A researcher should only be an author on a paper if they have contributed to it in a substantive way.
I recently read Nancy Kleckner’s appreciation of her late husband, Guido Guidotti, who died in August 2021 after a long and distinguished career at Harvard University (Kleckner, 2021). I strongly recommend Kleckner’s article – which is complemented by contributions from a large number of Guidotti ’s colleagues and friends – whether or not you knew him and his work on the biochemistry and biophysics of a range of fundamental proteins and processes. His work illustrates brilliantly how previous generations of biochemists and biophysicists made discoveries without the benefits (and perhaps curses) of molecular techniques. Instead, they spent hours in cold rooms, and used brute force, cleverness, and hard work to purify proteins and characterize their properties and functions.
This item provides a useful discussion of whether we can credit as co-authors deceased peers who have made significant contributions to our development of an idea, but did not make a contribution to the research output. This can be an important discussion in how to appropriately credit deceased collaborators. We have included links to three related items.
In accord with this policy, my own PhD papers were single-authored, as were those of several of my lab colleagues. At first our thesis supervisor – a superb electrophysiologist called Allen Selverston – only signed papers from his lab when he had actually participated in collecting the data. However, shortly after I completed and published my thesis papers in the mid-1970s, it became almost unheard of to have single-authored papers from students and postdocs. So, in electrophysiology, as in other areas of biology, it became customary for lab heads to be the last author on papers from their lab. This progression has also been described explicitly for the field of meiosis (Zickler, 2020).