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Inspired by the following question: Co-authorship for not very involved supervisor

I have got to ask a slightly different question: I have a past supervisor while I did my masters and she wasn't really involved or as active as I would have liked. Also, I received no funding from this professor. I did however receive a scholarship from the university to fund my masters; not sure if these facts change anything. Naturally, this person would also like to believe she was involved, so had I finished the research while I did my masters there I would have listed this individual as a second author and even the author of correspondence. But now I am pursuing a PhD and in fact in a slightly different field at a different university.

While preparing for my qualifiers I came across some fresh new ideas and had a light bulb moment. Consequently, I have made significant progress in my old project as of late. I believe by the end of the summer I will have results ready for publication. On the one hand, I feel I should notify my old professor of these results once they come in... I think it would be wrong or even unethical to let them find out through the grape-vine or just through reading to keep up with the field. On the other hand, I fear this person will want authorship or even write the editor and demand it; this person is a Reader at a prestigious university while I'm just a little PhD student. I feel it will be a case of he-said she-said with the Editor which will ultimately result in me losing (even though I completely believe I'm justified and the recent progress was 100% mine).

Maybe I'm over-reacting but I'm not sure what to do. And I certainly don't want this person to "read over" my paper or attempt to "edit" it, because I think then they would have more grounds to put their name on the paper. Any ideas?

  • Many journals allow you to specify a few authors you do not want to review your paper, for situations such as these. Given the option you should probably put your former supervisor on this list. – Alex Becker Aug 7 '13 at 18:07
  • Also related to “Authorship determination for a paper in IEEE journal – F'x Aug 7 '13 at 18:11
  • Department was chemistry. Topic was quantum chemistry. Currently doing maths. – Squirtle Aug 7 '13 at 20:43
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First, should you include her as a co-author? Customs in this are journal- and field-dependent, so you should check with others in your field (you didn't tell us what it was) and also with the authorship policy of the journal you intend to submit. You may also want to check with the department where you did your Masters what their policy is on authorship and affiliation for students' papers. At the very least, if you're going to have someone be cross at you, know in advance where you stand!

I'll sum up my answer to another question on the site by stating that graduate students oftentimes dismiss too easily an advisor's role in the research. Selecting a problem/project for you to work on, even guiding you in the selection of a problem can be considered a big intellectual contribution to your research. Conception/design of research is an integral part of the research, and usually explicitly calls for authorship in resulting papers.

It's okay to be proud of your work, and to think your contribution in it was crucial, but be sure not to be biased against your supervisor when evaluating her contribution. One person who may help you do that is your current advisor!


Now, that being said, let's suppose you have made the decision not to have her as coauthor. How do you manage that? The guiding principle should be: be upfront and clearly state where you stand.

  1. Including her name in the acknowledgements of the paper, specifically stating her contribution. (“SG thanks Dr. Jane Doe for initially pointing him to this challenging problem.”)

  2. When the paper is published, be sure to send her a preprint, along with a nice email.

  3. If you are worried about her reviewing the paper, list her in the list of potential reviewers to exclude (if the journal submission has space for that). But… having her in the acknowledgments may already be enough for the editor not to pick her.

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This is a somewhat difficult situation, but I believe the most salient issue is the one that you originally mentioned in your comment: the master's advisor did not fund your research in any way. As a result of this, the demands placed on the advisor for authorship become even more stringent.

The criteria that becomes significant here is whether or not the advisor contributed materially to the development of the ideas you've carried out. If you decided upon the topic yourself, without assistance from your advisor, then it's appropriate not to give co-authorship.

However, there is also the issue of politics to consider. If, as you suggested, you are worried about the influence of your former advisor on spiking the paper, it may be worthwhile to consider the possibility of adding your advisor on at least the first paper; any future papers could be done without citing your advisor on the future papers (except as an acknowledgment, as F'x suggests).

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    I'm not so sure funding is a central point… most journals' authorship policy make absolutely no mention of funding – F'x Aug 7 '13 at 20:06
  • The funding issue is central because in many fields, the PI's securing of the grant means that she is "directing" the overall project, even when day-to-day supervision is not as close. This is the justification used in many engineering fields why the PI of the group is an author, even if they have not directly participated in the experiments or simulations. – aeismail Aug 7 '13 at 20:59
  • Is chemistry one of those fields? – JeffE Aug 7 '13 at 22:52
  • Yes. Chemistry students do not normally design their own projects, unless they have an external fellowship. – aeismail Aug 7 '13 at 23:19
  • This isn't really "chemistry", this is quantum chemistry. So really there was no lab equipment and only a basic computer sufficed. Essentially, it was applied mathematics (optimization) where the system studied was chemical in nature. – Squirtle Aug 8 '13 at 2:59

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