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I am a STEM PhD student in the UK, and my advisor had given me a semi-ambitious thesis problem a couple of years back. He helped me understand the problem, helped shoot down all my wrong ideas over countless meetings, and also gave me lots of intuition about what the solution should look like. However, he hadn't cracked the problem himself. We didn't really expect my thesis to contain a solution to this problem.

Over the past few weeks, I was able to crack the problem at least partially. Should I ask my advisor to be co-author? There are multiple aspects to consider:

  1. Are PhD advisors generally "savvy" enough to ask to be included as co-authors when they feel they have contributed enough to a project? Is it possible that my advisor hasn't asked to be included as co-author because that's a weird question to ask one's student?
  2. Will my advisor feel offended if I ask to include him as co-author?
  3. Is it possible that my advisor will hate me if I don't ask to include him as co-author? My advisee style has always been to do just what my advisor asks, but is this the point where I should take initiative and try to give him credit for his work, even though he may not be asking for it?
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    It sounds as if you have a good close relationship. So just ask him. Jul 19 at 17:25
  • @EthanBolker, you've been in the game more recently than I. Is it still true that advisors are co-authors of dissertations as seldom as it used to be? My experience was "never", actually. See my comment to the answer of EarlGrey. Note that if I were the advisor in this case, my answer to the question would be "no: the work is yours".
    – Buffy
    Jul 19 at 18:25
  • @Buffy Not sure I've been in the game more recently, and never had a doctoral student. I think advisor coauthorship was and is rare in mathematics, less rare in other sciences. In this case I think and hope the advisor would say "no, the work is yours". Jul 19 at 19:03
  • Math is (mostly) different from other fields, but you may still find this useful: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/644/… Jul 20 at 0:50
  • I am reading this question as "should my advisor be co-author in a paper during my PhD thesis" because of the time frame you gave (2 years ago you started to pursue this PhD). Am I right?
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 20 at 8:27

5 Answers 5

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I myself (math, U.S.), do not expect to be a co-author on my PhD students' theses, nor on other papers they may write while I'm coaching/supervising them. I'm not going to ask, in any case.

I wouldn't be offended if a student asked me if I'd want to be a co-author, but I'd decline.

I'd certainly not "hate" any of my students for not asking about co-authorship, etc.

The fundamental goal of the advisor/advisee relationship, in my opinion, is to get the advisee off to a good start. And I think this of_course entails lots of coaching and advise. Recommendations about "what to do"...

But advice about what to do, or observations that "you'd need to do X", are much, much different from "doing X". It does often happen that saying what maybe must be done is vastly easier than doing it! :)

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    Note for future readers: Academic culture is very different depends on the field. If you are in engineering, it is very bad if you don't add your advisor as coauthor. If you are in medicine, it is very bad if anyone that contributed to the data acquisition and funding are not coauthors. Check your field culture. Jul 20 at 15:51
  • @AnderBiguri, indeed. I probably should have emphasized the field-dependence more... Jul 20 at 20:06
  • I'm flabbergasted by the idea that there are fields in which PhD advisor don't necessarily do enough to be co-authors on their students' papers. In physics and astronomy, an advisor that didn't contribute enough to justify co-authorship would be viewed as not doing their job as an advisor. Are PhD advisors in math really that hands off?
    – Nobody
    Jul 21 at 13:47
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    @Nobody In mathematics, often there is no other contribution than the paper itself. In engineering/physics, a paper is a way to present results of your research, in mathematics, the paper is (often) the totality of the research. If you prove some bounds of a PDE, there is no code, no experiment, no analysis, no interpretation. There is only the maths directly described in the paper. The nature of what is "research" also is very different in maths, so we (non mathematicians) are not used to it Jul 21 at 18:24
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    @AnderBiguri Fair enough. Apologies for turning it into an argument.
    – Nobody
    Jul 21 at 21:04
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Given the contribution you describe, your advisor ought to be a co-author on the paper, and he might be a bit annoyed if you do not include him (or he might not care). However, part of the job of your advisor is to give you his guidance on things like this to help ease you into academia. Ideally your advisor would sit down with you and explain what he thinks the authorship of the paper should be, and why. It is best to do this at that start of a project so that all parties are comfortable with the authorship arrangements, and then renegotiate if contributions change. Given that you haven't already done this, I recommend you ask for a meeting with your advisor and ask him for guidance on the authorship of this paper, and some more general guidance on authorship.

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tl;dr:

  1. no, no general style apart from PhD advisors being too busy, sometimes they take something for granted, something they take the opposite of something for granted.

  2. no, unless he is an unreasonable person (offending someone unreasonable should be put in the "merits and awards" section of a CV)

  3. see 1). If he is taking for granted you will put him as co-author, because he contributed a lot, he will be way more than offended. He may denounce you for plagiarism and prevent you from getting your PhD.


An author is someone who has made significant and substantial contributions to a study.

It seems to me that you cracked the problem, only after a couple of years of meetings, during which:

he helped me understand the problem, helped shoot down all my wrong ideas over countless meetings, and also gave me lots of intuition about what the solution should look like.

You would have cracked the problem alone? most likely yes.

In how many years? probably more than two, counting the wrong ideas and the lots of intuition he gave you.

If you would write the complete path to the results, every single small steps[1] that brought you to the results you present, including a chapter for every idea you had and their dismissal from your advisor, as well as the discussion of each intuitions he gave, you would quickly realize how much he contributed.

So his contributions were fundamentals to the study, although they were not necessary.

Then go ahead, offer him co-authorship.

I would even say offer it indirectly, something like asking him if you can send him a very first draft of the paper. He may asks you (or not) about being co-author. Then when you send him the paper, casually mention "here attached the draft of our paper on xyz" and with him already listed as an author. If he deems not relevant to be co-author, he will state it, but surely he will not be offended[2].

[1] no, the audience does not really care, it is just a pure intellectual hypothese.

[2] if he feels like he did not contribute enough, he will clearly states that, he may not agree with your evaluation of his contributions, but no reasonable person can be offended because by that (at the draft stage, of course it is different at submission, where you need explict proof of every co-author agreeing in authoring the submitted paper).

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    There are more than a few math professors around here who will have good insight into this question from a math perspective. Other areas have other ethos', so beware.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 19 at 17:54
  • I agree with all of this and add that it is (or at least was) very rare for an advisor to be a co-author of a pure math dissertation, even when it was warranted. The feeling was that even with help, the student generated the main insights and so should get credit. Advisors were often lavishly praised in acknowledgements. My experience is old (retired now) and things may have changed a bit, though I hope not. This is quite different from many other fields, even some theoretical ones. Work as co-authors on the next project after the dissertation is done.
    – Buffy
    Jul 19 at 18:08
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    @Buffy- To be clear, this is co-authorship for a research publication, and not a thesis. Jul 19 at 18:23
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When I was a PhD student, I assumed my advisor would coauthor a particular paper, and he said no, he hadn’t contributed enough to it. (This was in CS.)

I agree with those who said ask (for papers/articles, certainly not a thesis). Your advisor should not be offended if you do, and could be miffed if you don’t.

But, it’s not uniform, even in a discipline like engineering.

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The normal thing is to ask them. Personally, I feel you might be entitled to a sole credit, but 99 out of 100 senior academics feel that they should be on the paper just for being your boss (having secured the funding, etc.).

If you really do not want them to be on the paper, you should take a deep breath and tell them.

If you are happy for them to be on the paper, just put their name on the draft you give them to read. If you hear nothing, then they are OK with that.

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    I am not the downvoter. But I still disagree with that 99 out of 100 statistic. Maybe that can be the norm in other sectors of science, this I don't know. In mathematics my experience is different. Honest advisors sign a paper only if they have actually worked on it, just like they would do with any collaborator, student or not. Jul 20 at 9:13
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    In many of those fields, "securing the funding" isn't something to sneer at. They wrote a grant, which involves framing the problem, identifying possible solutions, and doing so in a way that's more compelling than ~6 other similar attempts (given current paylines). It's not like they just got a stack of unmarked $20 bills from the supply closet.
    – Matt
    Jul 21 at 17:27

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