I am a PhD student in theoretical computer science. It is my understanding that if I work on a paper without my PhD advisor (which is common in my research area) and without any lab resources then that work is my own, and I can submit the paper where I choose. In particular, my advisor cannot force me to add them as a co-author if they have not contributed to the paper either intellectually or in the form of resources. Is this the most widely held view among scientists? What if the PhD student is an RA for 20 hours a week?

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    It is good to know that you will never think that your advisor will never do anything that bothers you. But, go talk to them, not a bunch of strangers on the internet... – Jon Custer Jul 10 '19 at 16:11
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    I have already discussed this with my advisor. No, my advisor bothers me plenty (I wouldn't be here if they didn't), but not if they publish without me. I don't feel entitled to that. – anon4327867 Jul 10 '19 at 16:18
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    No one owns your work. If this is their attitude I would consider switching advisors. Even if it isn’t and it’s a misunderstanding, it sounds like you dislike and mistrust your advisor, it can’t end well. – Spark Jul 11 '19 at 14:24
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    My advisor said that in this situation they do essentially own all of my work, and can do with it as they wish. — This is a serious red flag. Run like the wind. Your expectations are not too high. – JeffE Jul 11 '19 at 21:25
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    @y3sh Single-author works at conferences scream “not-a-team-player” and “bad-advisor-relationship”. — In my experience (as a theoretical computer scientist) single-student-author papers scream "independent researcher" and "not riding their advisor's coattails" and (assuming the paper is good) "potential postdoc/faculty hire" – JeffE Jul 11 '19 at 21:26

If your advisor hasn’t contributed anything to the paper intellectually then they can’t ethically put their name on a paper they didn’t contribute to. That has nothing to do with funding or RAships.

That said, what I described above is the ideal. Students are often under pressure to do what advisors say. Authorship is best discussed directly and if you have any issues you should speak with your advisor and establish standards in your group.

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    Unfortunately what is ethical and even legal doesn't always align well with what is practical, or even possible. There is little worse for a grad student than fighting with an advisor who has a lot of control over your future. Several frequent users here will attest to that. Don't harm yourself over a single paper. Think long term. There will be other papers if you act wisely. – Buffy Jul 10 '19 at 15:13
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    @Buffy There is absolutely no practical barrier to a theoretical computer science PhD student submitting a solo paper without their advisor's prior approval, and such submissions are certainly possible. (My advisor did it, I did it, and most of my students have done it.) Perhaps you meant "advisable"? – JeffE Jul 10 '19 at 21:18
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    @JeffE, Actually, doing anything that results in your advisor wanting nothing more than the end of your academic career is pretty much a practical barrier, I think. – Buffy Jul 10 '19 at 22:02

Is this the most widely held view among scientists?

In principle, yes; in practice, perhaps not. But that's not the question you want to ask.

Is this the most widely held view among theoretical computer scientists?

Yes, it is.

The most widely held view in theoretical computer science is that authorship requires a significant intellectual contribution to the paper. Thus, if your advisor truly did not make a significant intellectual contribution to the paper, they cannot be a coauthor. The fact that they are your advisor is utterly irrelevant. The fact that they are giving you an RAship is utterly irrelevant. The fact that they may be going up for tenure is utterly irrelevant. No intellectual contribution, no coauthorship, period.

But let's be very clear here: "most widely held" does not mean "universally agreed, without exception". Even theoretical computer science has its (thankfully small) share of unethical advisors.

You need to have a direct, face-to-face conversation with your advisor about their expectations, both for authorship and for how you spend your research time, well before you have to worry about how they might respond to your submitting a paper without them. The best time to have this conversation is before you accept the RAship or sign an advisor agreement. (And yes, that might be before you accept the admission offer.)

Ideally, you should be comfortable telling your advisor about your independent results, asking for their suggestions for where to submit them, and even asking for their feedback on the results and presentation, without worrying about authorship issues. Ideally, they should either encourage you to submit without them or ask if they can work with you on further extending the results. But not everyone follows these ideals, which is why you must ask about their expectations well in advance.

(I am assuming here that you are meeting the requirements of your RAship, and your independent research is in addition to, not instead of, the research you are being paid to do. Skimping on your job is not going to make your boss happy.)

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  • I'd be happy to hear a reason for the downvote. – JeffE Jul 11 '19 at 21:23


Unless you have signed some sort of agreement that states that any research you produce is the property of your advisor or university, papers you have written as an individual would be your own work to do what you please with it.

In Practice

It might not be too hard for your advisor/university to establish a contribution of resources that would warrant authorship/acknowledgements. Especially in super computing. (Unless you have your own super computer).

Keep in mind that the large majority of university professors do not advise students because they love mentoring students absent of any publications. Your advisor is your advisor because he/she wants to put his/her name on research produced by you. I know of no professor who advises students solely because they love teaching students. They want credit for your work, whether they contributed significantly to it or not.

With these thoughts on authorship in mind, it is feasible to believe that your advisor may not be super happy to allow you to independently publish research you produced. They will have significant leverage on your degree progress and funding. Act accordingly.

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    Hmmm. Actually, I advised students solely for that reason and would not consider co-authorship of their work even if asked. An yes, I advised them faithfully. CS in US. All the others in the department had the same practice. – Buffy Jul 10 '19 at 15:00
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    @Buffy As evidenced by your extensive (and meaningful, mind you) contributions to academia.SE, you may not be the usual college professor. Position on the tenure track may also play a significant role. Overall though, I have found that college professors believe themselves to be much more altruistic than they actually are. – Vladhagen Jul 10 '19 at 15:02
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    At least as a second data point (and I know there are others), in math, in the U.S., I advise PhD students without expecting my name on their papers. For that matter, in the U.S., in math, it would create a negative impression about the student if the advisor had their name on papers related to the thesis, I think. – paul garrett Jul 10 '19 at 20:16
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    They want credit for your work, whether they contributed significantly to it or not. — I am another counterexample to this claim, as are my past advisors and every one of my close colleagues. Yes, of course we advisors want credit for our students' success, but claiming credit for their work when we did not directly contribute would be grossly unethical. – JeffE Jul 10 '19 at 21:32
  • In all likelihood the university has an intellectual rights/property policy to clarify this kind of situation. Not sure advisors “wants credit for student work” for which they have not contributed but this may be highly culture specific. – ZeroTheHero Jul 11 '19 at 0:49

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