Fake Authors in Physics

Back to work – and exam business – after the Bank Holiday weekend (during most of which I was a bit under the weather), I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of blogging with a brief post about fake authorship.

What provoked me to write this was a strange news item about a Caltech professor who apparently created a fictitious female collaborator called `Ursula C. T. Gamma’ and got her name added as author on scientific papers as well as official email lists on the Caltech website; she also appears in an acknowledgement:

Finally, we thank Ursula C. T. Gamma for continued inspiration.

The professor responsible for all this was none other than Christian Ott, whom I’ve mentioned in a blog post before, because he was placed on unpaid leave by Caltech for harassing two female colleagues.

I don’t know what Ott hoped to gain by inventing a female co-worker. Was it just for a joke, or was there some ulterior motive? I’m not going to speculate here.

If you’ll excuse a bit of frivolity this episode reminded me that a few years ago I toyed with the idea of adding my cat, Columbo, under the pseudonym `Felix Columbo’, as a co-author on a paper I was writing. That would have been for my own amusement – and also because I thought Felix Columbo was a cool name for a physicist, but in the end I didn’t do it largely because I heard about F.D.C. Willard:

The American physicist and mathematician Jack H. Hetherington, Michigan State University, in 1975 wanted to publish some of his research results in the field of low–temperature physics in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters. A colleague, to whom he had given his paper for review, pointed out that Hetherington had used the first person plural in his text, and that the journal would reject this form on submissions with a sole author. Rather than take the time to retype the article to use the singular tense, or to bring in a co-author, Hetherington decided to invent one.

The co-author he invented was his cat, whose name was Chester. The cat’s father was called Willard and the letters F.D.’ stand for `Felis Domesticus’ (the species name for a a house cat).

Other physicists have done similar things. For example, Nobel laureate Andre Geim has written a paper with a hamster as a co-author.

More famously, George Gamow added the name of Hans Bethe to a paper he was writing with his PhD student Ralph Alpher, simply so its authors would be Alpher, Bethe and Gamow. Bethe did subsequently work on the topic discussed in the paper – nucleosynthesis – but hadn’t significantly to the paper. It is reported that Alpher was upset by Gamow’s actions. The paper was published in the Physical Review in 1948 and is a classic in the field of physical cosmology.

As well as being an outstanding physicist, George Gamow was a very colourful and amusing fellow. I’m sure his decision to add Bethe to this paper was just meant as a bit of fun. Likewise with the cat and the hamster. These days, however, authorship of scientific papers is taken far more seriously than it was, as a means to assess research activity and distribute resources. You could argue that this emphasis on authorship is an unhealthy development, but nevertheless that’s the way things. A responsible senior scientist should know that. Adding a phoney author – even if intended as a joke – could well be construed by some institutions as a form of research misconduct.

And how are your real co-workers (especially students and postdocs) supposed to feel if you decide they haven’t contributed enough to merit authorship of a collaborative paper, when they see you adding names of people who don’t even exist?

26 Responses to “Fake Authors in Physics”

  1. I much prefer saying’our work’, ‘in our view’, etc, so I’m always happier to have at least one other author on the paper.
    Re Gamow, I heard that there is slightly more to this story. It is said that Bethe was one of the referees and Gamow recognized his style, and appreciated his insightful comments – so he used Bethe’s name both for fun and for academic reasons. it’s a good story, must check it out sometime

  2. John Peacock Says:

    I’ve never invented a co-author. But back in pre-ADS days when you had to type in lists of authors by hand, I got very cross with one particularly big consortium paper (not many authors by today’s standards). So when I was done, I added “Cobley, U.T.” to the list. I was looking forward to following his citation history, but some spoilsport copy editor changed it all to “et al.” at the last minute.

  3. The late John Porter published this paper in 1999:


    It was all his own work. Scouser is a term for a Liverpudlian for the benefit of overseas readers. A&A never cottoned on, MNRAS probably would have.

  4. Fabrizio Leisen Says:

    A few years ago, a collaborator sent me this story:


  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    No, I didn’t invent coauthors.

    I did substitute names of selected other researchers within reference lists in drafts of papers and observing time applications. I recall replacing them with characters such as Beria, L., and Macchiavelli, N. These were always removed before substitution.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    There are not only fake authors of real papers but real authors of fake papers. Sokal and all that…

  7. Why do I suddenly think of Mother Goose?

  8. “I don’t know what Ott hoped to gain by inventing a female co-worker. Was it just for a joke, or was there some ulterior motive? I’m not going to speculate here.”

    As you imply, their might be more to the backstory in this case, but fictitious authors are not that uncommon. In all cases I know of, it was just some sort of harmless joke.

    Then there are typos. Once, a historian tried to track down Preuss of Einstein and Preuss fame. 🙂

    • telescoper Says:

      What seems very strange to me is that Ott persisted with this fictitious character, not just as a co-author but on email lists and other places. I don’t know of any evidence of serious wrongdoing, it just seems a bit weird.

      p.s. Was that the famous Dr Preuss of “The Cat in the Hat”.

  9. Maharani Says:

    What Ott did was in violation of accepted practices managing foundation grants. This is not a joke. One problem is that there is no way to check whether a PI submitting a report or grant proposal has “invented” someone. The person submitting the report has no way of checking how many “real” graduate students are actually in PMA at Caltech. What it reveals is the huge extent to which the academic enterprise relies on the honor system, where you basically all trust each other to tell the truth. When someone like Ott chooses to abuse it, the entire structure collapses. There’s an argument to be made that it is insufficiently robust and needs to be improved. Ott was basically stupid, but the real problem is this has the potential to damage Caltech’s long-term relationship with this particular funder.

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