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I am a postdoc and I prepared a paper that is now ready for submission. I did this work by myself. I know that adding my advisor as an author would violate authorship standards, but it is a widespread practice and therefore my supervisor may still expect it, which I have to take into account when making a decision.

How can I tactfully find out, whether she would like me to put her name on it or not?

  • I took the liberty of editing your question rather strongly to avoid it being a duplicate and attracting discussions about authorship ethics we already have had several times. I moved comments in answers and the discussion about authorship ethics and what is common to chat. – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 at 9:30
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    So, none of the material or concepts for this paper were ever discussed with your advisor during the time you have worked with them? – Solar Mike Mar 31 at 9:44
  • I'd also ask about funding: Are there grants that paid for salaries or facilities that need to get mentioned in the paper's acknowledgements? Sometimes those grants come with a requirement to publish. Asking about acknowledgements might be a good tactful first step. – Van Mar 31 at 11:41
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For almost every paper (and particularly if you are the sole author), it’s a good idea to have an “internal peer-review”, i.e., have a colleague who is not an author read the manuscript and give feedback before actually submitting it to a journal. (The main reason for this is that it is much faster and interactive than peer review.) Usually this internal review is done by other advisees of the professor, other professors within a collaborative project, or close colleagues.

Now, if you are authoring a paper on your own, your advisor is the most obvious choice to perform the initial peer review¹. Moreover, in many cases you also have to report to your advisor about your research not due to authorship reasons, but due to her being your superior (in the employment sense), because the rules of your PhD programme say so, or similar. This gives you enough reason to talk intensively about your work, without delving into the issue of authorship first.

Now, the details depend on how much you already communicated about this piece of work and how you generally communicate within your group, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Ask your supervisor to internally review your paper, but leave the author field blank. This may prompt your supervisor address the topic herself, telling you what she wants. There are some variations of this, which differ in risk and effectiveness, such as to giving her a paper which only lists you or both of you as the author or thanking her for constructive feedback in the acknowledgements.

  • If your target journal requires a list of explicit author contributions (“X and Y designed the experiments; Z held the Giraffe, …”), you may be able to elicit a response by having a title for this segment, but leaving a big and fat “TODO” below it.

  • If this did not yield any feedback, you can now bring up the issue of authorship mostly neutrally, saying something like:

    It seems that the paper is ready for submission now. Now, we only need to talk about authorship.

  • Maybe the internal review prompts creative contributions from your supervisor that would justify authorship and you avoid the dilemma altogether (but lose your sole authorship).

Be aware that if you really want to be the single author of this paper, giving the paper to your boss for review may be a slight risk, as it may give her a reason to think that she should be a co-author in the first place.

Finally, do not forget that authorship is not only about writing the paper. So, if your supervisor gave constructive input to your work, this may qualify her for authorship even though you did all the work and writing.


¹ unless this is a “hobby” paper in a completely different field

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    Note that in mathematics and some similar fields in the US (at least), the advisor/supervisor isn't your employer. The university (or possibly the department) is. All you "owe" your advisor is respect and your best efforts. Employment may not be for anything related to research. Other fields are very different, of course, as are other places. – Buffy Mar 31 at 13:28
  • @Buffy: I didn’t say that the advisor was the employer (that would be the university or similar), but that they are the boss. Still, I acknowledge that this may differ (if you are paid by a scholarship, etc.). – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 at 13:51
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    If you are a TA then the advisor isn't the boss in any employment sense. They direct your research, but that is all. But they don't control your complete academic life. Only you do. – Buffy Mar 31 at 14:13
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    @Buffy: At least for all postdoc and PhD positions in Europe I have seen, you are actually hired to do research de jure, and not only as a TA (a teaching obligation may be also part of the contract though). I have never heard about this being different for postdocs in the US, but I wouldn’t be surprised either. Anyway, as long as you are hired to do research, you usually can’t just research whatever you want but have to report to somebody about it, and that’s usually the supervisor, be they technically your superior or not. – Wrzlprmft Mar 31 at 18:08
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    @299792458: On top of what Massimo said, I think you are conflating issues here: What I was talking about in the sentence that started this discussion is not authorship but the advisee’s duty to report to the advisor for reasons other than authorship (such as them being their superior in terms of employment). This is less an aspect of culture but how things are legally handled. So far, I wrote two (non-hobby) papers without my supervisor at that time, but when I worked on them, he knew very well what I was doing with my time (because he was my superior). – Wrzlprmft Apr 1 at 5:45
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In the real world, what is necessary and what is right are sometimes at odds. This seems to be the case in all such questions of including advisors/supervisors as co-authors on papers.

In mathematics, which I consider to have a sensible approach, advisors are never included (well almost never) unless they make a direct contribution to the paper. They are actually often omitted even when they do and are happy for just an acknowledgement. I think that Philosophy is like this also. Neither myself (mathematics) nor my daughter (philosophy) included advisors as co-authors. Never. Even. Considered. It.

In some lab sciences, especially, a supervisor has created the conditions under which the work can proceed and even funds lab assistants, etc, that make all work possible. In those fields it is normally considered necessary to include the supervisor as a co-author, and even as first author in some cases. I think of that as less sensible, but it is the norm.

The other answers so far given here seem to be suggesting ways to make the supervisor a real contributor to the work so that they can be rightly considered a co-author. But that isn't how the world works in those fields that traditionally include supervisors in the author list. No one, for example, caries out completely independent work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider, for example. Lots of people participate in some way, including those who built the thing in the first place.

The solution to the dilemma here, is just to ask. But ask in person. Provide the supervisor with a near-final draft and ask "Should you be co-author of this or not". Simple and clean. There are three possible responses: (1) of course not, (2) of course, and (3) let's see....

Only 3 requires any real thought and you can work it out, depending.

I'll note that, depending on your field, it may also be either an advantage or a disadvantage to have the advisor (or anyone else) as co-author. In some fields, co-authoring a paper with a prominent researcher can boost your career, as you are seen to move in the halls of power. In other fields, where they count "chits" and "split hairs", only sole authorship (or at least "first" authorship) is valued, including the supervisor can hurt. I don't know what is the case in your field and assume you don't either or you wouldn't be asking. But your advisor certainly knows, leading to responses (1) or (2) in most cases.

But if the response is (1) you need to ack the advisor. If it is (2) it could be a career killer to refuse, since you need letters to advance. If it is (3) then the other answers here from lordy and Wrzlpmft give a way to work out a way forward.

But it is the traditions of your field that dominate here - whether sensible or not.

  • You are forgetting option 2.1: “How dare you even consider submitting a paper without my name? I’ll make your life difficult from now on.” – Given what I know about some supervisors out there and what we sometimes read on this site, this is an option you seriously have to consider – and probably the reason why this question exists in the first place. – Wrzlprmft Apr 1 at 5:34
  • @Wrzlprmft, I think it pretty likely that the OP would know already if that were the attitude. There wouldn't be a question at all. – Buffy Apr 1 at 11:19
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Unless you have evidence to the contrary, you should assume that your advisor is ethical, and would not demand co-authorship of a paper to which he/she has manifestly not made a contribution commensurate with authorship. If you were to ask him/her, you would appear to be either naïve (that is, you do not realise that 'honorary' authorship is unethical) or insinuating that you think he/she may not be ethical.

If, having submitted your paper, your advisor complains about your not having added him/her as co-author, you should explain politely that, since he/she had not made a contribution commensurate with authorship, you did not add his/her name, but that if you had misunderstood what constitutes authorship, perhaps the advisor would be so obliging as to enumerate the contributions you had neglected to notice, and help you draft a joint letter to the editor to explain why the name should be added. That way, the onus on your advisor to explain why he/she should be included. If your advisor is unethical, he/she will find it quite awkward.

One solution is to invite your advisor to review the paper before submission. Mark it as a sole-authored paper, and do not suggest co-authorship on your initiative. There are several possible outcomes:

  1. If your advisor does not answer the invitation, submit as a sole-authored paper.

  2. If your advisor gives feedback but does not comment on the matter of authorship, act on the feedback and submit as a sole-authored paper.

  3. If your advisor gives feedback and requests co-authorship, make sure that he/she pulls his/her weight in helping you revise the paper to an extent that would actually warrant it (this is what an ethical advisor would do).

  4. If your advisor acts as per §3, but fails to make sufficient contribution, you should make the point, politely but firmly, that he/she has not yet contributed enough, and ask whether you should:
  • delay submitting (until he/she has contributed more); or
  • submit as a sole-authored paper.

Do not take the initiative of suggesting anything unethical yourself; if your advisor wants to act unethically, the initiative must come from him/her, not from you.

As scholars, we have a responsibility not to make it easy for unethical behaviour to happen. Of course, we may often be powerless to stop unethical behaviour we see (or suspect), but the least we can do is make it awkward for the perpetrators to hide what they are doing. Offering co-authorship to your advisor will either facilitate unethical behaviour (if he/she is unethical) or offend him/her (if he/she is ethical).

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The most tactful way to ask is possibly to ask your supervisor what he thinks about the paper and if he would be willing to "critically revise" the paper. The "critically revise" is under quotation marks as many journals accept this as a "significant" contribution to a paper which justifies authorship.

Above was the formal part. When we talk about your paper itself now then you can see the cirtical revision also as something to benefit from. If you are not a (very) experienced senior postdoc that knows the literature and each wording of each method etc exactly then your paper might actually benefit greatly if someone more experienced (or even just someone with a slightly different view) works over it as many things that seem logical to you might not be logical to someone else. I do not know your exact field but in most fields papers of single authors are rather uncommon for this reason.

Please note that this post does not answer if your supervisor should be author but rather how to tactfully ask (as this is the question here).

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