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Context

  • Under my mentor's guidance and support, I've been working on a paper that has really bloomed.
  • It is exciting technically and scientifically - the technology invented and the new findings it uncovered are both novel and impactful.
  • My mentor really pushed me to add additional analysis and the paper improved under their rigor.
  • Over the course of a year, we met with a number of experts to discuss our findings and they have been nothing but supportive.
  • Skeptical at first, my mentor came around to accept the results (after talking to said experts and validating the results using orthogonal datasets) and we began discussing which journal to send this to.

Problem

  • Without much warning, my mentor withdrew their name from the paper. The reason cited is they feel the work belongs to me and they claim it is only fair I am the corresponding author.
    • As a graduate student, I know I cannot publish without my mentor's support.
    • More seriously, I know I cannot graduate without a paper including my supervisor.
    • If it were lack of confidence in the results, we spent nearly a year talking and confirming with experts + validating with orthogonal analysis to confirm our results.
    • This was clearly supported by my mentor since its inception and I am confused they would pull out as the project is nearing completion.
    • Lastly, when I tried to engage with my supervisor to hear their concerns (via a meeting), they deflected - saying no need, citing again this work belongs to me.
    • I considered at length if I offended my supervisor, as this felt like a punishment somehow; I apologized for what I thought were wrongdoings, but again was told this was not part of their concern.

I suspect the underlying reason is not what my supervisor told me. I am also confused they won't engage with me. They are extremely senior and there is no point talking to my PhD program director (who is not in a position to direct my supervisor). What is the right thing to do now!?

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  • 8
    I agree you cannot graduate without your advisor's support, but I don't understand why you say publishing with them as a coauthor is necessary. Is this some unique requirement for your program?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 14 at 5:45
  • 3
    Have a look at this recent discussion. Does that answer your question? If not, can you explain the reason why you believe you cannot publish or graduate without having the supervisor as a coauthor? Consider the possibility that those beliefs aren’t quite as true as you believe them to be.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 14 at 5:47
  • The link specifies the realm of pure mathematics, and my field is life sciences. Additionally, this comment resonates with me: "Not having his name on the paper will surely affect its chance of acceptance." The answers there seem to assume the merit of the work will stand on its own and publishing independently will not detract from its impact or value.
    – rtsodam
    Jan 14 at 6:01
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    The simplest explanation is that your supervisor feels that you have done enough work on the paper to merit solo authorship and that having a strong solo paper would benefit your future career. Everything that you wrote is consistent with this, and in my opinion you present no reason to "suspect the underlying reason is not what [your] supervisor told [you]". Your interpretation of this as a punishment of some sort rather than an effort to boost your career is not supported by the information you gave us in your question. Jan 14 at 15:48
  • @rtsodam sure, the life sciences are different from mathematics in some ways, but you still haven’t explained why you can’t graduate without a paper coauthored with your supervisor, or why you believe that our assumption that papers are primarily judged for their merits and not for their author list isn’t valid in the life sciences. Do you have any concrete evidence supporting those beliefs? The fact that something someone says “resonates with you” isn’t evidence, it’s just a feeling, and feelings can easily mislead us to believe things that simply aren’t true.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 14 at 16:38
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Some of your assumptions are wrong:

As a graduate student, I know I cannot publish without my mentor's support.

There is a difference between not having your mentor's support and not having them as a coauthor. From they way you describe the interactions with your mentor they are very much supportive of you publishing this paper. They just feels that they didn't contribute to this work significantly enough to merit inclusion as a coauthor. This is a very ethical stance. (If their main contribution to the work is pushing your for further rigor by their skepticism, this is not an unreasonable position.)

More seriously, I know I cannot graduate without a paper including my supervisor.

Does your institute/university have this as an explicit requirement for your PhD? I'm skeptical because I've never heard of a university imposing such a requirement. None of my papers during my PhD were coauthored by advisor. Not because he disagreed with them, but simply because he rarely published with his students.

1
  • This. There are plenty of reasons to not want your name on a paper, from ethical concerns to just not being all that interested in furthering that result everyone else seems to like a lot.
    – Lodinn
    Jan 15 at 6:08
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You could consider to add a footnote to your name stating that you are the corresponding author, and still include the name of your supervisor on the paper (if they agree).

Detailed answer:

In the life sciences, the first author is usually the one who did most of the experimental research and analyses, and (usually) also most of the writing. The last author is usually the supervisor and (explicitly or implicitly) marked as corresponding author.

The "corresponding author" is (quite literally) the person who will answer any questions about the paper because they are expected to be in the best position to do so. The reason for this is that, importantly, the corresponding (last) author is the one who came up with the idea or hypothesis, decided on the research goal and possibly the methods to reach it, or otherwise made the largest intellectual contribution to the paper (*1).

Given the description in your question your supervisor is right and you indeed deserve to be the corresponding author. Besides being the one who would potentially be contacted, being listed as corresponding author can be a big advantage for your career: you get the credit not just for executing the work but it acknowledges your substantial intellectual contributions to the idea itself and the design/planning etc. (in other words: the things that would usually be done by your supervisor).

Therefore your best course of action is to accept this generous (and probably well deserved) offer.

Option 1: Leaving out the name of your supervisor will most likely not have any negative consequences. I seriously doubt that having your supervisor as co-author is a strict requirement for your graduation (you should check that and discuss it with your supervisor).

But there is an other solution.

Option 2 (recommended): Publish with their name on the paper and add footnote to your own name, stating that you are the corresponding author. If your supervisor accepts, this may be the best option.


(*1) for people from other fields: in life sciences, setting a realistic research goal may be the hardest part of the research: it requires detailed knowledge of the extremely complex systems that are being studied, as well as thorough knowledge of the available methods that might lead to an answer

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  • "You could consider to add a footnote to your name stating that you are the corresponding author, and still include the name of your supervisor on the paper (if they agree)." It seems clear that no, they do not agree. Anyhow, papers must always have a corresponding author, don't they? Jan 14 at 15:47
  • @tensors_are_4_engineers (1) the supervisor may not be aware of this possibility. (2) the supervisor clearly stated they have withdrawn their name from the paper with the purpose to give the credit to the first author. If there is an other way to achieve this, they may prefer that solution. (3) the footnote labels OP (presumably also the first author) as the corresponding author, so the paper will have a corresponding author. (4) my answer also has option 1, in case they do not agree to option 2. (5) I have been in a similar situation and this was the solution.
    – Louic
    Jan 14 at 17:08

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