34

To be specific, I just graduated with a Bachelor's degree, and my final project supervisor has asked me to co-author a paper with him about the subject of the project I did with his supervision.

I'd love to join the research community, and I guess this would a be good starting point, but there are two issues I'm concerned about:

  1. The first is related to the subject itself: (a) I'm not convinced of the quality of the suggested solution. (b) The project tries to solve two different problems.
  2. The second issue is that I'm not interested in the field of the project. My interest is in a different field. Though, both are related to computer science.

So, would participating in this paper do any harm to my reputation or my chances of getting into a good graduate program in the field I'm interested in?

Update:

Thank you so much for the kind answers. Almost all of you agree that the second issue is harmless, but there are different opinions regarding the first one.

So I said that my supervisor knows better, and I decided to go on and started planning the outline of the paper with his help. When I got to the writing part, I noticed that the main body doesn't relate to or even mention the main problem that we've specified. This is when I decided to decline the offer. It just doesn't feel right.

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    In terms of the perception of the academic community, I will bow to the experience and knowledge of the answers below. However, consider the cost to yourself: If you compromise to work on an uninteresting project about which you have technical reservations, will you have the fortitude to do what you love later or will others set your career path for you? – George Cummins Jun 4 '12 at 15:01
25

I somewhat disagree with the previous answers. I think it is largely improbable that publishing a paper would harm your career, but it could if, for example, it is really poor and someone happens to read it.

Eykanal in a comment to Dave Clarke said that "no one would consider holding you accountable for the content of the paper"; I recall that there is a important trend to insist that all authors of a paper should be accountable for its content.

The fact that you do not want to pursue in the direction of the paper is completely harmless, though. There is really no problem working in different areas, the only thing to be careful about is not to spread oneself efforts too much, but this does not apply here.

So the main issue is (a); here I would say that it can be difficult to judge the quality of a result, especially for an undergraduate, and I would advise to trust your advisor. So it is really, really unlikely that co-authoring this paper could do any kind of harm to your career; in fact it could do more harm to decline this opportunity, since your advisor would probably not understand and you will probably need his or her recommendation.

At the end, I do not disagree that much with other answerers; but I would be less general in my statements.

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    In fields like mine (theoretical computer science) that don't recognize a distinguished first author, all authors are responsible for the paper's content; that's what being an author means. – JeffE Jun 4 '12 at 23:18
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In short, unless there are ethical concerns, which is unlikely to be the case in computer science, then I'd say no. If you get some paper published as a Bachelor student, this demonstrates your ability to do research, which is what people in charge of admissions are interested in. If the paper gets accepted at a good venue, then this is even better.

At the current stage of your career, your main concern should be getting into a good graduate program. After you write more papers, better ones on the topic you choose, no one will even worry about that first paper.

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    To continue in this vein, you're just an undergrad, so the only effect of this paper on your reputation will be that you are able to work; no one would consider holding you accountable for the content of the paper. – eykanal Jun 4 '12 at 15:15
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    "No one would consider holding you accountable for the content of the paper." I most certainly would and do hold all authors accountable for the content of their papers. – Pete L. Clark Jun 5 '12 at 5:33
11

Yes, participating in a research paper could harm your reputation/career.

But it's very unlikely, as long as you take basic precautions:

  • Avoid quack journals, crank journals, and the like
  • Avoid ethical breaches (plagiarism, fraudulent data)
  • Avoid co-authoring with known cranks

As to your specific issue: "I'm not convinced of the quality of the suggested solution." - if it does indeed solve the problem, then publishing is fine. If it may not, then you need to work things through with your co-author until you agree on whether or not it does solve the problem.

9

Unless the paper to be published is plagiarized from a different source, I can't think of a case where a publication (in any field, even if its not related to your future field of research) would affect your career negatively in any way. Sure, if the quality/stature of the venue where this is published is not too high, few would take this paper seriously, but even then, it would be better than no publications at all (seeing that you are just completing a Bachelor's degree - my advice would have been completely different had you been a grad student, where the expectations are a lot higher).

2

Short answer, it is very unlikely that it will hurt you.

If you submit a paper to a conference, you get to see the reviews that will tell you what needs to be improved or not. If in the end it was accepted while being a low quality paper, it is the conference committee's problem not yours.

In researchers' profiles, you can write down: "Selected publications" instead of putting the whole list. Most of the time people will just appreciate that you've written a paper, and even more so if it is at a reputable conference. No one has the time to read the paper unless he/she is actually interested in the topic. There's no sort of "Hall of Shame" for publications.

You will learn, that's for sure. It is very unlikely that it will hurt you.

2

Minimum conditions for ensuring this - or any other - paper doesn't hurt your career:

  • The research findings must be sound. don't get tempted into writing, or being listed as a co-author for, papers presenting research when you're "not convinced about the quality" of the research findings; or 'fluffy' papers which don't really present much at all; or mere rehashes of other results etc.
  • The paper must be relatively well-written - both in terms of language and in terms of structure and narrative flow. Now, I say 'relatively' because this is often hard to get right with the pressure of time and page limits; and with English not being the native language of most researches. So, readers will be somewhat tolerant about this point - but if you write something that is just very hard to follow, or in very poor English, that doesn't reflect well on you.
  • Unfortunately, attention must be paid to the venue of publication. I must first qualify that... obviously some publications are more highly-regarded w.r.t. their filtering process and the typical quality of articles they carry, and some less so. The thing is, I believe one should not assume that if a paper is published in a 'weaker' journal, that necessarily means it's bad - and if someone is evaluating your qualifications as an academic they should bother to skim the paper itself and make up their own mind. That doesn't always/often happen, so people may well judge your work by looking at where you've published. Of course, this is not something binary ("good" journals and "bad" journals, or conferences) - but having mostly obscure venues in your list of publications does reflect poorly on you, and in some fields I guess there are venues you should actively avoid even at the price of no publication.

    Having said all that - for your first publication, as long as it's not a disreputable venue, it doesn't matter much. Most people "start out small".

The last point, about venues, is also a sort of a safety guarantee for you: If you submit a paper to a conference or journal with a good peer-review process, and you're accepted, then it's highly likely that your paper is actually pretty good, and even more likely that it will reflect favorably on you (the converse is not necessarily true of course; lots of good papers get rejected).

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