Honorary authorship is fraud.

Authorship on peer-reviewed papers is a big deal in academia. If you’re a grad student looking for a postdoc, the very first thing your prospective advisor is going to want to know is what you’ve published (this is arguably true at every level, though funded grants become important, too). Customs vary among fields, but in mine (ecology and evolutionary biology), the first author is typically the person who carried out the experiment and wrote at least a first draft of the paper, and the last author is typically the head of the lab group, who is presumed to have played a role in planning the research, advising the first author along the way, and writing and revising the resulting paper. In between (if there are more than two authors) are people who have made some other contributions, which can cover a wide range of activities.

Sometimes, though, people who haven’t made any significant contribution at all are listed as authors. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I want to talk about today is so-called ‘honorary’ or ‘gift’ authorship. This is something I have long had a strong opinion about: in my mind, honorary authorship is unethical. It is an abuse of the system. It is academic misconduct.

What prompted this post was an anonymous question tweeted by Academic Chatter:

I know what my answer is, but I was disturbed to see some of the others, which I’ll simply quote here, not really wishing to call anyone out:

Sometimes it is better to play the game. You never know when you may need some goodwill from #2.

I would encourage you not to look at it as doing what you’re told. Rather think about it as saving your argument capital. You’re going to need it

That’s how academia goes I’m afraid. Don’t even get me started on my 2nd & 3rd supervisors 😂 so long as youre 1st author take getting a publication as a win – sadly it’s all about massaging egos and preserving relations for future collabs rather than crediting actual input!

I’d include them on the basis they may look kindly for doing so another day. We don’t know 2nds own academic struggles and battles

Maybe your advisor wants the coadvisor on the paper because of a grant or for a future proposal and that would benefit the group. Active participation would be much better, but at least as a coauthor you could get a more solid letter of recommendation in the future.

And so on. In my view, these (undoubtedly well-intended) replies amount to advising a graduate student to become a party to fraud in order to bank goodwill. I realize that it’s not easy to turn down a co-advisor in a situation like this. I was privileged in this aspect; none of my advisors ever asked to be an author on any of the several papers I wrote as a grad student without their involvement. So it’s undoubtedly easy for me to say, but I see this as an advisor pressuring the student to do something unethical.

Several of the replies suggested that the ethics of this situation depend on the particular field of research. The guidelines do vary somewhat, but none of them can reasonably be interpreted to include someone who has had “zero input.”

Here is what the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has to say about it:

The ICMJE lists four conditions for authorship credit. Authors must meet all four conditions in order to be listed.

  • Substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data, AND
  • Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content, AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published, AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. [emphasis added]

Here is what the American Physical Society’s Guidelines for Professional Conduct say:

Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution or interpretation of the research study. All those who have made significant contributions should be offered the opportunity to be listed as authors. Other individuals who have contributed to the study should be acknowledged, but not identified as authors. [emphasis added]

The American Chemical Society’s Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research specify,

The co-authors of a paper should be all those persons who have made significant scientific contributions to the work reported and who share responsibility and accountability for the results. Authors should appropriately recognize the contributions of technical staff and data professionals. Other contributions should be indicated in a footnote or an “Acknowledgments” section. An administrative relationship to the investigation does not of itself qualify a person for co-authorship (but occasionally it may be appropriate to acknowledge major administrative assistance). [emphasis added]

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Ethical Guidelines say,

There is no universally agreed definition of authorship, but authors should, as a minimum, take responsibility for a particular section of the study. The award of authorship should balance intellectual contributions to the conception, design, analysis and writing of the study against the collection of data and other routine work. If there is no task that can reasonably be attributed to a particular individual, then that individual should not be credited with authorship. [emphasis added]

So there’s biology, physics, and chemistry. As some of the replies point out, there is inevitably some gray area. What exactly qualifies as a ‘significant contribution’ will, in many cases, be a judgment call, and I agree that it is generally better to err on the side of inclusion when someone has had a hand in the research. None of those guidelines, though, can accommodate someone who “has had zero input.”

In fact, the situation described by the anonymous correspondent is worse than gift authorship; it sounds a lot like what Larry D. Claxton describes as “coercion authorship”:

This is the process of giving authorship to an individual because he/she asserts that his/her position or actions demand authorship. The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) say that this occurs when ‘‘superiors’’ who have no direct involvement in the research or publication presume that they should be authors of any article that originates within their department or on which they have given advice.

In spite of all this, I would not blame the anonymous graduate student if they end up including their second supervisor. L. S. Kwok, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, points out the possible consequences of refusal. The coercive author (‘White Bull’ in Kwok’s terminology)

…knows that if the junior collaborator objects, the choice of whistleblowing is daunting because of its long history of career ending ineffectiveness. Disputes over authorship—particularly first authorship—can be extremely bitter, and even lead to legal action. Many cases of whistleblowing backfire, with the accused fraudster, usually a senior collaborator, escaping punishment while the accuser, usually the junior, suffers harmful publicity and notoriety. Fraudsters who have academic seniority, like the White Bull, can prosper under a code of silence.

The fault lies not with the student, who should never have been put in this position, but with the advisor, who never should have put them there. The student is being coerced into doing something unethical, and they are probably not the first person their advisor has coerced in this way.

One of my many privileges is that I never had an unscrupulous advisor who would force me into this sort of choice. Graduate advisors have immense power over their students. As long as they do, some of them will abuse that power. The system needs to include some way for students to report this kind of behavior without fear of reprisals.


Stable links:

Kwok, L.S. 2005. The White Bull effect: Abusive coauthorship and publication parasitism. J. Med. Ethics, 31: 554–556. doi: 10.1136/jme.2004.010553

Claxton, L.D. 2005. Scientific authorship: Part 2. History, recurring issues, practices, and guidelines. Mutat. Res. – Rev. Mutat. Res., 589: 31–45. doi: 10.1016/j.mrrev.2004.07.002


  1. Allison says

    “Honorary authorship” can (in principle) come back to bite the honorary author. If there is a problem (e.g., fraud or plagiarism) with the paper, wouldn’t even “honorary authors” be presumed to be at fault?

    Or is the system rigged so that “honorary authors” get the credit but not the blame?

    • Matthew Herron says

      Honorary authors can absolutely be held accountable for fraud, plagiarism, and the like. One of the ICMJE’s conditions is

      Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

      Whether that actually happens, I don’t know. I can easily imagine an honorary author using ignorance of the project’s details as a defense, but I would think doing so would raise the question, “Then why were you an author?”

  2. chris61 says

    Does “zero input” in this case mean “zero input” or “zero input” as far as the student knows? Could there be input (as in interactions between the advisors) that the student is unaware of?

    • Matthew Herron says

      There could; I’m responding to a secondhand, anonymous, one-sided account, so I have no way to know. My answer is premised on the student’s account being accurate; if it’s not, my answer might change. We do know from several studies (including those referenced in the post) that honorary and even coercive authorship is common, so I stand by the larger point regardless of the details of the particular case.

  3. leerudolph says

    Honorary authors can absolutely be held accountable for fraud, plagiarism, and the like.

    RetractionWatch regularly documents cases of this happening, as well as cases of it of its being deserved but not (yet) having happened.

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