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With pre-preprint servers readily accessible, I'm wondering if it is possible for graduate students to directly publish their work without their advisor. Is this taboo?

If a student conducts independent research whose intellectual property has been acknowledged (in writing) by the advisor to belong wholly to the student, is this sufficient permission for the student to publish independently?

For context, I've shared my findings with my faculty committee who all gave my work positive feedback, and I work in a competitive field with a risk of being "scooped". My PI manages a big lab and my paper has essentially sat on their desk for several months. Is it within my rights to publish directly ie. on bioRxiv?

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Ethically, if the intellectual content of the paper is yours you can publish it as a sole author. You need to acknowledge the help you get that doesn't rise to the level of authorship.

However, in some fields, it is difficult to separate the "contributions" of people like advisors who provide an environment in which the work can be done and which couldn't be done otherwise. In some of those fields, the advisor is traditionally also an author of all work. Some will disagree with this convention (I'm one), but it exists.

It is also, for a student or often a postdoc, a mistake to anger a supervisor as they have power over individuals that can be, and too often is, misused. So, you need to analyze your situation and act in your best interests. You may need to accept a less-than-optimal solution if it advances your career and gets you to the point of independence.

If you don't know how your advisor would react to your publishing without them, then it would be useful (essential) to find out, perhaps with a conversation with them in which you can judge their reaction.

What is ethical and what is optimal, or even advisable, may not align.

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I think the question in the title has been answered by others on this and past threads.

I think it's worth noting that if the paper has sat on your advisors desk, then it is already somewhat implicit that they will be a coauthor on the paper. Thus, acting unilaterally to post the paper to a preprint server and/or trying to publish it yourself might be viewed differently by your advisor than if you had written and submitted the paper completely without their input or knowledge.

In any case, the best thing to do is talk with your advisor. Even if you can ethically publish the paper yourself, dealing with the fallout of an upset advisor may not be in your interest. If your advisor is reasonable they won't hold such a conversation against you, and if they are unreasonable, then the consequences of having such a conversation are likely to be much smaller than the consequences of publishing the paper without them.

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In general it is very good for students to publish single-authored papers. If you later apply for a position, people studying your application will not have to wonder which part of the work you did.

Your advisor's career might benefit marginally from being a coauthor, but it also benefits from your academic success. So even a selfish, unethical advisor should not object to you publishing independently. Only a very abusive advisor would. (Think of a certain chloroquine guru.)

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  • "Your advisor's career might benefit marginally from being a coauthor..." This really depends a lot on the career status of the advisor and the expectations is the field. Quite a few PIs feel a large pressure to publish as much as possible. And in some fields, it is unusual to publish alone as a PhD student. Jan 3 at 12:15
  • In my general field of biology, there is zero benefit to publish single author papers. First author, yes; single author, no. For someone up for a faculty position, they may benefit from authoring papers without their PhD advisor but it doesn't matter that they have other coauthors, just that they show some independence from their training.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 3 at 15:09

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