10

I have had an issue with my PhD advisor where they were essentially attempting to coerce me into inappropriately adding them as a co-author on a paper that they had no part in. They agreed that they should not be an author according to ethical standards, but essentially threatened me that there would be "problems with my graduation" if I did not add their name to the paper. They have refused to collaborate with me on this paper as well as any future paper because they "are too busy" and "no professors really do research".

This appeared to be a very serious ethical breach to me, so I immediately went to the department chair to describe the situation, and started looking for a new PhD advisor. However, some of the reactions I got to the situation disturbed me. The chair of my department openly stated that all of my research is "owned" by my advisor (whatever that means) and implied that I was a bad student for not adding my advisor to the paper. He even went so far to suggest that I add my new advisor's name to the (finished) paper in order to start off on good terms! Another professor trivialized the problem, stating that compared to what many PhD students have to deal with gift authorship is "not that bad". A third professor stated that it was clearly unethical, but that it was unfortunately the norm.

It seems to me based on this small sample size (as well as hearing other PhD student's experiences) that gifting authorship to uninvolved PhD advisors is rampant. This is obviously a terrible practice. Is this behavior really rampant in academia? And if so, what happens to PhD students who refuse to participate in this practice?

A further point about my situation: I am in a theoretical scientific field where there is no lab, etc., so there is no complications arising from that sort of thing. Although even if I were working on a grant and using lab equipment gift authorship would be unethical.

  • 1
    This seems more of a rant than an actual question. On a purely practical level, is this something you would quit your PhD over? – Jon Custer Jul 23 '19 at 19:37
  • 13
    What is described is a clear, classical conflict situation and the OP wants to know whether this is widespread. Looks like a valid question to me. – Scientist Jul 23 '19 at 20:29
  • 11
    They have refused to collaborate with me on this paper as well as any future paper because they "are too busy" and "no professors really do research". — Time to find a new advisor. — The chair of my department openly stated that all of my research is "owned" by my advisor — Scratch that. Time to find a new department. – JeffE Jul 24 '19 at 0:13
  • 1
    It's unfortunately a rather widespread problem, yes. But is it rampant? I.e. out of control or spreading fast and unchecked? – Anyon Jul 24 '19 at 14:08
  • 3
    @Flyto: It costs a lot! A single author paper for a PhD student shows that the student is independently capable of carrying out this research, and does not depend on their advisor to be successful. This looks very good. In addition, if I add my advisor she could use the paper (in combination with other papers she is a gift author on) to aid her get grants, a salary increase, etc. that she doesn't deserve. – user1231233278 Jul 24 '19 at 21:54
3

This situation is not uncommon but not rampant, and depends very strongly on the culture of the institution, the department and the field of research, or even the individual thesis director.

There is some weak argument to be made that thesis directors provide resources (intellectual or otherwise) so they should be more or less automatically co-authors of work done by students. If they are not then the resources going to the lab/research group through grants or other competitions might be jeopardized. In other words, the resources you can access now are in part due to the past record of the supervisor so she/he needs to keep this up else these resources will not benefit the next generation of students.

There is also the argument that big names function as imprimatur in the sense that they will provide visibility to the work beyond what the junior authors could hope to provide.

Overall, I have always found both arguments not completely satisfactory. While certainly a thesis director should help a student as much as possible, there are clearly situations where it is not necessary for a thesis director to co-sign a paper. Likewise, it is entirely possible to highlight in a positive manner - in a grant application or otherwise - the fact that a student publish without his/her thesis director.

| improve this answer | |
2

No, it is not the norm in my field (in the arts & humanities) in the UK. In fact, a supervisor whose students never published solo would be considered a failure.

For future reference (and for the benefit of prospective PhD students reading this), a good piece of advice when evaluating a potential supervisor is to look at his/her publications list, and analyse the authorship/co-authorship patterns:

[NB: applicable to the arts & humanities (I make no apology for this bias, since there are so many STEM-biased answers on StackExchange as matters stand)]

  • good sign: solo publications and publications with other academics of comparable seniority in the field;
  • fine/neutral: some publications co-authored with students (you should then check the publication records of these students -- ideally, they should also have published solo and/or with different collaborators as well);
  • red flag: all recent (last 10 years) publications co-authored with his/her students.
| improve this answer | |
  • I should also stress that quantity of publications is less important than quality. If possible, try and read a few publications from a prospective supervisor before committing. – anon Jul 24 '19 at 23:36
1

Is it rampant? I would say generally, no, but it occurs and it occurs too often. But different fields have different standards and some of them make sense even to those who say that it is wrong in general. That doesn't seem to be the situation in your case, of course, so I think your rant is justified.

But if an advisor makes it possible for you to do your research, through providing the lab (not your case, of course), and sets the general direction of research in that lab, and has "hired" you to carry on the work that s/he has defined for that lab, then it isn't so obvious that their name doesn't deserve to be on the papers produced in the lab. Of course, such fields also probably have conventions about the placement of names in the list. Often the "owner" of the lab is placed last on all publications, and that is understood for what it is.

But even in other cases, if a supervisor gives you a problem to solve and guides you a bit in its solution, does s/he deserve co-authorship. In mathematics we generally say no, but, even there, it isn't so clear that it isn't deserved. If a student can't come up with his/her own problem due to insufficient "seasoning" and insight, they may come to a significant result that would be outside their reach without the advisor. But, again, in theoretical math, at least, demanding co-authorship would be seen as a transgression, especially in a case that matches your description.

Rampant in academia? Probably not. Rampant in some corners? Perhaps. But look closer at the whole picture, not just the obvious bits.

Also, if a student is trapped in such a situation, it may just be self preservation to go along. Hold your nose, but get away quickly and don't look back. Find people with whom you can collaborate in a fair and just manner.

| improve this answer | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.