Don’t lose track of future co-authors

Sometimes a paper takes its time to be born. It could be years before the last tricky analysis is done, or before you decide exactly how to interpret messy data. If summer undergraduates collected those data and participated enough in the analysis and general project to warrant co-authorship, you had better keep track of them until the paper is published. It wouldn’t really be fair to drop them as authors just because you could not find them. All authors have to see and approve of the final draft of a paper before it gets submitted.

I don’t know why we have suddenly found extra time to coddle vintage papers to see the light of day. Maybe the move slowed down current work. Maybe a break from teaching helped. Maybe we feel more strongly that it is time to finish old projects. Whatever it is, I’m finishing a paper on wasps with field data collected in 1995. The DNA and behavior work took a bit longer, so we published the first paper in 2002, On Polistes carolina and their reproductive allocations. We never lost touch with the post-doc in charge of the study, Perttu Seppä, so finishing finally is not a problem. Email between Finland and the US is easy.

A second paper on DNA microsatellite variation has been challenging to track down the authors. There are two former undergrads, two former grad students, one former post-doc, one current post-doc and us. I started with the undergrads. One was a visiting student, so I verified his last known email with his adviser at his home institution. He had finished four years at a med school in the Caribbean, had an unusual email address unrelated to his name, but he was easily found because he still used that email. The other undergrad had a common name and did not answer when I emailed her at the address I had from two years ago. But a reminder email got an apologetic response, so the undergrads were done. The former grad students both moved on with master’s degrees, one back to Italy. She is active enough on Facebook to be locatable. In any case, she was still using her old email. The former post-doc was also easily found, for she was at an American Institution we knew. Anyway, we were still in frequent contact. So that left one American former grad student who did not answer her unusual email. Though she was a friend on Facebook, it was clear she did not look at it very often. What to do?

This is the point where it got a little tricky. We had all the authors except one lined up with approvals. But the last one was crucial. How could we find her? I should have remembered the university where she worked, but I didn’t. I only remembered the city and it was New York. I looked again at her Facebook page and saw her sister had posted a photo of her recently. So I friended and messaged the sister. Actually you can message without befriending. This worked! The sister told her to get in touch, and she did, with approval, providing it wasn’t an Elsevier journal. She was not using that old, funny email any more. We had all our authors and submitted the paper.

So, keep in touch with your former lab mates. There is no telling when a paper with their names on it will be resurrected. And staying in touch is a good idea in any case, maybe with a once-a year email or something! I suppose the other tip would be to keep checking or forwarding from those silly email names from your salad years.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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5 Responses to Don’t lose track of future co-authors

  1. Akif Uzman says:

    I have not stopped looking on your behalf.

  2. Ethan White says:

    Great point Joan. We went through something very similar recently for a data paper where an undergraduate had been a major part of the data collection. We had three different email addresses, none of which worked, and only ended up tracking her down through a LinkedIn message.

    I think that this speaks to the importance of maintaining a strong online presence for scientists. Certainly the folks who have gone on in science need to be easily discoverable for this and many other reasons. The single best way to accomplish this is a good web page. I also think it points to the value of using non-university email addresses, since we tend to move between universities so frequently, and they often fail to provide decent forwarding.

    • Hi Ethan,
      Glad you found your undergrad. I’m always surprised at how little help alum offices seem to be. You’d think they would stay in touch, and forward a message even if they wouldn’t give out an address. You are right that a clear web presence is important. I learned from Andrew Read to include not just the basics but also bullet points on what we have found out. I think everyone should have their web page also not hosted by their university, since that can be yanked away at a moment’s notice should one leave. Also, I find WordPress so easy for the webpage, I actually sometimes update it myself!

      • Ethan White says:

        I completely agree about not hosting websites with the university for exactly that reason (and very much enjoyed your post on the topic).

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