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I recently finished an undergraduate program and obtained an engineer’s degree. I am working as a software engineer at an automotive company and I can only imagine myself having a career in “production”, meaning working for a private company for a while and eventually starting a company of my own or working as a freelancer. This is to say I have no interest in pursuing a career in academia.

In my country it is very common that people start a master’s degree immediately after finishing their bachelor’s degree. I did not enlist for a master’s program and I am still debating whether I find it worth doing several years from now or not.

However, recently the professor that acted as my advisor for my diploma project asked me whether I want to co-author a paper that would be presented at a conference and later submitted for publishing in a journal. The paper’s topic encompasses the topic of my diploma project and the professor said he would like to use parts of my project for this paper.

I like the idea of being a co-author on a published paper, but I suspect this will mean a lot of work and I wouldn’t want to do it if the only thing I got out of it was the achievement alone. Would there be anything to gain from doing this if I don’t intend to pursue a career in academia? If there is no good reason to do it, would it be appropriate to give the professor permission to use my project for his paper without asking to be listed as co-author?

EDIT: Thank you very much for all your answers and encouragement! I emailed the professor back telling him I was interested, but that the time I could invest was limited and he told me it would not be a problem since he will write the paper, my previous work being enough of a contribution already.

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    You should ask this on Workplace SE as well to get a workplace perspective. – user111388 Aug 5 at 16:34
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    This question has attracted a number of answers in comments, many of which overlap with the below. These have been moved to chat; please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Aug 6 at 21:16

11 Answers 11

78

Congratulations! In my opinion, it is perfectly polite to write back and say that you are interested, but can't afford to make a significant time commitment to the project. Ideally, the professor will be happy to do the work himself, and your role would largely be to look over the finished product, sign off on it, and make suggestions or comments.

It's fine to invite the professor to write this paper without you as a coauthor. That said, since you did much of the work already, the professor might prefer that you be listed as an author.

If you are thinking of possibly applying to graduate school in the future, it would probably be a good thing to have a publication under your belt.

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    You seem to suggest that it is OK for the professor to plagiarize the work of a student. – Buffy Aug 4 at 15:47
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    More like "In this section we describe some results of Ionică [cite], which we then build upon in Section XX. Since Ionică's work is unpublished, we will give a complete account." Although I certainly agree that it's much better for everyone if OP agrees to be a coauthor. – academic Aug 4 at 16:09
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    That doesn't save you, I think. The OP here would still need to approve of the publication. Otherwise the professor could be construed as "taking" the work. This is dangerous ground, though for the professor, not the OP. – Buffy Aug 4 at 16:41
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    @Buffy I'd say citing and reproducing unpublished work together with others (or even other people's work) is no misconduct - it might be bad style, if the others wanted to publish this first, but it is not plagiarizing anyones work if it is properly attributed. – user151413 Aug 4 at 18:31
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    @Buffy I agree that the professor should seek OP's approval. That said, if OP encourages the professor to publish the work on their own, doesn't this constitute their approval? – academic Aug 4 at 19:22
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Would there be anything to gain from doing this if I don't intend to pursue a career in academia?

Of course! You can put it in your CV. You might not need it for whatever job you're going for (are you sure you don't?), but you still have a rare opportunity that's worth bragging about which you give up by declining. Remember, the future is uncertain, and you cannot tell what you will need in the future.

For example here are some things which have come up unexpectedly for me:

  • I once agreed to fill in for a friend for two weeks as a tutor. He wanted to switch to a full-time job but didn't want to leave his student hanging. I was not looking at a teaching career at the time, but four years later, I was able to cite this episode as teaching experience.
  • I once put on my CV that I had some experience editing Wikipedia, which was relevant since I was applying for a publishing job. That later led to the company's marketing division asking me for help with navigating Wikipedia's conflict-of-interest policies (I was in the editorial department).
  • And yes, I was in the same boat as you once: I graduated thinking I would never go for an advanced degree, but then changed my mind years later. I don't know how valuable the publication was, since my advisor wound up writing most of it, but it can't have had a negative impact.

Years from now, the time you spend to co-author this paper will look completely negligible. While it's possible there never are benefits, it's also possible that there will be, and that's when you want the paper under your belt.

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    I usually disagree with @Allure on, well, lots of things, but this took the words right out of my mouth :-) There's an appropriate maxim in (older) Hebrew: שלח לחמך על פני המים כי ברבות הימים תמצאנו - "Send out your bread upon the water, as with the passage of days you shall find it." – einpoklum Aug 5 at 9:08
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    If nothing else, being able to put a "papers published" section in your CV makes you stand out from the hundreds of other job applicants. – Mark Aug 5 at 22:25
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    @Mark - does it? To whom? From personal experience, no one gives a slightest **** about such things in IT, qualified candidates are already so rare we would hire a goat if it could code well. – Davor Aug 6 at 15:54
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    @einpoklum Ecclesiastes 11:1, I think. – RBarryYoung Aug 6 at 20:20
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    @Davor another time when I was applying for another job in publishing, I wrote that I had worked on a particular Nature paper in a research project. HR apparently misinterpreted it as saying I wrote that Nature paper, and invited me to an interview as a result (I got the job too after correcting the error). – Allure Aug 6 at 22:20
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This focuses on the first part of the question, i.e., whether there could be anything to gain from writing the paper. The other answers cover the second part.

Some industry jobs in computer science require or prefer applicants to have a master’s or PhD degree, or some research experience. If you wish to apply for such jobs now or in the future, a paper could help you to:

  1. Strengthen your application or make you eligible for such jobs.
  2. Strengthen your application for a graduate program if you decide to apply for one later, in order to become eligible for such jobs.
  3. Maintain good relations with your professor in order to get a strong recommendation letter for applications in point 2.
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It may be fine for the professor to write the paper without your cooperation, but NOT so fine to omit you as a co-author if the work is yours. You should be a co-author, though need not contribute further to the project.

A co-author need not be involved in every aspect of a publication. If you created it, you are rightfully an author. It isn't the "writing" itself that makes you an author. It is the intellectual work that makes it possible.

Let the professor know that you don't have the time to contribute more, and that you would be happy to review the work as it nears completion. This gives you a chance to know what is being said in your name. You need to approve the publication if you are co-author.

But omitting you is a form of plagiarism unless there are clear statements in the paper that it is based on your work. Your earlier work needs to be cited appropriately in the paper also.

But this situation seems to call for more than an acknowledgement.

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Others have already mentioned the benefits in terms of CV enhancement and similar, but there also are some direct benefits for a non-academic career:

  • You get experience with communicating your results, be it in writing or public speaking (should you present at that conference). In particular you have the opportunity to get insight into the process of somebody who is (hopefully) experienced at this, namely your supervisor. While academic writing and talks have their peculiarities, this is not without value for communicating your work in other settings.

  • You get insights into the mechanisms of the academic publishing process. This may be valuable if you should ever use the products of this process (which depends on your field).

  • You learn how to handle independent evaluation of your work (peer review).

Of course, at the end of the day, there is no life experience that does not teach you a lesson or two, so you have to take into account:

  • How much time does your supervisor expect you to invest?
  • How would you spend that time and energy otherwise? (The difficult part is to be honest with yourself here.)
  • Would this be tedious work for you or rather a hobby project?
  • How stressful is life for you currently?
  • How much have you learnt the skills in question already?

Ideally, this is a hobby project without much pressure where you occasionally spend a few hours of your free time to stay in the loop, write a small piece of text, produce a figure, give feedback on your co-authors’ writing, etc. and have to do not have to do any tedious organising work and do not find it difficult to motivate yourself.

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As an engineer, who has never worked in academia, I would recommend doing it with a limit on your time commitment. It is a great CV enhancer, much of engineering is writing and communicating. This will be especially important if you strike out on your own. The skills to be a good engineer are not the same as the skills to be a good freelancer.

Most employers are impressed with publishing credits for engineers because of the ability to communicate.

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If you're looking for an unbiased expert opinion on whether the hours you'd have to put in are worth it, you're looking in the wrong place. A publication is valued in academia, but is it equally valued in the career path you envision? Though a publication will undoubtedly improve your CV, the time spent on it could have been spent on activities that improve your CV even more - activities that are perhaps more enjoyable to you as well.

So instead of asking on the StackExchange specifically designed for academia, I recommend you ask someone who knows the industry (and ideally role) that you want to work in. They will be able to give you a better view on how much a publication will advance your career.

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For me, this, like so many questions, has a simple answer.

If you are not sure about something, ask the person involved.

In this case that person would be your professor. You need to know the level of commitment required of you. Here is my suggestion (to be put in your own words of course).

Thank you for your email/whatever, Thank you so much for all your help and guidance throughout my studies. That sounds like a great idea. However I hope you don't mind if I ask what commitment you would need from me. I'm asking because I want to pursue a career in industry rather than further education and I don't feel able to commit much time to the project. If I could, I'd waive my authorship in favour of you but I understand that is not allowed. Can you suggest the best way forward?

This throws the responsibility on the prof to come up with a solution that is beneficial to all. If s/he wants it enough, s/he'll find a way.

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Folks answering on this site may have a bias towards publishing, so let's talk about this in a way which abstracts from the paper a bit.

Getting a job requires:

  • Demonstrating an ability to get things done.
  • The ability to talk about the things you have done.

Getting parts of your undergrad work published provides evidence that you can get things done. Saying you did X project/research during your undergrad is very different from saying that you did X project/research with Y quantifiable outcome---a (peer reviewed?) paper in this case. The latter demonstrates that you weren't dinking around. You built something that made it into the broader world. Any potential employee who can demonstrate that has a leg up.

But when you apply to your next job your current job will supply sufficient evidence of that, right?

Not necessarily.

Many jobs require you to sign NDAs which make you unable to speak about what you've done or require you to be vague about it and your role in it. In contrast, since this is academic publishing, once the paper is out you're free to discuss any and all details about the work. This freedom gives you the opportunity to dive deeply into technical problems you solved in a way that might not be possible with your industry work.

In summary, having a number of completed, quantifiable projects you can talk about in-depth can only help in future interviews.

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On co-authorship

I would suggest to have a look what co-authorship means and implies first, and this is not uniquely defined everywhere.

Example of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors

Some golden standards are in the so-called Vancouver Recommendations, in full Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals. This seems to have a general bearing beyond purely medical journals, and I like to quote this (boldface mine, uppercase theirs):

The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:
1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In addition to being accountable for the parts of the work he or she has done, an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work. In addition, authors should have confidence in the integrity of the contributions of their co-authors.

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. Those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged [...]

Your work should, at a minimum, be acknowledged. The overhead of being co-author is not necessarily huge, since you might already have done your fair share of work.

Example of the publisher Elsevier

Also I know that Elsevier frowns upon ghost authors (unacknowledged contributors) and guest authors (idle contributors). More specifically in their page on Publishing Ethics, Role of Authors, they set a general standard for their wide range of journals (boldface mine):

Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study. All those who have made substantial contributions should be listed as co-authors.

Where there are others who have participated in certain substantive aspects of the paper (e.g. language editing or medical writing), they should be recognised in the acknowledgements section.

The corresponding author should ensure that all appropriate co-authors and no inappropriate co-authors are included on the paper, and that all co-authors have seen and approved the final version of the paper and have agreed to its submission for publication.

Authors are expected to consider carefully the list and order of authors before submitting their manuscript and provide the definitive list of authors at the time of the original submission. [...]

Authors take collective responsibility for the work. Each individual author is accountable for ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Individual journals may have particular definitions of authorship (e.g. medical journals may follow the ICMJE definition of authorship [1]), and authors should ensure that they comply with the policies of the relevant journal.

Indeed, not too far in spirit from the ICMJE, and referring to it. Mother-tongue speakers may want to elaborate on the relevance behind distinguishing between substantial contributions and substantive aspects.

On strategy

The underlying question whether you should engage in something solely after the expectation of a future benefit, rather than for the achievement in itself, is tricky.
In general, you reap what you sow, so long as the season and the harvest go well. Many people like to encourage/discourage themselves or each other talking of low-/high-hanging fruits. It is really subjective and uncertain. You can think of few horizons though:

  • regret when you realise you could have done it, but you didn't (the window of opportunity is closed);
  • remorse when you realise you did do it, but you should not have done it (unlikely for a properly done job);
  • satisfaction when you realise you could and did do it (a mild feeling will do);
  • relief when you realise you could not do it and should not have done it (say because you moved on something so great and new, and you have lost nothing);
  • indifference: where you just did not bother at all.

Where would you like it better to be when this opportunity is far in the past? Up to you. For sure it will depend on what happens in the meantime.

Thanks for sharing your dilemma.

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Generally speaking, if your advisor asks you to do something reasonable and relevant (which co-authoring a paper is), you should do it. Although this is especially good advice pre-degree, it also applies post-degree. My own advisor wanted me to take his advice after I obtained my PhD. Things like good references may depend upon it. This is simply respect to the advisor and also it will greatly help your goals.

Also a published work, even as a co-author can help your career. It looks good to people if as part of your degree program, you can show work worth publishing. This is especially true for those going into academia, but to a certain extend in business / industry. Obviously, this would depend on your geographic-region, and also on your field-of-study.

There would be certain exceptions, such as if you work in a national-defense scenario where secrecy is paramount. However, if you have a publicly-accessible LinkedIn account (or similar) or mention your work publicly on social media such as Facebook, the above secrecy-consideration does not apply.

Writing papers is a good experience, though somewhat daunting until you have done it. I would expect that if you do co-author the paper, you will probably be glad you did it.

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    Note, OP has graduated and is no longer in academia. While "do what your advisor says" is usually the right answer for students, the considerations are somewhat different after graduation. – cag51 Aug 6 at 21:14
  • True. My advisor still expected me to do what he said after I graduated. This is important to get good references, and so forth. – JosephDoggie Aug 10 at 13:56
  • @cag51 -- I updated my answer based on your comment (see also my own comment above). – JosephDoggie Aug 11 at 13:31
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    I agree with "you should satisfy your advisor's reasonable wishes". What I cannot unconditonally agree with is "coauthoring a paper is reasonable". This is potentially a lot of work (as OP says in their question) -- for researchers, it is the main part of their job (for which they are paid to do). It is not clear too me that it is so reasonable to expect someone to spend that much of their free time. – user111388 Aug 11 at 15:14

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