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I am a phd student in an engineering discipline at a US school and am graduating this year. I recently finished a paper and want to submit it. I sent the manuscript, which only has me listed as an author, to my advisor, letting him know I will submit it soon. His reply: "Thanks Anon, that's great. I will proofread it and let you know my comments so we can submit it asap. Please use [X] as my author affiliation" clearly indicates that he was expecting to be a coauthor on the paper.

I have gifted him authorship in the past, more than once, on papers which were 100% my contribution (idea, work, code, writing, proofreading, everything). He has never had any comments on my work, and I already know he will not have any suggestions for the paper.

I should add that during my phd, I have worked completely independently. I have tried multiple times to work with other professors, but no one has ever wanted to supervise me in any meaningful sense. The reasons given have been that they either don't believe they could supervise me, or are too busy to supervise me. It's also relevant to note that in my program you are assigned an advisor upon admission and you are expected to stay with them (or possibly add a co-advisor later). My advisor has provided funding to me (roughly 25% of my funding comes directly from him) and he has paid for some conference/travel fees. There is no need for labs, experiments, etc. in my discipline. Although he has no intellectual contribution to my research he has helped me with other things like explaining how to find a good journal to submit to, how to respond to reviewers, etc. and is also helping me with my application package.

Now for the question. I want my current paper to be a solo publication. How can I approach this in as diplomatic a way as possible?

I thought the best way to deal with this question is over email. My basic idea for my response is as follows (I have a draft response but don't want to post the quote of it).

"If you want to be an author, I will add you to the paper. One question I've been thinking about is whether it would help my future career to have a solo publication. I'm worried that other students may appear more productive because they work in large groups. I thought if I have a solo paper people will get the idea that I'm very independent and have a lot of unique ideas."

Obviously I need a good letter from my advisor, especially seeing as I don't have anyone who can write me good letters. Giving another gift authorship, when I have already done it several times, is not the hill I want to die on. At the same time, I do believe a solo paper would help me quite a bit. This paper in particular I am quite proud of and it will probably be the highest impact paper I have written yet. The cross-disciplinary flavor the paper has also appears especially impressive given the solo authorship. This paper is also totally outside of my advisor's area, whereas previous papers I gifted authorship on have been in the same general area.

I should lastly add that I do not know how he will react if he is not an author on the paper. The question has never come up before, and as far as I know all of his past students have always included him as a coauthor. I think it's possible that he will actually be supportive of the idea. Still, it's a sensitive issue and not one I want to blunder.

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  • I comment because this is opinion based and I lack the feeling of the situations and individuals. It seems that what you wrote here could be done in reality. It remains open if you should do that by email or in person. In the latter case it can be evident that is a genuine desire of you, and the supervisor can even smile - "well true, I did nothing at the end and it will be good for you..."
    – Alchimista
    Oct 24, 2021 at 7:14
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    @Alchimista, I would add that usually, e-mails are not the best way trying to resolve a conflict. It leaves too much room for misinterpretation that cannot be corrected immediately, which you could do in a face to face meeting easily. I understand why it often feels the easier way to write an e-mail, though. Oct 24, 2021 at 10:14
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    I thought that email is better here because it's a sensitive issue. I don't want to force an immediate reply or leave either us in a situation where we don't have much time to think about how to respond.
    – AnonSEuser
    Oct 24, 2021 at 10:47
  • Not an answer but ideally whenever gift authorships is a common practice you'd settle this before writing took place, not after. Citing wanting a solo paper is still valid even now but harder to navigate. Off-topic: oh how beautifully concise is the disagreement between "in-person is better" vs "email is better" in this comment section. Truly, there are only two kinds of people and they are always at odds...
    – Lodinn
    Oct 27, 2021 at 1:56

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Your situation is difficult now that you have already sent the paper to him, although this may have been completely unavoidable in your work environment. By asking for his comments (even indirectly), from a third person perspective, he read and corrected a paper which crosses into the grey zone of a contribution.

He has handled the situation very diplomatically, using an indirect pointer to be included as the author. He will "proofread" it is also a "contribution" for co-authorship.

He also probably did not see your other papers as all your work. Remember careful proofreading is also a contribution.

To enter into a diplomatic channel with him, you need to broaden your approach. Approach the situation indirectly, as follows. Ask him for a meeting to seek his opinion as advise on your future career prospects. If you are interested in continuing with him as a PostDoc, tell him that. Propose something you could do together where he can gain something, even if you are not 100% sure you want to do it. By giving him something he may want (maybe write a proposal for him?), you enter the diplomacy with a strong foot forward. Then tell him about your plans and why a single author contribution is a must for your career. Mention that in the latest draft you have included him as the author. Then mention that the standards in your career require single authorship and you would be happy to contribute in other things if you can take single authorship for this one.

The other approach is not about dividing the apple. Ask yourself your final goals. Do you want a job in industry? Maybe he has some contacts. Do you want a PostDoc? Maybe he knows someone who has a position. Often there are other ways to achieve what you want and still have him as a co-author.

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