Q: Is it ethical to add additional authors to a manuscript without consulting all co-authors?

Detailed Question -

A collaborator (Full Professor) and I (Assistant Professor) have been working on a project with one of the collaborator's students for some time. We agreed early on that the student is the first author, as it is part of their thesis work, I am the last and corresponding author, because I came up with the idea for the project, and am the person with the technical and theoretical expertise needed to complete the project. The collaborator was to be the middle author. After the first draft was completed, the collaborator, without discussing it with me, added another student's name to the paper. I only found out about it after the revised draft was sent to me. I expressed concern that I did not think this student qualified for authorship, and even more concern that this was not discussed with me. The collaborator responded that they did think it necessary to discuss with me, that they discussed it with the student and agreed to add this additional student. Two questions: 1) Is it ethical/appropriate to make such changes to the authorship of a manuscript without consulting the co-authors? 2) Does a student warrant coauthorship on manuscript that they were not involved in until after the first draft was complete? This student was not involved in developing the project ideas/objectives, completing the lab work and analyses, or in drafting the first draft. The student's only contribution has been to read the latest draft, help with some reanalyses because the first author was unable to do so due to relocation, and help with making a figure, which I am having to make anyway.

2 Answers to this question

The ICMJE guidelines on the role of authors and contributors explicitly state that the final approval of all co-authors should be taken before submitting a manuscript. Since you are the corresponding author, there is no way the paper can be submitted without your knowledge, which is why probably you came to know about the change. Your collaborator should have discussed with you and the first author before including the name of the other student in the paper. However, since the revised paper has not yet been submitted, you can still discuss and include the second student only if all the co-authors agree to this.

The ICMJE guidelines also state that in order to qualify for authorship, a contributor must have done all of the following: 

  • substantially contributed to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data
  • drafted the article or revised it critically for important intellectual content, and
  • provided final approval of the version to be published.
  • agreed to be accountable for the work.

On the basis of the second of the above points, even if the student was not involved in the first draft, he/she might qualify to be a co-author if the reanalysis he/she has done is of substantial intellectual significance. You and your other co-authors will have to assess whether the reanalysis adds enough value to the paper to merit authorship. If not, you could mention the student's contribution in the acknowledgements section.

The paper cannot be published unless all of you give your approval. If you feel that your collaborator can go ahead and submit the revised paper with the student as a co-author without your knowledge and approval (which is unlikely since you are the corresponding author), you should keep the editor informed of your disagreement beforehand.

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Answer: This is a difficult situation. Your collaborator could submit the paper to another journal without your knowledge. It would be too tedious proving later that you were involved in all the work. Since he/she holds a senior post, they could always create problems for you later on. Arguing would be a waste of time and create ill feelings. Ask that the second student should be acknowledged for the help. If that doesn't work, include the second student's name as the last author, you remain as the third and corresponding author. In future be very careful in sharing your ideas with this collaborator.