23

In my field (experimental physics) the supervision of PhD students works roughly like that: freshmen come to the lab, they are given tasks, then they do experiments, discuss the results with their supervisors, do more experiments, discuss more, and then at some point they start writing papers about their results. There, of course, both PhD students and their supervisors are co-authors on papers, often together with other internal and/or external collaborators.

I've been working in a few countries, and the system was always more or less like that. I do understand why it is functioning this way: in a relatively complicated field of knowledge, a new PhD student is absolutely incapable of writing a paper which would stand up to the standards of the respective scientific community. So the student gets supervision as to which experiments are interesting to do and which not, how to do the experiments, how to analyze results, how to present them, etc. In return, the supervisor, at the very minimum, publishes a paper and gets the work done (and published), as it was described in the funding proposal from which this PhD student is paid. I mean, it is not usually referred to as a deal between a student and a supervisor, but if everything goes well it's a win-win for sure, and it's all pretty obvious, so I am not even sure whether I should have written it in so much detail.

However, surfing through Academia SE, I found a number of questions from PhD students about whether they should publish papers without their supervisors, and, surprisingly, a significant number of answers encouraging them to do so, in the spirit of: “It’s your PhD, how are you supposed to work independently if you can’t publish a paper on your own”. From this I conclude that there are at least some places where this is indeed how the system works, so PhD students publish papers without their supervisors as co-authors. And so, I wonder: How is this system supposed to work long-term? What would be the motivation for supervisors to actually accept and supervise students, if they don't even get a publication from this student's work? Supervision, if done properly, takes quite some time, so as a research scientist, I'd rather spend this time on my own work which will be published under my name, rather then help other people publish their papers.

I can foresee an answer that goes like, it is a sort of moral obligation of a scientist to "raise" PhD students, and he or she should not expect anything "in return", not even a publication. Although some people might indeed share this belief, it would be very naive to build the entire system on moral grounds, so I am sure there is something else.

Update. I would like to quote @AlexanderWoo: "Mathematics is weird is that standards for authorship usually differs in an advisor-student context than outside of one. There are definitely contributions that would merit coauthorship if one were not the advisor of the other author but does not if one is the advisor." Sounds bizarre but again, what do I know.

2
  • 10
    I think it's more field- than place-dependent. There's an old poll on the meta site showing that the Academia.SE demographics is (or at least was) skewed towards CS and maths, where students publishing as solo authors is much more commonplace than in physics. And even in physics it seems more common in more theoretical groups than experimental ones.
    – Anyon
    May 1 at 20:24
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 4 at 7:48
16

This is not meant as a complete answer, but as one of several observations. I may end up submitting several different answers to this question.

There is a big difference between math and physics in the way people become leaders in the field (though perhaps physics is gradually becoming more math-like in this). In physics, it seems to me that everyone agrees what the big important problems are, and one becomes a leader by solving (or making substantial progress) one of these problems. In math, there are some big problems one can become famous for solving, but most leading mathematicians get their status by convincing the community that the problems they can solve are important, not by solving problems that were considered important beforehand.

As a first approximation, every research mathematician is by default interested in their own problems and no one else's, and every time you convince someone else to be interested in your problem, you 'win'. Your advisees, if they become successful research mathematicians, are naturally people who will have some interest in your problems.

My general research area of algebraic combinatorics is a good example. Forty years ago it was a niche area in which only a handful of mathematicians worked. Now there is an algebraic combinatorialist in almost every sizable math department. Part of the reason for its growth is that mathematicians (for example Robert MacPherson) in other areas of mathematics respected this area and appreciated its contributions towards understanding (non-combinatorial) problems they were interested in, but in large part the growth has been because of Richard Stanley having had 60 successful PhD students, many of whom of whom went on to have PhD students of their own. As a result, Professor Stanley is famous (for a mathematician) and has been invited to speak everywhere. (He is now retired and travels a lot less.)

For me, I can certainly say I would get a lot more credit, both from my university and from my research community, for having a student who went on to a research-oriented postdoc(*) and a tenure-track position with research as significant component than I would for another several papers.

(*) My small department graduates about two PhDs per year, with about one in some area of theoretical mathematics (as opposed to applied mathematics), and, in the memory of the faculty, has never had a PhD who went on to a research-oriented postdoc in theoretical mathematics.

3
  • Thank you! very interesting comparison. When asking my question, I was indeed thinking about mathematics as a field where this should be more common. I do understand that when supervising a student, you might not be interested in a publication as much as in "creating" a new researcher with a similar mindset (i.e. having interest in your problems) because this would be sort of an investment in your future. Yet, this does not exclude co-authorship, so I suppose traditions in mathematics also play a role here.
    – sleepy
    May 1 at 20:53
  • 2
    most leading mathematicians get their status by convincing the community that the problems they can solve are important, not by solving problems that were considered important beforehand. – This is not so much different from other fields (including most of physics). The difference seems to be that finding some task that is important and arguing that it is is considered a major part of the creative work and happens in the papers.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 2 at 10:48
  • In biology, a paper doesn't make it into nature/science/cell unless it either solves an existing problem recognized to be important, or identifies a new problem, convinces people it is important AND solves.it. This second is more common because most easy ways to solve existing problems have been tried, but there are an almost infinite number of problems that could be interesting with easy solutions that have not yet been tried. May 5 at 11:43
20

I published two single-author journal articles during my PhD in a field where a PhD student publishing without their supervisor is uncommon. So uncommon, in fact, that I can't think of any other examples in my subfield.

My case is probably unusual in that by a few years into my project, I was far more of an expert in the subject than my supervisor. My former supervisor is a bit of a generalist, so this is not unusual for them. At a certain point during my PhD I started disagreeing strongly with my supervisor about what to do, which is when I started working more independently.

I actually would have been offended if I were required to put my supervisor's name on either paper, as they had negligible intellectual contributions to the papers and were even harmful to them in my opinion. My supervisor made it quite clear that the work was my own, and even stated so during my defense. (They already had tenure so I don't think they needed their name on the papers, though this could be a factor in other cases.)

From my own experience I can say there are advantages and disadvantages to publishing without one's supervisor as a PhD student.

Some researchers will have greater respect for a student who has published independently. I've been pleasantly surprised to be treated as an authority on certain subjects during my PhD. I admit that those people might just be nice all around, but I didn't see most students getting that sort of treatment.

Unfortunately there are people who are suspicious of more independent students. One reviewer brought up the fact that I was a PhD student publishing without my supervisor in their review, as if such a thing were something to be suspicious of. They did not elaborate about what they found suspicious, but in my response I wrote that they are welcome to ask the editor to contact my supervisor if they believe I had not credited others sufficiently. I've also been warned to emphasize successful collaborative work on my CV and cover letters when applying to jobs, as some people will assume that I'm hard to get along with if I work independently too much.

I personally prefer to work more independently. I think the current research environment incentivizes collaboration far too much. I see a lot of groupthink/lowest commmon denominator type thinking in much of heavily collaborative work. Good ideas are avoided too often simply because they are unfamiliar to most people whose approval is needed. Good research often comes from unfamiliarity.

That's not to say that collaboration is often bad, just that it's too often bad. I fully agree that certain projects are impossible without collaboration. But given the choice, I'd bias my own work towards what an individual can handle, which I think is more than most believe.

3
  • 3
    +1 your penultimate paragraph is excellent food for thought, thank you.
    – astronat
    May 2 at 6:11
  • 3
    I think what you wrote has a few valid points, but it misses the main point of my question: why would your supervisor hire you in the first place. I still suppose, guessing on your story, that they were hoping to publish with you in the beginning but due to strong disagreements you mention, the solution was found to let you publish alone and basically let it go.
    – sleepy
    May 2 at 12:55
  • 2
    @sleepy While I can't speak for my former supervisor, I do believe that they would have preferred that I published with them. With respect to my supervisor's motivation, I would guess that they view hiring as a numbers game; you can't "win" them all but if you have enough researchers, you will get enough wins. They probably shrugged my case off like they surely shrugged off previous students of theirs who quit, no fault of my supervisor.
    – JEs9X
    May 2 at 20:14
15

Experimental sciences are the exception. Research in them usually requires funding for materials and lab equipment, which limits the intellectual freedom a student can have.

I did my PhD somewhere between theoretical computer science and bioinformatics. Research was usually done in small informal groups, because there were no significant expenses apart from salaries and travel. Students were seen as junior colleagues. PhD students and their supervisors naturally published many papers together, as they were discussing their research daily. Later in their PhDs, students often had other collaborations that did not involve the supervisor.

One key feature of theoretical computer science is that the papers are "small". If you have a side project that yields promising results, you can often turn that into a single-author paper with a reasonable effort. I had two such papers during my PhD, which was uncommon but not that rare.

Now I work in bioinformatics, where the focus is on "bigger" papers that require more effort. Students still have plenty of intellectual freedom, but even the side projects are so big that coauthors keep accumulating and eventually the supervisor gets involved too.

Many of my friends in social sciences and humanities were independent researchers from day 1 of their PhD. They did not have as much supervisors as mentors, who were much less involved in their research than what is common in STEM fields. I guess that's the nature of the fields. While STEM students spend most of their undergraduate and master's degrees studying an established body of knowledge, students in social sciences and humanities spend more time learning how to do research.

Research involving extensive field work probably has other mechanisms in play, but I'm not familiar with such fields.

1
  • 2
    +1 for social scientists spend longer learning how to do research. I often feel that in my field (also bioinformatics/computational biology, but the more applied side), students arrive relatively underdeveloped as researchers and have only 4 years to get a PhD. May 2 at 12:51
9

I think you have fallen victim to a false dichotomy:

I published one single-author paper during my PhD and one afterwards on a project that already started during my PhD, both in a field where this is unusual (though not an experimental one). However before doing so, I also published five papers with my PhD advisor, three as a first author. These papers went exactly as you describe: The research was outlined by the principal investigators of my research project (including my PhD supervisor), thoroughly supervised, and they contributed strongly to the writing process. That’s how I learnt how to perform and publish research of my own.

My single-author papers differed from the collaborative papers as they originated from my own ideas (both times recognising a lack of methods). My supervisor supported me working on these projects, and these contributed to the overarching research project that paid my salary. My supervisor wasn’t an author of these papers as he couldn’t contribute to them – most of them was executing the original idea. Also, thanks to my previous collaborative publishing experience, I could handle the writing process on my own as well. (Of course, I made use of internal peer review both by my supervisor and other colleagues.)

Performing and publishing a small research project¹ this way is something that I think every PhD student on the verge of graduation should be able to do. After all, that’s what a PhD ideally certifies: the ability to independently perform research. However, this doesn’t mean that all graduating PhD students should work like this all of the time or even most of the time. It does not suffice that the PhD student is capable of publishing a single-author paper, but you they also need to have an idea that works, can be realised within a sufficiently short time, does not require extra resources and does not digress too much from what they are paid for. Still, we probably see fewer such papers than we should on account of supervisors forcing themselves on papers, students prematurely adding them to avoid conflict or not knowing any better.

Finally, mind that there are also differences between fields of what makes for (ethical) authorship. To quote a comment by Alexander Woo:

An advisor might say "try this method" or "maybe this paper I've only looked at the abstract of might be relevant" or "what you suggest can't work because of this result in this paper which you should read", none of which quite counts as working with the student on the problem but is more than "here is your problem".

Depending on the field, these kind of contributions (posing the problem, choosing and refuting methods) are the main creative work, whereas the execution is mere legwork. By contrast, in some subfields of mathematics, only performing a proof and similar seems to be considered worthy of authorship. Something similar applies to the writing process: For example, in most fields context embedding, motivation, arguing for relevance are crucial parts of a paper and properly writing those requires some skill that can arguably be only learnt on the job, i.e., in collaboration with the supervisor. By contrast, there are subfields of mathematics where papers are almost completely devoid of these parts, but consist almost exclusively of definitions, theorems, and proofs.


¹ Mind that this already excludes fields, in which small research projects are not a thing and every project requires several people.

4
  • True, an experienced PhD student close to graduation sometimes might be capable of performing their own research and publishing alone. I should have mentioned that my question is not exactly about those cases. However, even there I am not quite sure why you said "My supervisor [...] couldn’t contribute to them"; was it completely different field outside of their expertise, or maybe they simply did not want to?
    – sleepy
    May 2 at 13:01
  • 1
    @sleepy: I should have mentioned that my question is not exactly about those cases. – And what do you conclude from that? If people cannot publish on their own anyway, …, well, they can’t. — was it completely different field outside of their expertise, or maybe they simply did not want to? – As I said, after conception, the rest was execution, and there was no point in them (instead of me) doing that. There simply was no good opportunity for them to help me.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 2 at 13:25
  • 2
    Mathematics is weird is that standards for authorship usually differs in an advisor-student context than outside of one. There are definitely contributions that would merit coauthorship if one were not the advisor of the other author but does not if one is the advisor. May 2 at 15:45
  • @AlexanderWoo: While this certainly happens, I think the claim that standards for authorships usually differ between these situations, is too general. I think that it depends a lot on the people involved, and also on the country where the PhD is done. May 3 at 0:21
6

If I understand correctly, the OP's question is mainly:

"Why would a researcher support PhD students without the benefit of writing papers with them?" (Where "support" can mean a number of things, such as hiring and supervising students in the first place, "allowing" them to publish on their own, encouraging them to publish on their own, and so on.)

Disclaimer: As mentioned in a comment, I am not completely sure whether I interpret the focus of the OP's question correctly, so let me specify that this answer refers to the presumed question that I marked in bold above.

A lot of important things have already been mentioned in other answers and comments (in particular, the dependency on the field), but I think in order to specifically answer the question, it is important to point out the following observation:

The question is based on the premise that the only primary goal of a researcher is to maximize their paper output (where "paper output" is probably a - somewhat individual - function of both qualitiy and quanitity, and in some fields also of the position within the list of authors).

However, this premise is incorrect.

The actions of human beings (rumour has it that even some scientists are human beings...) depend on various intrensic and extrinsic motivations and - most importantly - on the very complex mixture and interplay between the both.

Here is a non-comprehensive lists of goals that, say, a professor at a research university might (or sometimes might not) seek to achieve (in arbitrary order):

  • Make for a living, i.e., earn sufficient (what ever this means) money and/or retain a high amount of job security.

  • Gain and retain social esteem (including self-esteem, esteem by their family and friends, by colleagues and collaborators, their students, their university, their wider scientific community, sometimes even by complete strangers, and so on).

  • Enhance scientific progress in their specific subfield(s).

  • Promote their subfield(s) and, in particular, those parts/theories within their subfield(s) that they are particularly fond of (for instance, because they think a theory is particularly important, or because they consider it "their" theory, "their baby", "their legacy", or whatever.)

  • Make a contribution to solving problems that human societies are facing.

  • Have fun during their work.

  • Develop and study exciting ideas.

  • Collaborate with other people (most humans like social interactions, at least to a certain extent, on collaborations are one kind of social interaction).

  • Retain sufficient spare time to spend with their family, their hobbies, etc.

  • Behave what they consider ethical.

Co-authoring papers is not an end on itself; instead, it can be seen as one of several means that are instrumental to pursue some of the goals listed above (and probably also further goals). In fact, they are certainly a rather important mean, but there are also other things that can - and should - be done in order to achieve goals such as the ones listed above.

One of these further means is supervising PhD students, even if the supervision does not result in additional papers on the supervisors CV.

So to actually answer the question, let me discuss by a few examples how supervising students can help to achieve the goals mentioned above:

(The order is, again, irrelevant; I enumerate the points merely to facilitate later reference in case that some users wish to comment.)

  • (1) An important part of "making for a living" is to get a permanent position first (for instance, in the US this is what it typically means to "get tenure").

    In order to get such a position, co-authoring many papers is certainly helpful (at least at the paper's quality does not significantly suffer from their numbers), but hiring committees, tenure committees, etc., will also expect other things, for instance, experience in the supervision of PhD students. So supervising PhD students can mean a considerable benefit for the superviser, even of the latter does not co-author any (or not many) papers of the students.

    For people who already have permanent positions, the pressure is probably a bit less; but still it is in many cases considered as part of their job to supervise PhD students. If they don't do this, this might (or might not, depending on the circumstances) cause them considerable problems with their employer (i.e., their university).

  • (2) Supervising PhD students will often earn people social esteem from several sources: for instance, from the PhD students themselves (at least if the supervisor does a decent job), from their department, from other colleagues. Depending on the culture of the scientific field, the country, the university and even the department, the amount of esteem that a supervisor earns might even be considerably higher of their PhD students are perceived as working quite independently.

    On the other end of the spectrum, if you often claim co-authorship for contributions which are usually not considered sufficient for co-authorship within your field, precisely the opposite thing is likely to happen: You might earn contempt instead of esteem.

  • (3) An excellent PhD student will obviously be an asset for scientific progress, so if the supervisor has an execellent PhD student, they can befinit scientific progress by supporting this student. Giving excellent students the opportunity to work independently can benefit these students in various ways (and might hurt them in others, of course - it certainly depends on the situation and the people involved).

  • (4) If a PhD student specialises in the same (or a closely related) theory as their supervisor, then it will likely help to promote this theory if the student successfully pursues an academic career after their PhD. In many (though not all) cases, such a career will be supported if the student has evidence of their ability to work indepently - and papers authored by the student alone are sometimes (often?) considered as such evidence. Similary, papers that the student wrote with other collaborators, but not with their supervisor as a co-author, have a good to chance to be interpreted in the sense that "the student's ability to do research is not ultimately tied to their supervisor", which can also benefit their career opportunities.

  • (5) In order to help solving society's problems by means of scientific research, it is a reasonable course of action to choose those PhD candidates who are most likely to do an excellent job and make good contributions, rather than to choose those who are most likely to co-author papers with you.

    Also, leaving people a good amount of freedom and giving them the opportunity to work more independently, will often increase the probability for good new ideas and innovation.

  • (6) People are more likely to like their work if there's a good climate at their lab. Professors who prevent students from publishing papers on their own even if the students were perfectly up to it, are not likely to have a positive impact that climate. Professors who force their name onto articles to which they haven't contributed at all, are also unlikely to have a positive impact on that climate (at least be this particular action; of course, they might still impact the climate positively by other things they do).

    So if a professor is does such things too often, there's a non-negligible chance that this turns (or at least takes part in turning) their own lab into a place where they wouldn't like to work and where their students wouldn't like to work, either. The first of those consequence clearly has a direct negative impact on the professor's well being, while the second can have negative impacts on some others of the proefessor's possible goals discussed here (for instance, to enhance scientific knowledge, since dissatisfied students are less likely to do good work).

  • (7) Developing exciting ideas is more likely if you work with people who are able to think and work independently. But there is certainly a positive correlation between people's ability to think and work indepedently and their desire to actually do think and work indepdently. So I you like to work with students in order to develop exciting ideas, you're often better off if you supervise students you are able to think and work independently - but this will sometimes (often?) have the consequence, that those students will also expect the possibility to work independently to a certain extent.

  • (8) If you like collaborating with other people, then you do, of course, have an incentive to... well, collaborate with other people. This particular incentive is independent of the question whether this collaboration also yields an additional paper on your CV. (But surely, in many cases the prospect to get an additional paper on your CV might be another and additional incentive for a collaboration.)

    Whether a collaboration will probably result in a paper with you as co-author, depends, of course, on many things. If you supervise a PhD student, then your contribution might sometimes (though certainly not always) be of a kind which does not automatically warrant you co-authorship in some (!) scientific fields.

  • (9) If you have a lot of things to do (as professors typically have), and would still like to reserve non-zero spare time, then it is reasonable to delegate a certain amount of work. For instance, if you feel that a PhD student is up to doing a certain project mostly on their own, and that they will probably benefit from doing so, then you might choose to indeed let them do it mostly on their own.

    This will (again, often, though probably not always) reduce you're committment in terms of working hours you put into the project, since giving guidance and feedback is less time consuming than making more detailed contributions to the project. On the other hand, this might result in a paper for which you don't have a good claim to be a co-author.

  • (10) Many (not all, obviously) people prefer to keep a clean conscience - so they try not to engage in actions which they consider unethical. Some people (their percentage is certainly field dependent) do consider it unethical to write their name on a paper they contributed (almost) nothing to.

Please note that this is just a sample list (which is light years from being comprehensive); I wrote it in order to demonstrate two things:

  • Researcher do have many incentives to supervise students, even if this doesn't always yield a new paper for the supervisor.

  • In some situations, insisting on co-authorship might even be counterproductive to some (or many) of the professor's goals.

Final remarks.

  • Please also keep in mind that, while many people have a considerable interest in performing very well on their jobs and many people put a very large amount of work into achieving this, most of them have little interest in over-optimising their performance at the upper end ot the scale.

    For instance, assume you are an accomplished researcher and tenured professor, with a lot of experience and many achievements; you write many high-quality papers, are liked by your scientific community, do really enjoy your job, and like to work with your students. Then there is only very little incentive to insist on yet one more paper on your CV.

    Say, you're in such a situation and you're facing a "borderline case" of a project by one of your students, where one could well argue for or against your co-authorship, and both decisions would be unlikely to have any considerable negative impacts on anyone: in such a situation, why would you really care whether you're going to have this paper on your CV or not?

  • One more word on field dependence: What has, as far as I can see, not been emphasised in this discussion so so far, is that fields do also have different conventions on how to order the authors of a paper. For instance, in pure math, authors are almost exclusively ordered alphabetically. In more applied fields, on the other hand, authors are typically ordered to indicate how much they contributed to the paper.

    In a field where authors are ordered by contributions, there's a natural option to include authors who contributed significantly less to the paper than other authors. In a field where authors are ordered alphabetically, though, the minimal contribution in order to be recognised as a co-author will naturally be higher.

1
  • Thank you for your long and detailed response. I disagree with you on many points you mentioned, but nonetheless appreciate the effort. For example, I do believe that proper supervision of PhD students involves making creative and intellectual contributions to their work, which naturally results in co-authorship of the papers. Anyway, an interesting point about alphabetical co-authorship and higher threshold of contributions.
    – sleepy
    May 3 at 22:26
1

I published several papers as a PhD student.

  • some were together with 500 other authors, this should ring a bell to you if you are in particle physics. I value these papers the least (note that this is a personal approach: people who work in high energy physics often do not have other ways to publish as they are part of a collaboration and it is not that easy to build an accelerator and detector in your barn)
  • some were together with a smaller team, where everyone contributed something. A great way to learn how to collaborate across diverse teams.
  • some were with my advisor because we discussed topics together and his input was valuable
  • some were by myself. Out of these, I wanted to publish two that were from "me and my supervisor" but my supervisor told me "your idea is too valuable to be diluted with me as a co-author. I have all the publications I need, you do not". He was truly a role model for me (in other aspects of Academia as well)

So every kind is possible.

Now, academia being what it is (or was, 20+ years ago) - I know some people who could not publish by themselves because their supervisor insisted on being added to each publication. They were not competitive enough to send the publication anyway (and get into a conflict), so some of the publications were by "author, author and leeches". You must take that political aspect into your publication strategy (very, very much unfortunately)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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