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I'm applying to a prestigious funding program for early-career researchers* that places a heavy emphasis on the "scientific excellence" and "intellectual capacity and creativity" of the PI. To demonstrate this, the proposal is required to include a section on "early achievements" that lists five top publications, "highlighting those as main author and/or without the co-authorship of [the applicant's] PhD supervisor".

My problem is that my best publications overall, as well as the publications most relevant to my proposal, list my PhD supervisor as the co-author, even though they had no significant involvement, neither in the formulation of the research questions, nor the planning and execution of the experiments, nor the writing up of the research results. This is because I worked in a fairly large research lab where the more experienced doctoral candidates and postdocs were granted considerable autonomy in pursuing their research, but it was the official, documented policy for the lab head to be credited as co-author on all publications, irrespective of their involvement. There was a minor kerfuffle when a colleague of mine pointed out that this policy was at odds with the ethics and authorship guidelines of the journals and proceedings we regularly published in. This resulted in the deletion of the policy from our lab's internal handbook, but the policy continued to be applied in practice.

So I'm wondering what to do about my publication list in the grant application. Should I focus on the publications without my supervisor as the co-author, even though these aren't my strongest or most relevant work? If I do include one or more publications that list my supervisor as co-author, should I explain in the proposal that the co-authorship is purely nominal, or will this come across as suspicious, egotistical, and/or desperate? What course of action is most likely to leave a favorable impression on the reviewers?


*The program is the ERC Starting Grant, though my question is probably relevant for others applying for an ERC Consolidator Grant (which has the same evaluation criteria) or to similar programs from other funding agencies.

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    What field are you in? Authorship norms vary quite a bit.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 5 at 16:22
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    While the question in abstract surely is interesting, I doubt that it is relevant for the ERC consolidator grant. If your best publications center involve your advisor, then they are either almost a decade old, or you somehow have managed to spend all this time working in the same lab, with the same people, not making a name on your own. In either case, your chances of getting such a competitive grant would be close to zero. Even for the starter grant not having done a postdoc or two with good publications will probably look odd.
    – mlk
    Mar 5 at 20:01
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Assuming that you're not already too close to the 7-year maximum of post-doctoral experience for the ERC starting grant, I think the usual approach would be to work (and publish during) at least one postdoc contract in a lab other than your Ph.D. supervisor's before applying for the grant.

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The guidance in the general description of the ERC suggests that applicants must show "the potential for research independence ... for example by having produced at least one important publication without the participation of their PhD supervisor." I think there are two key points from this.

Firstly, it is not necessary to fully avoid publications with your PhD supervisor - these are (relatively) early career grants, so your PhD will represent a sizeable fraction of your research experience and publication record. Particularly if the papers are strongly relevant to the proposal, don't shy away entirely from including them.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the purpose of this recommendation - to show independence, and this is important even in schemes without that explicit criteria. If all of your 'good' papers are in the same PI's lab, in an area associated with the group, then just saying your PI's co-authorship is nominal is unlikely to convince anyone. This is doubly so if you feel your research since leaving the group is of a significantly lower quality.

If you can make a clear case about how you instigated and/or developed this research area in a way you can show some ownership, you might be able to convince the referees, but you would be giving yourself an uphill struggle. As noted by another answer, the easiest way to address these sorts of concerns is through mobility, and publishing good quality work as part of another group or smaller independent fellowship. If another year or two will give you the time you need to achieve that, then that might be well worth considering as it would significantly strengthen your position.

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