Sunday, March 15, 2009

Unearned authorship

Rahul discusses the many ways in which people become authors of academic papers they didn't contribute to: Giving "credit" where it's not due. After covering fraud as well as "courtesy" (unearned authorship given to "senior figures ... merely in recognition of their position or funding"), he gets to some very interesting routes to authorship. Here's one:

I know of two older papers where one author, famously, was not a contributor to the paper. The first is this one, regarded as a classic; the authors were George Gamow and his student Ralph Alpher, and Gamow included Hans Bethe, who had no connection with this work, purely so that the author list would read "Alpher, Bethe, Gamow." (If that joke is Greek to you, never mind.) I can't remember whether Bethe was "in" on it, but he did not protest, at least not publicly.


  1. Unknown said...

    Alpher hated it though. He was a grad student who did the work and felt he never got enough credit for the paper. and never forgave Gamow.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Really nice article! For physicists of the stature of Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, in retrospect, it hardly mattered whether they were gifted authroship or not! But it is potentially a very serious problem (or otherwise, depending on what is the nature of gifting authorship) if a graduate student or a young faculty is forced into gifting authorship. Here is a detailed and excellent analysis of the implications of giving credit where it is not due:

    The author talks about what it means for the career of a scientist, and gives his perspective on the legal aspects of this phenomenon.