About a year ago, I quit my PhD in mathematics. At the time, I was working on a project given to me by my former advisor. His contributions were as follows:

  1. Explaining the basic idea of the project, along with a few aspects of the problem that might cause difficulty
  2. Providing some papers on the subject that explain the background in more detail
  3. A few short (~10 minute) conversations regarding one or two details in those papers
  4. One half-hour conversation about a detail that neither of us could understand

Aside from these, I didn't receive any help on the parts of the proof that I finished before quitting. As far as I can tell, none of my former advisor, any of his students, or anyone else in the field has done any work towards completing the proof I was given.

Would it be inappropriate for me to finish the proof on my own, and submit it as a single-author paper?


The stuff that you list all falls into "advising research students", and in mathematics mere advising tasks are generally not considered to merit co-authorship. As such, a single-author paper is a reasonable outcome.

On the other hand, just running with the idea communicated to you in person by your advisor on your own might be a bit rude. Checking in with them whether there is anyone else working on this, and whether they mind you completing the project on your own would be the nicer alternative. If the details of you quitting your PhD are such that you don't want to be nice to them that much, still considering informing them of your intentions. If they eg intend to challenge your right to single-authorship, it will be better for you if that happens prior to submission.

  • 6
    A nicely balanced answer. None of those points of the OP suggest contributions to the solution, just understanding the problem. If you provide a solution to the Riemann Hypothesis, Riemann doesn't become a co-author, nor does your third grade teacher become an author of every math paper. Acknowledgement is probably essential, though. (Maybe not for your third grade teacher, I guess.)
    – Buffy
    Jan 7 at 12:41

I will contribute an answer for the worst case scenario, in which you quit your PhD with a bit of bad blood with your former PhD advisor. I presume that otherwise you wouldn't even be asking that question.

The contributions by your PhD advisor would not suffice for their co-authorship if you were senior academics on equal level. If you are a PhD student in mathematics or physics, your advisor gets authorship as means of payment for not sabotaging your PhD and writing letters of recommendation for you.

I also doubt that your PhD advisor would be motivated to contribute any proofreading or original ideas, since PhD advisors rarely do that even with their students.

If they don't have any leverage on you any further, you don't need to bother about them. You also don't need to care whether anyone in their group is working on the topic, since that's just ordinary competition; sometimes researchers get scooped.

That being said, you should invest some rereading and rewriting to match the writing style of your scientific community, if you happen to be "out of the flow".

  • 1
    "If you are a PhD student in mathematics or physics, your advisor gets authorship as means of payment for not sabotaging your PhD and writing letters of recommendation for you." As a PhD supervisor in mathematics I would like to know where you got this impression?
    – Yemon Choi
    Jan 9 at 17:31

Yes, it would be inappropriate to finish and publish this on your own. You should contact your former advisor: they should probably be offered authorship of a resulting paper. If they decline (a realistic possibility) you are free to continue on your own.

Also, their help may prove valuable. Having somone experienced to check and improve the paper before submitting it to a journal may help getting it published.

  • It's unrealistic they'd decline authorship even if they did nothing on the paper.
    – Ambicion
    Jan 9 at 14:59
  • @Ambicion Maybe they actually deserve authorship, and although we hear a lot of bad stories about academia, most people are honest.
    – Louic
    Jan 9 at 15:34

I think you are asking the wrong question. Without an academic affiliatuon getting accepted for publication will not be easy. You may want to contact your professor for this reason.

  • Doesn't weigh in on whether anybody deserves coauthorship.
    – Ambicion
    Jan 9 at 15:00
  • @Ambicion the norms of coauthorship are dependent on the field. The point im making, is that regardless of who deserves coauthorship, the question is irrelevant unless you can get the thing published, the question is moot.
    – camelccc
    Jan 9 at 16:30

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