My supervisor has a bad reputation of forcing their name on papers at the final stage of research. The advisor is literally contributing zero or close to zero to my project, nothing more than- or maybe less than- very basic supervision tasks, like giving some comments on a written text.

This is unlikely to change, as the project is already approaching the final stage. How can I protect my work from being "hijacked" by an unfair co-authorship?

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    Does being the sole author matter much? – Azor Ahai -him- May 8 '20 at 16:37
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    @AzorAhai This is a matter of principle. Ideally, no one should have their name on research they didn't contribute to. It's not out of egoism that I want only my name on the paper. I would appreciate having coauthors who would help improve the research contribution. Also from a pragmatic prespective, it's a positive signal, that I can do independent research, for whatever comes after the PhD. A signal that I would claim, reflects the truth. – Hussin May 8 '20 at 20:41
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    I don't know what field you're in, which is why I asked. In mine, basically no monographs are published outside of lit reviews, so having one doesn't demonstrate "independent research" because it just generally doesn't exist anymore. So the argument to your supervisor could matter a lot on whether having a monograph is much better than having a first author paper with your supervisor on it, which is the norm in my field anyway. – Azor Ahai -him- May 8 '20 at 21:02
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    Be careful that you are not yourself under-estimating your advisor's contributions (Dmitry's answer is a good starting point). – Bryan Krause May 8 '20 at 21:45
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    Just as a clarification, I am in the field of social science. So, many aspects of the "Lab Culture" may not be necessarily relevant in my case. – Hussin May 9 '20 at 12:49

Does your superviser deserve an authorship? Check the following:

  1. Have they contributed to the research design, in form of suggesting a topic to investigate, advising on methodology, suggesting literature?
  2. Were they involved in evaluation of results, in form of checking them and contributing an opinion on whether the work is going in the right direction?
  3. Have they contributed to writing a paper, in form of contributing an introduction or abstract, or editing the manuscript?
  4. (*) Have you used any of the facilities or financial streams (e.g. stipendship) funded from your supervisor's research budget?

If any of the above is true, then your superviser may actually deserve an authorship. You can also check Nature Authorship Guidelines or a similar document in your university.

If you answered no to all of the above, then it is absolutely appropriate for you to publish on your own. Simply use the Authorship Guidelines to politely explain to your supervisor why you believe that they should not be included as an author. You may want to discuss your position with a dedicated unit in your University/Department, such as Research Office or the Head of the Department.

UPD: (*) As many people commented (and I agree), criteria (4) is controversial. In many areas providing funding on its own does not qualify for an authorship (see e.g. Vancouver protocol). However, in many departments it is a norm to always include the Head or Director of the Lab as the last author, and it may not be easy to challenge this agreement for a PhD student, particularly if you benefit from this funding.

  • The issues outlined in the comments have been now addressed in the answer, and this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Massimo Ortolano May 11 '20 at 19:15

Sadly, it may not be possible to do this and also get your degree. If the supervisor needs to sign off on your graduation and/or dissertation, then they have sufficient power to end your career before it starts, or at least delay it while you find a different advisor and maybe a different institution.

I hate to keep giving this advice, but it may be your best course to go along and complete your degree so that you become independent of his influence. Once you are free you can control your own career.

An alternative, not recommended, is to complain up the chain of authority and hope you reach someone who cares enough to help you. But you imply that this has been going on, so finding that person seems unlikely.

Prioritize your long term goals, not this one paper. It is still positive for you to have a publication, no matter the other issues.

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    The real problem here is that the supervisor has a bad reputation. If you only complain and do not get a new supervisor, the result is their reputation will be worse, and they will still be your supervisor. – Anonymous Physicist May 9 '20 at 1:01

The advisor is literally contributing zero or close to zero to my project, nothing more than- or maybe less than- very basic supervision tasks, like giving some comments on a written text.

Your problem is that you are not being advised. You can publish whatever paper with whoever as coauthors, nobody can stop you. But if you are in a program at an institution and you are expected to receive guidance, you should solve it.

You are not expected to have no advisor, that is bad situation to be in, especially during PhD training. Seek help.

Talk to your department and your academic advisor. For example, at USC they say clearly:

The office of Viterbi Admission and Student Engagement (VASE) provides services and resources to help students in the successful pursuit of their graduate degrees.

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    "nobody can stop you". In theory, of course not, but a bad advisor can definely do so (or at least make your life bad if you don't follow). – user111388 May 9 '20 at 11:48
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    @user111388 i tried to highlight the real problem of the OP. Of course, there is nuance – aaaaa says reinstate Monica May 9 '20 at 18:09

I will add to Dmitry and Buffy's excellent answer to point out the following.

  1. You say "The advisor is literally contributing zero except [...] giving some comments on a written text."

In my opinion, this makes them a co-author. He or she do not have to have physically edited the document themselves to add material or sections you had not considered, in order to be defined as an "author". In fact, I would argue that a supervisor's role in a paper by their subordinates is exactly that: to make corrections and suggest changes. Now you may disagree with respect to how important those comments were in terms of shaping the form of the final manuscript, but this then becomes more of a "how many hairs make a beard" distinction.

  1. "My supervisor has a bad reputation of forcing their name on papers at the final stage of research". As long as point 1 above stands, they have every right, and would probably feel that you robbed them of their contribution towards this project if you attempted to remove them as an author. Remember that their contribution started way before 'corrections on the manuscript' took place. It started when you two sat down to discuss how the project should be carried forward. Any research that formed part of the manuscript which resulted from your collaboration and those discussions make him or her a valid co-author. It would have been a very different scenario if you thought of something by yourself at home and an old professor suddenly knocked on your door and demanded their name to be put on the manuscript out of the blue.

  2. "How can I protect my work from being "hijacked" by an unfair co-authorship?". My final point is a practical one. What you consider as 'hijacking' may in fact be 'saving' your manuscript. I don't know what the norms are in your country, but in most international labs, it is common for work to be associated to the lab it came from in terms of forming a judgement about its quality, rather than the first author, unless the first author has managed to establish themselves enough in the field to be a recognizable name. I have worked with people who would refer to names via the lab rather than via the author, and would be more willing to read a paper if they knew it came from a reputable lab, and less willing if it was from a single unknown author. So, make sure that you don't shoot yourself on the foot by insisting the lab leader is excluded from the paper. It is generally in your best interests to co-publish a paper along a person who carries some weight in the field (not to mention you would be burning bridges with this person for all the wrong reasons).

Having said all that, it seems to me that the problem here is less whether your supervisor should or should not be an author from a technical point of view (though I believe it sounds like they should), but the fact that you two seem not to have the best relationship, and that this is affecting your psychology and ability to perform work in a calm manner. Now this is an important issue. One's relationship with their supervisor, for better or worse, is one of the most important factors for successfully completing a PhD, let alone getting something useful out of it, be it skills, a professional network, etc.

So, perhaps you should be focusing on the more general picture, i.e. what you could be doing to improve your relationship with this person instead, or considering a change in supervisors, adding a co-supervisor, or taking measures to protect yourself from malicious actions (assuming they're that kind of person, which I did not necessarily get the impression they are).

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    Can you include your field? In my field, it is common that collegues (supervisors or not) give comments on a paper. Yet, most of the times they are thanked in the acknowledgements and not an author. It's definitely not true in my field (maths) that everyone who gives comments (referees also in your field?!) becomes coauthor, especially this statement is in my field not followed by "Period." as if it was a law of nature. – user111388 May 9 '20 at 11:51
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    @user111388 thank you for this comment. Indeed. I meant this in the context of PhD supervision, and in terms of comments / discussions that have guided the flow of experiments / manuscript. (My fields cover medicine, computer science and engineering). But I can see how this process may differ in maths (which tends to be a less "lab-based" discipline anyway). It is true that a passing suggestion by a random colleague which serendipitously happened to bear fruit would not be appropriate grounds for co-authorship, but I hardly think this is the situation here in the context of PhD supervision. – Tasos Papastylianou May 9 '20 at 12:00
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    Thanks @TasosPapastylianou I am working on economic research. Your answer has several fair points. However, many of the norms in lab research may not apply in my case. As mentioned by user111388, it was the first thing that came to my mind, that seminar participants, and above all referees in peer review, usually contribute comments that even lead to improvements the paper, but it doesn't make them eligible for coauthorship. But everyone is thanked in the acknowledgement. – Hussin May 9 '20 at 12:57
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    Thank you for your insightful comment. However, could you as a compromise delete "Period."? I do absolutly not think that it is so clear-cut, even if advisors. – user111388 May 9 '20 at 16:22
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    @user111388 done :) – Tasos Papastylianou May 9 '20 at 16:30

My supervisor has a bad reputation of forcing their name on papers at the final stage of research. The advisor is literally contributing zero

You need a new advisor. If your advisor has a widespread bad reputation, that will hurt your reputation.

As a side effect, a new advisor is likely to also contribute effectively and follow ethical standards for authorship.

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    I did not interpret "having a bad reputation of forcing their name" to be equivalent to "having a bad reputation in the field" more generally. I simply took it to mean this person has a reputation internally in their lab, among the other students, of pulling their weight and insisting their name goes on the paper, even when the students feel otherwise. If they also have a bad reputation in the field, then yes, I agree 100%. – Tasos Papastylianou May 9 '20 at 11:42
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    @TasosPapastylianou you are right. It's more of an internal reputation of a norm that students have to "live with". Not that the supervisor has a bad reputation among the scientific community. – Hussin May 9 '20 at 13:12
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    Academia is a small world, surely word of his poor 'internal reputation' must get around. Try to change to a new advisor if possible. – Tom May 9 '20 at 18:07
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    @Tom: I disagree. There are a lot of famous people who are abusive against students, but among researchers this is viewed as "funny quirks of geniuses" or at best "it's the student's institution's problem, for all we know it's a great scientist". – user111388 May 10 '20 at 14:02
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    If possible try to change to a competent supervisor is my only advice in that case. A person could be great at doing research and be incompetent as a PhD supervisor, the skills required are not the same. – Tom May 10 '20 at 14:29

If I were you, I would not be trying to stick to your principles but ended up on your supervisor's bad side for the rest of the duration of your Ph.D. and beyond. You have to play the long game. Stop obsessing with the authorship of this one or the next couple of papers. Sharing one or two papers with your supervisor is not going to harm you. In fact unless your supervisor has only bad reputation in the field (in that case I don't know why you picked him to be your supervisor in the first place), it is going to help your career. Not sharing is going to hurt you in the long run for sure!

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    Further to this point, since you don't want to make the career harder, maximise the involvement of the supervisor who will be an author of the paper. Send them the entire paper and get feedback from them. Or send them the abstract and get them to edit it (pop in a deliberate minor mistake, e.g. a typo, to ensure that you get them involved). – Tom Anderson May 11 '20 at 0:27

Different fields have different customs, norms, and guidelines. An answer valid for Mathematics would not be valid for Computer Science or Physics. In Computer Science, realizing that there is a problem to be solved or that there is an application for a certain methodology can be sometimes enough to justify co-authorship, even if it appears that the actual work was done by others.

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    The premise of the question is that the supervisor is no coauthor by the field's standards, I think. – user111388 May 12 '20 at 5:32
  • I'm a computer scientist, and I don't think either of the things you suggest is even close to sufficient for co-authorship. – JeffE May 12 '20 at 20:40

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