20

I'm doing a PhD on theoretical physics. The last months, I'm working on a paper that my supervisor is not aware of. I'm now finishing the paper. The idea of the paper is closely related to my PhD thesis and previous research papers that I have written with my supervisor and colleagues. My question is that I do not know if I should tell my supervisor about this paper. I understand that I have been helped from our collaboration. However for all of the papers that I have written, I have done most (basically ALL) of the hard part, being the calculations in my case, and I have discussed the physics as well as writing the whole paper. My advisor did not help me at all with that. In all of my published work, my advisor contributed with comments and suggestions and I was okay with that, as long as I am the first author.

The fact is that I cannot stand this situation any more. All of the papers are my work and my work only. If someone comments on my work, I will very kindly include that person on the acknowledgement section. I would like to be the single author if I am actually the single author.

I do not know however if this will irritate my advisor.

Has anyone else faced the same scenario?

Edit:

After reading all these comments and suggestions, I'm going to add some more information about what the situation is exactly.

  1. There is no funding for my research. I do not get paid for what i do. I do other jobs in order to make ends meet, that have nothing to do with academia/research. Research (for me) is a side project that comes with sleep deprivation/low social activity, etc. It is still worth the struggle in my opinion.
  2. In all previous articles, my advisor's name comes next to mine.
  3. For the paper that I asked this question about, the advisor is not involved in any way. Or is involved as involved are any of the colleagues/people that I had conversations with in the past about something similar. The idea, execution, writing, explanation are all mine.
19
  • 74
    This is an odd, unhealthy, and toxic way to approach writing papers and being mentored. Why have you been hiding this paper? Do you feel like you've been mistreated by your PI? Jun 19 at 11:24
  • 14
    Again, why? That's not normal conduct. However, I am not in physics, I am in a field where the advisor's contribution to being able to conduct the study merits authorship Jun 19 at 11:31
  • 18
    Put yourself in the position of your professor. You have a student that you have mentored and collaborated with on several papers, and yes all the hard work may have been done by the student, but so what? Then the student starts writing papers on the same subject and you are not even aware of that? How would that make you feel? You (= @ApolloRa) should have a conversation with your professor and apologise for this. Whether or not he wants to change things and become co-author is not the main issue. Restoring the broken trust is the issue. Jun 19 at 12:03
  • 13
    In my experience, it is typical in physics for the first author to do a majority of the work, and the last author to serve in a supervisory role. The supervisor might check results, or suggest research directions, or offer insight when the project is stuck. But they are certainly not expected to get their hands dirty with detailed calculations or programming. This is generally recognized, so your supervisor adding themselves on as a last author will not give others a mistaken impression of who contributed to a project. Jun 19 at 19:59
  • 8
    I'll also add that an advisor being "hands off" is not (necessarily) a bad thing. In many cases, your advisor may be able to solve the calculation you are working on much faster than you, but they are allowing you to solve it yourself so that you both grow as a researcher and legitimately earn the first-author position on a paper. Jun 19 at 20:02

10 Answers 10

29

I would like to be the single author if i am actually the single author. I do not know however if this will piss my advisor off. Has anyone had faced the same scenario?

Yes, many people have shared this scenario. Usually, in my humble opinion, it is based on unjustified entitlement students have, and possessive and envious emotions humans have in general. The reason I say they are unjustified in general is that unless your paper is a groundbreaking piece of science that will be remembered for eternity of ages, there is almost practically no reason to insist on being the "single" author. If you feel emotionally incapable of gifting your supervisor papers that you feel he/she hasn't contributed enough to, you should start in my opinion by letting them know you are not happy with their supervision or demand to be included as co-authors. Of course, this will offend the supervisor, and may risk completely ruining your relationship with them, because like you, they have emotions of possessiveness and jealousy.

EDIT: Following the comments, I add this simple practical advice: I think that in your case, for practical reasons, you can tell your supervisor that for this specific work you might want to have a single authorship because it will be nice to show you're an independent researcher. If you say that nicely and gently it may be okay and won't hurt much your relationship, but convey the boundary of your relationship in the future.

18
  • 6
    If you feel emotionally incapable of gifting your supervisor papers that you feel he/she hasn't contributed enough to, you should start in my humble opinion by letting them know you are not happy with their supervision or demand to be included as co-authors. THIS IS EXACTLY HOW I FEEL. So what is your suggestion? Is there any way that i can say this kindly enough to not ruin the relationship?
    – user120905
    Jun 19 at 13:17
  • 26
    Yes, I think you can tell them simply that for this specific work you might want to have a single authorship because it will be nice to show you're an independent researcher. If you say that nicely and gently it may be okay.
    – Dilworth
    Jun 19 at 15:32
  • 12
    This may depend a bit by field. In some fields, single-author papers count much more than jointly-authored papers when it comes to finding another position.
    – cag51
    Jun 19 at 19:00
  • 5
    @cag51, the field is physics. And it is almost always the case that good social-emotional connection to people trumpets 'objective' measures, to some extent at least.
    – Dilworth
    Jun 19 at 19:03
  • 7
    Purely in terms of academic integrity you shouldn't be "gifting" anyone authorship of papers for any reason. If you're an author on a paper you should have made a substantial contribution to it! Simply being the supervisor of the person who wrote it, IMHO, doesn't meet that criteria if you had nothing to do with a specific paper. Jun 21 at 13:11
25

Not sure about physics but in many other fields, it is very natural to have some solo-authored papers during PhD years. My advisor is super busy with huge piles of papers on his desk, and is usually reluctant to have too much collaboration and discussion with advisees beyond his advising obligation.

I personally prefer collaboration, but this is what I will do if I badly want a solo author paper:

  1. During casual chatting with my advisor, say: "I recently wrote down some new findings and would like to submit a paper soon, it is about XYZ"

  2. If my advisor is interested, I will ask if he has a bit time to skim through the paper. If he is not interested, I will continue the chat with topics that he has been interested in, and submit the paper by myself.

  3. If he agrees to read the paper, I will put my paper on his piles with my own name on it.

  4. If he indeed reads the paper and gets back to me with a lot of enthusiastic suggestions and deep ideas, then we will usual have a long, formal discussion on how this project will be proceed. We will discuss questions like "shall we split the ideas into multiple papers", "shall we invite more collaborators", "how should the works to be split if you agree to coauthor", "what are the next steps". In this case, the benefits of incorporating his contribution out-weight the benefits of solo-authoring almost surely.

  5. If he is not interested enough to actually read the paper or he only provides some generic comments that are easy to deal with, then, after polishing the paper, I will send him a final version and ask him if he is fine with me just submit it as it. If this happens, my advisor never demanded to put his name onto the paper.


Re: does a student have the right to publish independently when the advisor makes no contribution?

In my humble opinion, if supervisors insist to add their name onto a paper that they made no contribution, then, another complicated question is involved: what count as contribution?

In (rare) case people believe providing research fund, supplying data, providing experimental instruments count as contribution, then the supervisors contributed to the paper and naturally have the rights of putting names on it.

If the PhD student is funded by department or outside scholarships, and the student did not use any resources or facilities provided by the supervisor, and the supervisor has no other contribution, then, adding their name is not very ethical in my opinion.

3
  • 2
    Thank you so much for your answer! It is really helpful!
    – user120905
    Jun 19 at 18:19
  • 1
    This answer shows skill in handling men in authority over you. But it doesn't really confront the main issue here, the "right" of OP to publish independently of his supervisor when the latter makes no contribution to the published work.
    – Trunk
    Jun 20 at 18:13
  • 2
    If people believe that providing research fund, supplying data, providing experimental instruments count as contribution, – You might want to add that, while there are certainly people who believe this, these things do not count according to common authorship ethics.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 21 at 13:39
11

Yes, you should probably, almost certainly, tell them. It is courteous, if nothing else, to do so and the issue of whether they want to be, or should be, co-authors is completely separate from that. There is also the issue of whether having them (and their implied reputation) as a co-author could benefit you (or not).

I'd guess that the supervisor shares things with you and it might leave you pretty stuck if they never did and refused to.

But beyond that, it seems like you are putting yourself into a very small box in a field in which wide collaboration can be very beneficial. Some people can work alone and be productive, but even Einstein corresponded with and shared ideas with a fairly wide set of people. This was true before he earned his doctorate as well and was helpful in developing Special Relativity (at least).

The standards for who should be a co author are fairly clear and, yes, often abused, but you haven't indicated that. Asking whether they should be is quite different from insisting on it and threatening retaliation otherwise, which sometimes happens. "Suggesting improvements" can merit either an acknowledgement or co-authorship depending on how it impacts the intellectual contribution of the paper.

11
  • Thank you for your answer. After writing the question and thinking on it i also came to the conclusion that informing and co-authorship are two different things. I myself consider that comments are not co-authorship. I commended on at least 6 papers of collegues, it never crossed my mind that i should be a co-author because i checked a calculation they did. The added me in the acknownledgment section and i was very happy and ok with that. Even if the did not included me its fine with me.
    – user120905
    Jun 19 at 12:42
  • 13
    In math and perhaps other theoretical fields, a five minute conversation over coffee can change the essence of a paper, certainly warranting co-authorship of what comes of it. Time is not the measure. Ideas are.
    – Buffy
    Jun 19 at 12:44
  • 3
    Each case is different. But if you've worked on something for a long time and someone else give you an a-ha moment on the crux of the problem it might warrant co-authorship, and probably would in math, at least. Probably other theoretical fields. Maybe even applied fields. Again, time isn't the measure. Einstein isn't celebrated because he took ten years to come up with Special Relativity. He is celebrated for the idea itself.
    – Buffy
    Jun 19 at 12:52
  • 7
    Throwing away the paper seems sub optimal and self defeating. I once attended a workshop on self-defeating behavior and it changed my life to a degree. Relax, at least.
    – Buffy
    Jun 19 at 13:01
  • 6
    Right: time spent is not the measure. Experienced people often can be much faster at certain (useful) things, because they've done them many times before. In my part of mathematics, a suboptimal version of a "computation" can take months or years, while a peculiar and unobvious concept makes the outcome "obvious" (for people who know the trick). In some regards, that's the whole "trick" of expertise: being able to do seemingly ghastly-labor-intensive things "by pure thought", as they say. :) Jun 20 at 1:22
11

I do not know however if this will irritate my advisor.

I don’t know about your particular supervisor, but if I were them, I would be irritated by your approach so far for three reasons:

  • You have not consulted me as to whether your new work was a worthy use of your time. What if I could have told you within minutes that you are re-inventing the wheel or that I know somebody who already attempted what you are doing and failed? What if the outcome of your work is obvious for some reason you are not considering or otherwise completely irrelevant? Or what if there are important implications of your results that you are missing?

    Your approach is not only inefficient but also implies a great lack of trust in my supervision. Even if your supervisor deserves this a lack of trust, you obviously want to consider whether you want to let them know this way.

  • Similarly to the above, your behaviour also indicates a lack of trust on my guidance on procedural questions (as opposed to subject-specific questions), such as whom to include as an author or where to submit your manuscript. For example, what if you completely underestimated the relevance of your work and thus undersold it? Or what if you neglected to include a third person as an author?

  • In many academic systems, you have to report to me because I am your boss in an employment sense or because of some rule of your PhD programme. You are obliged to tell me what you are doing with your work time and I need to know for various reasons. There is probably something else that I expect you to work on. So, unless you did all the work in question in your free time, why am I learning about this only now?

I have worked on several solo projects leading to single-author publications while under different supervisors, and every time my supervisor knew early on that I was working on a topic of my own and what that topic was. The only exception was a very short paper that I completely did in my free time and was completely unrelated to my main work and my supervisor’s expertise.

Mind that all of the above already applies if your supervisor does not insist on an undeserved co-authorship. Finding out whether they do is a delicate task (also see this question and High GPA’s answer), but submitting the paper without their knowledge is certainly not the best way to do this.

However for all of the papers that I have written, I have done most (basically ALL) of the hard part, being the calculations in my case, and I have discussed the physics as well as writing the whole paper.

The way you are writing this has a smell of you being mistaken about what constitutes (ethical) authorship. I am by no means certain on this, but please honestly consider this and if possible consult somebody in your field on this.

Particularly, it surprises me that you consider calculations the hard part of your work. While calculations may be the central and time-consuming part of your work, they are usually only legwork and not where the scientific innovation happens (though your mileage may vary depending on your subfield). Instead, the central part of the innovation is something like: “Let’s try to make progress on [overarching question] by considering [scenario] and calculating [thing].” or: “Can we use [something] to calculate [thing], which is often needed?”.

You did not write who was responsible for this part of your work. Did some other publication say that somebody should calculate what you calculated? Did this arise from your PhD topic (which probably was laid out by your supervisor to at least some extent)? Is there any conceptual innovation at all? As a peer reviewer, I have successfully recommended to reject papers that contained tons of difficult calculations on the basis that they utterly failed to motivate them.

10
  • 1
    Thank you for your time to answer this question. I disagree with most of your suggestions and comments. There are other things that i have not shared in the original question that i though were unnecessary. Some of them: no one pays me to do my PhD, i have to work other jobs in order to survive, i have already written the minimum of three papers required to complete my PhD, everything i do from now on is work for a better future. My supervisor agree with that i have finished with my PhD. However there are rules for the minimum ammount of time for a PhD to be completed in my institution.
    – user120905
    Jun 20 at 8:23
  • 4
    @ApolloRa: I can only suggest what to consider based on what you told us (and I am not saying that you told us too little). If you already considered these things or they don’t apply, good. But that doesn’t mean I was wrong to tell you to consider them. Also, the goal for answers is not only to help you but others in a similar situation.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 20 at 9:27
  • 1
    when i could not calculate what was needed, there advice was to "ok lets make the problem easier", instead of actually helping me with the calulation that i was stuck. – I am not sure how this is supposed to relate to my answer. Also, I obviously cannot judge that particular case, but two thoughts: 1) What implies a greater trust in your expertise? “ApolloRa failed to solve this; hold my beer.” or “ApolloRa failed to solve this; I will probably not find a solution ad hoc.” 2) It is a valid problem-solving technique, to make a problem easier (and hope for insights from that).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 20 at 9:39
  • 2
    @ApolloRa It sounds more like you are not recognizing the help your advisor gives you than it sounds like they are objectively unhelpful. It certainly works best when the mentorship style a student wants is the same that their advisor provides, but it doesn't make them wrong if that's not the case.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 21 at 19:24
  • 2
    @ApolloRa It's certainly okay to feel unhappy with your supervision; maybe indeed your advisor is terrible and I've gotten the wrong idea from a situation I can't know much about. However (and this applies to relationships in general: work, friends, romantic), it's often more productive to think in terms of what you want/need rather than how others are failing you, and try to communicate that. So, rather than "here's a paper draft", try "I'm stuck at this step, do you see a solution? or know if there is a name for this problem so I can search more?"
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 21 at 19:46
2

You're asking the wrong question: if you intend to publish the paper, then your supervisor will know about it. The fact that you are keeping it secret now is going to be apparent at that point. So the question really is: should your supervisor find out that you've been working independently from you, or from the arxiv/pubmed/publication repository used in your discipline? There really isn't any positive aspect from the latter, unless (perhaps) you intend to defer the publication of this paper until after you have finished your PhD and secured your next position.

It is possible to publish as sole author or last author (for non-alphabetical fields) in your PhD; it is quite field-dependent (it is more common in fields with higher publication output, lower experimental costs and flatter hierarchies). But ultimately, whether it's generally "possible" or "normal" or "acceptable" is not hugely relevant in the specific case you are in. It's impossible to know from what you wrote whether your advisor is taking advantage of your work or giving you room to develop your independence, and likewise whether you're being self-reliant or petty. But I really struggle to see a scenario in which I, as a supervisor, would be happy to find out my student has been developing a "secret" line of research specifically to exclude my authorship.

It is up to you to decide whether the benefits of this sole-author paper offset burning bridges with your supervisor (in a way that will look, to anyone who is sympathetic to them, spiteful). Do consider, however, that your opinions may be strongly coloured by your frustration with your supervisor's methods and that there may be healthier ways to address an incompatibility in supervision style than through a weird "secret revenge paper" ploy.

3
  • Theres no secret revenge paper ploy. If there is no contribution by their side why feel bad about not knowing? They are not my partner. They do not pay me, neither does the instution. Why should I tell them?
    – user120905
    Jun 20 at 12:46
  • 2
    @Apollo Wait, who pays you then?? Jun 20 at 14:33
  • 1
    No one. I do other jobs in order to survive.
    – user120905
    Jun 20 at 14:54
1

I think your university, department and supervisor have a right to know if you are publishing anything - even stuff entirely done by yourself and someone else.

This is because:

(1) You would be unlikely to have this work done had it not been that you were given a PhD studentship in the first place. Sure, I know doing a PhD shows you the cynical underbelly of academia. But we all still learn an awful lot in a short time in such systems. if nothing else we have free access to the university labs, libraries, hardware and software. And we should acknowledge this. It's a bit like parents: we can hate them for the values they espoused and the unfairnesses imposed on us growing up but they did raise us and we should respect that fact at least.

(2) The fact that the new work you are publishing is closely related to your PhD work and papers previously published under your own and your supervisor's name makes telling your supervisor more important still. Suppose someone on the editorial board of the journal knows him and mentions your paper en passant in some phone conversation ... Academics hate being left out of the loop by any student - just like senior managers hate not being invited to promotion parties of a junior manager they originally hired.

(3) If the supervisor gets mad with you over this, he'll have a lot of sympathy from the rest of the faculty. You can't go too far in academia with your department disapproving of you - at least not unless you are a sociopath or something worse.

Informing your supervisor should not be in the oblique way that HighGPA suggests. It should be frank, eye-contact communication and as a separate item in the conversation. Don't try to pull fast ones on older dogs - they have the experience to corner you.

On authorship, I feel you should stand your ground. If the supervisor presses for a co-authorship just ask him why and then agree to "think it over".

But don't go solo on this and keep your supervisor and department in the dark. That's my final advice to you - although I used to do such things at your age albeit with a total buffoon and parasite "supervisor".

1
  • Thank you for your answer. Especially for the last paragraph. Knowing that someone has been there is at least comforting. I think that i will share the draft.
    – user120905
    Jun 20 at 18:47
1

Academics in a position of greater influence and seniority do abuse their position to obtain credit for work they did not do. Victims are usually junior staff and the better post-docs, seldom PhD students. There are also academics who are extremely generous in sharing credit, often leaning backward to give the younger people the best possible resume.

So it is possible that your supervisor is of the first kind, and that you are a PhD student who is hard done by and at the very bottom of the academic abuse hierarchy. That sucks, but pissing people off will not always make things better, although sometimes you do have to throw your weight around to be respected.

You don't want to tell your supervisor you have been working on this because...? They will want to be on the paper and that will annoy you? Or they will steal the idea and publish it yourself?

You can most certainly go ahead and submit the paper. There is a chance that the handling editor and or a reviewer will talk to your supervisor, saying, "Hey, here's a person from your institute working in your field, do you know them?" - and then your supervisor (whether they are a vampire or not) will be justifiably annoyed with you.

Or you might get the thing published, but sooner or later they will find out.

All of the papers are my work and my work only.

You state this very categorically. If this is so, it is most unusual, but then your circumstances do appear to be unusual. It sounds almost as if you are pursuing your research entirely under your own steam, with the advisor on board only because this is a formal requirement for the PhD trajectory.

UK universities have an "external track" option where a person does work equivalent to a PhD these all by themselves (often as part of their professional career) and then a supervisor/advisor from the uni gets involved only at the stage of submitting the thesis to the committees etc. at that uni. The role of the supervisor/advisor is to vouch that the work is of sufficient quality to be submitted to that system, and perhaps help the candidate with bringing the work into the required form.

I am bringing this up because in this system, the quasi-administrative status of the advisor is clear, and all parties involved understand who is supposed to be doing what.

You seem to be in a situation that is effectively like that, but the supervisor in a more conventional rule.

I am extremely well versed in bringing such matters to a good conclusion, but with the details you furnish I am at a loss to guess what is going on here!

0

Story time. I was in the middle of my PhD when I had dinner with a friend of mine (we were both physicists). As we were chatting, she came up with an idea that significantly changed the orientation of my thesis - introducing brand new concepts and making it truly exceptional (in the sense of "very much different from others" :)).

It was a 5 minutes part of our 2 or 3 hours-long chat but undeniably impacting. She was vigorously thanked in my PhD.

I published two papers on that topic, I asked her if she wanted to collaborate on them. She declined (lack of time and interest) but I did thank her, again vigorously, in both papers.

Conclusion: you should discuss that with your thesis director.

You can say that you've been writing a paper and ask whether he would be interested to have a look and comment. You do not have to talk about co-authorship at all.

If he adds his name after this review, well, you are a bit stuck because the reality of this world is that you have a lot to lose and him, not much. You can of course fight and publish on your own without his involvement but as you can imagine you set yourself for a hard time until you've defended your thesis.

1
  • Thank you for your answer. Everyone else answers from the point of view of being a professor. Thank you for contributing your opinion.
    – user120905
    Jun 20 at 9:17
0

Curiously I generally have the opposite problem. I am a PhD student and I would like to have more co-authored papers with my supervisor to demonstrate teamwork ability and to improve the paper, but when I ask my supervisor if he is interested in being a co-author he just says he is too busy so sort it out and publish it by yourself if you wish to publish the results in a journal.

I honestly find it interesting that people are so against having co-authored papers with a supervisor and absolutely insist on being the only author. This insistence is generally quite meaningless in the scheme of things (almost all of Nirenberg's papers were published with collaborators and he was one of the leading mathematicians of the twentieth century).

Edit: To be more clear, a person does not have to be a co-author on your article if they did not contribute in any significant way. It does not matter if they are your supervisor. If they did not contribute, then by scientific integrity they should not be included. However, in a progress panel or something like this, you may be asked why your supervisor is not a co-author on paper X, so make sure you have a careful, diplomatic response prepared which you can give to this question which is not ''they did nothing apart from make some worthless comments''.

3
  • Never said that i'm against on having co-authored papers. If there is actual contribution then of course i would be very happy to be your co-author. If you make worthless comments then i will thank you for your time to read the paper in the acknowledgment. I clearly write "f someone comments on my work I will very kindly include that person on the acknowledgement section. I would like to be the single author if I am actually the single author.".
    – user120905
    Jun 21 at 16:13
  • If I'm reading correctly, the answer proposed here is "don't try to avoid adding your supervisor as an author."
    – cag51
    Jun 21 at 18:27
  • @user120905 I have edited and clarified my position. I have been in this situation before, so I sympathise. I think if possible try to remove anyone who has not contributed to the article if you can, but be pragmatic as you don't want to excessively delay publication when applying for jobs. Obviously, on integrity grounds, a person should not be included without contributing, but that is obvious.
    – Tom
    Jun 22 at 19:51
0

I did a theoretical physics PhD in 2006-2010 so I might be out of date on current practices but I had a similar issue. I'm in the UK btw.

My supervisor wasn't around my entire 2nd year and both myself and her other student were left rather "high and dry". I resolved to do everything myself (after a bit of a dip in my motivation, to be honest) and eventually published a pretty lengthy paper solo. The total input she had was when I submitted it to a journal I gave her a copy. And I didn't mention her in it. I could tell she was surprised I'd written a paper but no question regard co-author recognition or even mention. No one else from the department raised an issue, even when I presented the paper in a weekly seminar thing we did.

If you've a good relationship then I'd, personally, say putting them front and centre in the acknowledgements is sufficient if they literally did NOTHING. I don't subscribe to the "I'm your supervisor so I get co-author on all your papers". If someone has risen to the level of responsibility to be supervising PhDs then they have a responsibility to contribute. If they do that, they get to be co-author. But simply being somewhere else in the building, not replying to emails and not giving any feedback on drafts, shouldn't be "rewarded" with another paper to their name.

From your description they have been involved but saying "you dropped a psi in equation 2.5" isn't co-author material, I'd expect a mate reading over my shoulder to tell me that stuff. If they said "Section 2 is an interesting direction but if you don't address ((issue)) you'll find you cannot make the conclusions in Section 5 justifiable to a reviewer. Here's my notes on that stuff" THEN you're into potential co-authorship but only if they followed through with you on that stuff.

Pointing people to papers/books and saying "That's not right, try again" isn't co-author worthy IMO. It's absolutely something to acknowledge but that's different - I acknowledged my house mates in my thesis!

If you struggle to even think what they actively wrote, not just told you to expand/redo, then acknowledge them, tell them of the paper when it's finished. If they're cheesed and tell you in a professional manner then respond professionally. If they don't behave professionally then you were right in the first place.

You must log in to answer this question.