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I am PhD student in computer engineering and visiting a foreign university. My project is near to the end and, since my colleague and I got excellent results, we are writing a scientific paper about it. I would like to submit the paper to the top best journal in our field.

I sent the draft to my supervisor here, that replied that he does not think that the paper is going to be accepted by the top best journal. He suggested to submit it to another journal, that we can consider the 5th best journal in the field. He said that we can still submit it to the top journal if we want it, but, in that case, we have to remove his name from the author list.

So what should we do?

Should we remove his name from the author list and submit it to the top journal? Or should we satisfy him and submit the paper to the 5th most prestigious journal?

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Your advisor is basically saying that he's so confident that the paper won't get in that he's willing to withdraw his name/support as a bet. It sounds like you don't agree. Time to get an independent opinion. –  Suresh Apr 14 at 23:01
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To give a better answer, it would be helpful to know what your supervisor's role in the research was. It concerns me that you say that "my colleague and I got excellent results" and you only say that your supervisor was "shown a draft". If he did not contribute sufficiently to the paper, then his name should not be on it at all. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 at 0:38
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@Suresh Is that the reason? Or is it because he has little faith in the paper and suspects it will damage his reputation if actually published? –  Superbest Apr 15 at 7:28
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@PeteL.Clark This seems to depend on the field. In some fields, the head of the lab is first author (in others, last author) on every paper the lab produces. The argument is, I believe, that the research couldn't have happened without the head's grant income, which allowed the lab to exist in the first place. –  David Richerby Apr 15 at 7:37
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@David: In my opinion financing a project is not an intellectual contribution. All my papers are possible because I am employed by my university; some of them are possible because of grants from the government. I acknowledge both of these but no department head, dean or NSF officer becomes a coauthor in this way. In my relatively outsider opinion (as you know the standards in my field are different), if the head of the lab wants to be an author on the paper, she needs to have made some specific contribution to the paper beyond just funding it. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 at 14:25

4 Answers 4

In my view, using authorship as a bargaining chip like this is ethically inappropriate.

Either the supervisor's contributions to the paper warrant including him as an author, or they don't.

If they do, then he needs to be listed as a co-author no matter where you publish, and you need his agreement on where the paper is to be submitted.

If they don't, then he should not be listed as a co-author, no matter where you publish, and you and the remaining authors can make your own decision about where to submit (though you still might value his input).

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I agree with this. Saying "include me if you submit here but not if you submit here" is totally unethical and in my opinion rather immature behavior. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 at 0:40
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I think the supervisor is not comfortable submitting this paper to the top journal. –  osa Apr 15 at 8:30
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AFAIK it is ethical to voluntarily waive one's authorship, see one point of APS's points you need to agree on when submitting a manuscript: All those who made significant contributions were offered the opportunity to be listed as authors. (emphasis mine). –  Piotr Migdal Apr 16 at 9:18
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and you need his agreement on where the paper is to be submitted. That's the crux of the matter to me: perhaps the advisor does not want to hinder the careers of younger researchers in vetoing submission to a top journal, in the off-chance he would be proven wrong that the paper does not belong there, and so is fine with forsaking his right of veto. Surely in that case he retains the right not to appear as an author. –  Olivier Apr 16 at 14:32
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An author always retains the right not to receive credit for his or her work. –  aeismail Apr 16 at 17:53

Well, my interpretation of the situation is (yet again) somewhat different. So I'll try to put in my two cents.
(I am not a supervisor, but I did often discuss the different quality journals/conferences with my supervisor, as well as what he considers are good reasons to submit to a top-quality track and what are good reasons to submit to a good-quality track).

The description, to me, does not sound like anybody is trying to do anything unethical, or use the authorship as a bargaining chip.

I would propose that the supervisors own interpretation of the results (i.e. the draft) is such that he does not deem it quality enough to publish in a top-quality track, but does believe it is good work. (An average paper in a top-journal is probably expected to have a stronger contribution when compared to the fifth-top journal, even though works published in both will be valid and strong contributions in the field.)

While not exactly unethical, it is a wide-spread opinion that vastly over-reaching, and submitting when you strongly believe the contribution is too weak for the conference/journal where you submit is disrespectful towards the reviewers' time and bad form (several excellent explanations on this question). I, for one, agree with my supervisor on the fact that is it wrong to submit something even we deem to low-quality for a certain track, with the sole purpose of e.g. getting useful reviews, because:

  • That way we would only spend the reviewers time, which should be respected especially since they are giving it for free.
  • Also, probably more valid for small communities but possibly also in bigger ones, if the review process is not double-blind, just the reviewers seeing your name on the paper with valid but too small contribution might damage your reputation slightly.

So, I think the "two options" offered by your supervisor are both valid, and these are the possible reasons:

  • In case you decide to go against his advice, and submit to a top-journal, he can not stop you since the work is rightfully yours and you can do what you deem fit with it.

    He will thus not give you any input on your writing, or help you prepare the paper or present the results, and of course does not expect an authorship. You are, however, free to submit your work wherever you see fit.

  • On the other hand, he would help you with supervisor-y, author-y stuff if you decided to submit somewhere he deems more appropriate for the quality of the work (as he perceives it).

    He would then (hopefully) help you writing the paper, polishing the presentation, and offer other suggestions and advice he can offer as a senior scientist. Since he would be investing his time and expertise, he would naturally want to be included in the author list.


I do not want to get in to the discussion of what deserves authorship in this question... but I'll just shortly state my opinion on which my answer is based: In Computer Science, the supervisor contributes mostly by leading your research, and then by advising you on how to write well, present the results, put them in the right context. The supervisor does not need to substantially contribute to methods presented in the paper, but his contribution can still be very valuable and substantial in other ways.

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@PeteL.Clark Well, I don't mean the work is "not good". Maybe I didn't express myself well. What I mean is that the results might not be good enough for a first-best journal in the field (subpar for that track). My first paper was submitted to a good conference (in my field, conferences are more common than journals). If I decided instead to try and send it to one of the top-5 conferences, which usually require much stronger results and bigger contributions, my supervisor probably wouldn't want put any time (or his name) in helping with that submission. –  penelope Apr 16 at 14:15
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I completely agree with this answer. It is possible that the supervisor thinks that the work is good, but not top quality, so is not confortable with submitting to a top journal but at the same time does not want to hinder the career of younger researchers in the off-chance that the paper is accepted to a top journal. At any rate, I think everyone is entitled to choosing not to appear as a co-author under some circumstances. –  Olivier Apr 16 at 14:26
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@PeteL.Clark I agree that it can be discussed if it is unethical to submit a paper for which you strongly believe the contribution is not substantial enough for the target conference/journal. But, on the other hand, if your expert opinion is that the paper is simply too weak for the track (but a valid and substantial enough contribution for a slightly weaker conference/journal), I think it is bad form, bad practice, disrespectful to the reviewers, and somewhat selfish to submit. The reasoning explained well here. –  penelope Apr 16 at 14:59
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@PeteL.Clark Ideally, all authors should reach a consensual view on where to submit, I think we all agree on that. But what do you propose when this consensus condition is not met? Here, the most senior author is offering to forsake his veto power on the (apparently sole) condition that he be not listed as an author. What else would you have him do? Block the submission process altogether (potentially impairing the career of his much more junior colleagues)? What else? –  Olivier Apr 16 at 15:06
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Can't speak for other areas, but in my field different journals have different mission statements. The top ranked journals tend to be more theory-oriented. We try to direct a paper to a journal with a focus that aligns with that of the paper. Shooting for a less prestigious journal isn't a judgment that the paper is wrong or has no value, it's done in the belief that 1) it may have virtually no chance of acceptance in the premier journal, 2) it's rude to editors and referees in light of #1, and 3) you're more likely to hit your target audience by submitting to a better-suited journal. –  pjs Apr 16 at 22:58

I disagree slightly with @DrLivingston (so I provide a different answer).

I agree with what Nate Eldredge said. It is bizarre. Does the "top journal" in question use blind review? If it's not blind the absence of his name could hurt you if he is well known. If it's blind, it won't affect the review process.

Matter-of-fact, that's certainly true to some extent, but it's not something you should exploit. For instance, adding some important coauthor to the paper often helps your chances even if he contributes nothing, but doing that is unethical, because it advances careers without merit. Furthermore, all authors are individually responsible for the accuracy of the content.

(Actually collaborating with an important scientist is an entirely different thing, but you should do it to improve the content).

Therefore, I'd be more careful: reviewers should not judge the paper merit based on who authors it, especially not consciously (with a few exceptions, say if the author intentionally defrauded the system in the past); unfortunately, this does happens even to people who try to avoid it, and that happens more in some communities than in others, so papers by famous scientists have sometimes unfair advantages in acceptance.


In any case, your supervisor should only be in the author list if he contributes something to the paper. Since you already have a draft, I can imagine his contribution would be help in revising this draft before submission — which can certainly be useful and deserve coauthorship (though I think there could be some debate about this, which hinges on how much creativity is left in writing the paper after doing the work. Some computer scientists argue that writing the paper is 50% of the job, because most of our papers are mostly not reports on experiments, but argumentative texts which use experiments to support some of their claims).

In this case, I think the correct question would be the following. Is your supervisor potential contribution to the paper useful enough to involve him in the project?

If the supervisor will not provide any contribution except his name, then he should not be there. If he forces you to have his name, that's clearly unethical behavior, and you should think about calling him on it; unfortunately that's typically hard as long as he is your supervisor.

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My point was mostly what will matter / be different if the student opts for plan A vs. plan B etc. Contribution varies somewhat (unfortunately) by field. And contribution could include design and discussion/direction throughout the implementation, for example. Giving the advisor some benefit of the doubt - since he is included for authorship in one condition - I'm assuming he meets the requirements for the field. Making the choice be about the journal and not authorship. It's a weird choice, but the one the student has none the less. –  DrLivingston Apr 15 at 22:40
    
@DrLivingston: Does the advisor's contribution to the project somehow depend on where the paper is submitted? If not, how can his behavior deserve "the benefit of the doubt"? –  Pete L. Clark Apr 16 at 5:19
    
My point was if his contribution qualifies for one journal it likely qualifies for both. (that was the benefit of the doubt I was willing to give) There are any number of reasons someone may not wish to claim their authorship. And not claiming authorship is the professor's prerogative. It's a weird situation, but you can't demand that someone be an author. –  DrLivingston Apr 16 at 6:03

Edit: people are talking a lot about the requirements for being an author in this thread. That's not the question, the question is what should the student do. And giving the advisor some benefit of the doubt - since he is included for authorship in one condition - I'm assuming he meets the standard requirements for the field. Making this a choice about which journal and the relationship with the advisor, and not authorship. It's a weird choice, but the one the student has none the less.


I agree with what Nate Eldredge said. It is bizarre. Does the "top journal" in question use blind review? If it's not blind the absence of his name could hurt you if he is well known. If it's blind, it won't affect the review process.

If time is an issue - definitely do it his way.

If time is not an issue - Call his bluff and try at the top tier journal and hopefully get lucky, or at least get good reviews that you can roll into the next submission.

What is your relationship with your advisor? Sadly this is an apprenticeship not a democracy. The biggest mistake you can make as a PhD student is to not be on the same page as your advisor. If you are on rocky footing with him already don't start problems do it his way. number 5 vs. number 1, eh? what are their different impact factors? It might not matter that much and save you pain. If you are on great standing, and this wasn't an ultimatum from him and you think you have the time and want to try... Just remember you are there to learn from him and he is the more experienced one / possibly better judge.

Have you compared your work to other things that have been published in either of these journals? Is it more like one than the other? Is it "big enough" for the top one? Have you seen similar papers there in terms of scope and number and size of experiments etc.?

This is a highly political thing. Get advice from your peers. Especially about dealing with your advisor. As we don't know the specifics this is tricky.

summary: top is better, but #5 is good - I'd honestly probably lean the safer route (and assume his experience is guiding his decision)

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Nate Eldredge's answer points out that the supervisor is behaving unethically by basing the coauthorship decision on something other than their contribution to the work. By contemplating the merits of having the supervisor on the paper in terms of the paper's chances getting published rather than any considerations about their contribution to the work, it seems that you are inviting a less egregious but similar ethical lapse. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 at 2:47
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I agree with Nate Eldredge. But, this is not the student's ethical dilemma - even if he makes this consideration, or pragmatic choices. The advisor created the problem, the advisor provided the choice, the student can only make the best choice left. (If the student created the problem it would be different.) Furthermore, the student has virtually zero power in this relationship and needs to survive. What else do you suggest the student do that doesn't also damage his ability to complete his PhD? - I suppose one other option is wait until he has the PhD in-hand to restart the argument. –  DrLivingston Apr 15 at 3:00
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Independently of what you are advising the student to do, I don't understand the point of your first paragraph, if it is not a strategic discussion of the merits of including versus not including a co-author. Co-authorship should not be decided by these considerations...no matter who is doing the considering. People who are in positions of less power still have ethical obligations. –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 at 4:05
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In this case the student could behave as follows: if he feels the supervisor did not contribute to the paper, then the supervisor is helping him behave ethically: he can submit the paper to the journal he wants without the supervisor's name. If the supervisor did contribute then s/he needs to be a co-author, and yes, after making his feelings known, the student should probably accede to the supervisor's superior experience. (For that matter, nothing about the question convinces me that the supervisor's judgment about where to submit the paper is worse than the student's.) –  Pete L. Clark Apr 15 at 4:07
    
I'm not sure the supervisor is behaving unethically, but @DrLivingston's statement is at least ethically dangerous. –  Blaisorblade Apr 15 at 12:41

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