Ask Retraction Watch: How should deceased colleagues be credited in papers?

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Another installment of Ask Retraction Watch:

As experts in authorship matters, I was wondering if you could offer some guidance. I read that all authors have to approve submission of a paper. Unfortunately, a colleague of mine recently passed away. The manuscripts which he helped draft are being submitted with our colleague as author with a note of explanation to the editor and a footnote in the paper. These seem fairly simple. However, what about projects in which they were very much involved but where the manuscript drafting is done entirely after the time of death? Should their contribution be recognized in the acknowledgements rather than “author”? Many thanks.

Vote in our poll, and comment below:

33 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: How should deceased colleagues be credited in papers?”

  1. I voted for “In the acks” as I think that would be his position in the paper if he was still alive, having not taken part in the writing/proofreading of the ms yet I think this is very much debatable. Depending on the degree of involvement and types of contribution, the deceased can very well become author, or even share a first authorship.

  2. What a preposterous suggestion placing such a person in the acknowledgments if they have made a significant contribution to the research but are not here to vouch for it! It’s actually really simple. If the person was involved in the design or execution of the experiment, they are valid authors, dead or alive. Death is an extraordinary circumstance and most editors who deal with such cases of deceased scientists take this issue seriously and somberly. It is obvious that the co-authors, in asbentia, vouch for the activity and participation in the research. Only guest authors should be demoted to the acknowledgements and death is not a reason to provide guest authorship out of pseudo-respect. Read authorship guidelines of the ICMJE and Elsevier, for example, but be warned, authorship issues are being interpreted by different publishers and groups in different ways. So, who’s guideline should be respected? I can say that in the cases where I have personally edited papers in which a co-author has deceased, I have almost always insisted that a full explanation for the cause of death be provided as a footnote or annex (where no privacy or other problems with the institute or family exist), and in several cases, where merited, an entire separate obituary, to highlight the wider context of that person. In fact, there’s not much to discuss with this question. It’s all about common sense and respect of authorships. If any RW blogger that has come accross an editor or publisher that is insisting on the signatures of all authors, when one or more of them has deceased, please expose that scam here.

    1. But I do agree that the cases on the Cantrill site merit more investigation. In one case, some 80 years after death, a scientist was listed as a co-author. What do the co-authors say abdout this?

    2. It’s not preposterous at all to suggest the acks. Most journals I know state that all authors must have read the paper and approve of it. Clearly that’s not possible if they’re dead.

      1. Of course. I cannot be sure if the deceased colleague would approve of what was written, and I think the inclusion of deceased colleagues on papers they did not write opens another door for manipulation. But of course, there are cases in which there is no doubt. This is exactly the same procedure I would take in the case of absent authors. I fully agree with respect and solemnity towards deceased colleagues, but I think in science we have to be objective and cold.

    3. I see your point about author vs acknowledgement, but I voted for acknowledgement if the deceased had not seen a draft prior to death. I suppose I’m a literalist when it comes to the rules. In the example given, the deceased had helped draft several manuscripts, so s/he should be an author.

      I completely disagree that it is necessary or even appropriate to list the cause of death as a footnote. What does it matter if Prof Z died of natural causes, was mauled by a bear, or died because of his own stupid actions? If the argument is solely about whether his contributions were significant enough, then how he died is irrelevant.

  3. I’m surprised by the vote. The cases I know of keep the author as an author but acknowledge that he/she passed away during the revision process and say something nice about him/her as a scholar and person.

  4. I was in this position last year. A PI died, and I had to shepherd the last paper from the lab through the final phase of experiments and writing. The ideas were largely his, and the work was directed by him for most of the project’s existence, so it was a no-brainer that he would not only be an author but the senior author. It was pretty straightforward to deal with the editors of the journal, and they gave us a pass on getting his permission. Well, one of the lower level staff did send me an email because the deceased PI had not responded to his messages, but that was dealt with quickly.

    I did have a little trouble figuring out where to put myself in the author list. I provided about a third of the data and essentially wrote the whole paper, not to mention constantly maintaining a fire under a postdoc to get her part done. I settled for second author, with the added bonus/onus of corresponding author.

    1. PS. The Cantrill posts are ludicrous. Even though we were supported by our institute and finishing the paper was our primary focus, the paper came out two years after the author’s death. These things take time. I can imagine it taking even longer if the lab had shut down and the remaining authors would have had to find new positions. Let’s not make scandals where there aren’t any.

  5. I would probably submit as an author and explain the situation in the cover letter or a presubmission inquiry. I would hope that authorship with an explanation of the circumstances would be allowed.

  6. I believe that without the written notarized consent of his heirs, allowing the recognition of the deceased as an author can open the door for abuse and fraud.

  7. I voted for acknowledgments, but my actual answer would be to consult with the publisher. If the deceased never saw the MS, it is possible that s/he would not have approved of it as it was written. I can imagine cases in which everyone on the team found it obvious that the deceased WOULD have approved, and other cases in which it would be debatable, or even clear that the analysis would have been unacceptable to the deceased.

    The dead cannot be harmed by losing, nor benefited by gaining, an authorship, but they should be honored appropriately.

    1. Of course they can be harmed. If you start attaching deceased authors’ names willy-nilly to plagiarized or fraudulent papers, then their reputation suffers.

      The deceased still have reputations, and one’s scientific legacy is arguably one of the main motivators in science. I would never approve of my name being used after I had died on a manuscript I had never read.

  8. Journals typically have specific policies/criteria for authorship, and many have explicit criteria for authorship by deceased researchers / dedication / in memoriam papers. For example, the Journal of American Chemical Society says: “Deceased persons who meet the criteria for inclusion as coauthors should be so included, with an Author Information note indicating the date of death.” (

    1. JACS is precisely what I am talking about (i.e., it supports my claims above that simple reason and understanding are required here). I find some of the comments (for example, asking how dead scientists can sign forms) almost disrespectful to the dead, who are not here with us to defend themselves. If all co-authors vouch for the active participation of the deceased scientist based on signed legal declarations upon submission of a paper, including facts such as the date and reason the co-author deceased, I don’t see what benefit a group of authors might have in adding a deceased scientist to the list of authors even if that person in fact did nothing. Again, as long as authorship criteria are met, and can be proved, the signed declaration can be and should be waivered. Whoever suggests and enforces its implementation is simply playing the game of harassment.

  9. Authorship should require authoring. Perhaps moving to a contributorship model would resolve some of these issues, but alas shifting the entire practice of acknowledging scientific contributions to a better model is a whole other (albeit highly related) can of worms.

    1. Andrew Brown, terms like “authoring” add noise and confusion. Let’s stick to the cold, hard facts: ICMJE definition ( Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3. Conclusion: ICMJE is a strict and tough 3 measures to meet for authorship. Elsevier author definition (PERK): “Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution or interpretation of the reported study” Conclusion: Elsevier does not mention about signing papers or getting approval from deceased authors. Neurology: “Neurology defines an author as a person who has made a substantive intellectual contribution to the submitted manuscript. A substantive contribution includes one or more of the following: 1) design or conceptualization of the study; 2) OR analysis or interpretation of the data; 3) OR drafting or revising the manuscript for intellectual content”. Conclusion: Neurology gives wide flexibility and even if a deceased author had thought of the idea 30 years ago, and the paper was published 29 years later, he/she is still a avlid author. No talk of signing documents. OVERALL CONCLUSION: Each journal and publisher seems to have their own definition of authorship. Read the fine print of each journal or publisher. I can say that the ICMJE has responded responsibly to criticisms. Elsevier has taken the approach of siding with COPE, removing all traces of documents holding this controversial definition (which contradicts that of the ICMJE), and not showing the history of the evolution of this situation with the scientific public. This is what happens when scientists don’t hold giant, rich, powerful publishers like Elsevier, and their even more powerful parent companies like Reed-Elsevier accountable for their actions. Finally, we have a system that has been manipulated, i.e. fraud.

  10. Hello,

    I have a question concerning the new Open Payments (Physician Payments Sunshine Act) under the Affordable Care Act (ACA):
    Applicable manufacturers of covered drugs, devices, biologicals, and medical supplies to report payments or other transfers of value (TOV) they make to physicians and teaching hospitals to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). As the use of an acknowledged professional medical writer will now be reported to the CMS as a TOV, will authors still accept such editorial assistance? Or will they now be more apt to develop the manuscript on their own, without the assistance of a professional medical writer?



  11. The intellectual godfather of the research, if he or she meets all the other requirement for authorship except for actual writing (and only fails that part because of death) should be an author. And frankly, the deceased scientist probably did help to write the paper, because by the time you get to submitting a manuscript, you’ve probably presented a number of lab meetings, a department seminar, posters and meeting abstracts of your work in progress, and the senior author undoubtedly gave guidance/feedback/instruction on formatting figures and the content of the talks, all of which contributes to the eventual form of the manuscript.

  12. I voted acknowledgements, for the simple reason that the deceased person cannot have vouched for the full contents of the paper. Not too long ago I even strongly recommended that a deceased author was removed from the paper, because as submitted, the paper actually contained a gross error. To add injury to insult, the paper itself accused others (to be fair, rightfully so) of making errors. It was to be published in an issue in honor of this deceased scientist, so my argument was that it was unfortunate to have an author listed, who was being honored in a special issue, on a paper she could not have checked for validity, and have it contain a gross error.

    To make matters worse, I had to go after the journal itself when they published the paper with the error still prominently on display in the abstract. Just imagine if the deceased scientist would still have been listed!

  13. I have been in this situation, and the journal policy specifically stated that the deceased author should be listed in the acknowledgements only.

    1. Jonathan, please identify the exact journal and publisher. This matter needs to be challenged. As you can see above, respectable publishers like JACS have clear, human and logical policies. I struggle to see what publisher would make such an iditiotic straightforward rule. As I say, please support your claims with the actual name of the journal and publisher so that the discussion can be real, and balanced.

      1. Why would it be an idiotic rule? I gave an example earlier where the inability to check the final paper as published would have meant the deceased scientist would have been an author on a paper that contained an embarrassing mistake. I am quite certain she would have noted the error.

    1. Interesting. So, let’s imagine a postdoc does most of the experiments, writes most of the paper, and does the revisions in response to reviewer comments. After uploading the final version, said postdoc is hit by a car. His or her name gets expunged from the paper because of an inability to sign the copyright form?

      Possibly an extreme example, but, honestly, it is debated because it is not as clear cut as you make it sound.

      1. Nope, you can’t be an author in that case. The authorship of a dead person is not important. The degree to which authors have checked and approved the content is important. What is to stop me from putting Albert Einstein’s name on a MS?

  14. I would dedicate the paper to the memory of that person and thank him for the work. Explicitly mention his contributions but not give him authorship as I can never get him to literally approve the manuscript something that is required in all submissions these days.

      1. @Srinix: Interesting observation here. One of the authors was a Ph.D. student of Alfred Werner and got Ph.D. in 1911. This person must be more than 100 years old when this paper was written (unless the Ph.D. was completed at the age 10 years)!!

        1. According to the University of Zürich’s records, Marie Scanavy-Grigorieff was born in 1881, so she would have been 120 in 2001.

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