At the time I assumed it was a careless database dump; maybe they were joking?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. RoyBland (@RoyBland7)

    A lot of these issues come back to the fact that the scientific community (or communities) has broadly converged on standards for authorship (including requirements, rights and responsibilities) that are often very different to what we are taught they ‘should be’. Even going back to your other example, I don’t think a non-lead author would (or should) be held responsible for misconduct on an aspect of the paper they had nothing to do with. And I am not going to lecture a colleague on their responsibilities if they reveal they do not agree with every line of a paper they coauthor. Similarly if I email a manuscript out with a deadline and I get no response, I am usually going to intepret that as consent for the submission with them as a coauthor, and I think nearly everybody at least that I’ve worked with is fine with that.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      On your last sentence – that’s how I usually handle author approvals too, and I agree that it’s the practical thing. But at least for the one journal I mention, it does not work. So, as an author, if you choose to disappear, you are least closing off some publishing opportunities for your coauthors. That’s a small issue if opt-in remains rare; it worries me if it spreads!


  5. Bethann Garramon Merkle

    I hope this doesn’t catch on, for many of the reasons you mentioned. But also, hopefully you’ll be heartened to know that the author power of attorney (APOA) idea is getting some play. I co-run an annual Scholarly Writing Practices training program for grad students. We have one session on co-authorship and citation ethics, and your blog APOA post is required reading. (I don’t know if any students have followed up and created their own, but there are 40-70/autumn getting exposed to the idea.) (And, I have an APOA in my will, thanks to your blog post. Although, this is now making me realize that there is another dimension to this. When collaborative projects start (or shift/hit inflection points), in addition to making authorship criteria clear, I’m going to start asking for us to facilitate an APOA hierarchy for project leadership and follow-through.)



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