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I am a mathematics PhD student in the Western world.

I have a (single author) preprint in mathematics that I think will help my postdoc applications a lot. I wrote up the preprint about a month back, and gave it to my advisor for corrections. They did not have time for corrections as they were busy with their other duties. I asked them whether I could post it on arXiv, circulate it amongst people I want to work with, put it up on my website, etc. They asked me not to, as it might contain mistakes, which might be more embarrassing. However, I have job applications due in a couple of weeks, and really want to add this paper to my portfolio.

They have now read it and verified the accuracy of the results, although the paper might still need some re-structuring, etc. Is it now ethical to distribute it amongst my future employers, recommendation letter writers, etc without asking them?

I could of course just ask them, but I feel that they might not want me to do it, as their style is to only circulate extremely polished work, etc. However, for making myself more employable, and also because the paper is really my intellectual property and I should be free to do whatever I want, I do want to circulate it and share my results.

  1. I know it is legal for me to circulate my work, as it is my property. But is it ethical? I don't agree with my advisor's assessment that I should suppress my work, and that they can mention it in their letter without me putting out my work.

  2. Will it burn bridges with them to circulate it? I am not yet posting it on arXiv, as I feel that will be too incendiary, but I do perhaps want to share it with the schools I am applying to.

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    "I don't agree with my advisor's assessment that I should suppress my work" You mean you don't agree with what you hypothesize your advisor's assesment might be if you were to ask them, which you're trying to avoid. Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:12
  • @AdamPřenosil- No, this is what they told me, in the event that the results did indeed turn out to be correct, prior to actually reading the manuscript. Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:13
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    And if there is an issue you might find yourself not as employable as you think. Get it done right, not fast.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:19
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    "No, this is what they told me, in the event that the results did indeed turn out to be correct, prior to actually reading the manuscript." Then you describe this situation in a misleading way in your question. It makes no sense to both say that you could ask them but they might not want you to do it and to claim that you already asked them and they did in fact tell you not to do it. Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:23
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    And yet we have questions like academia.stackexchange.com/questions/189597/… - articles that even went through peer review. They were “verified correct” before submission. I think you greatly overestimate the importance of circulating a preprint while looking for jobs.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:38

2 Answers 2

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It seems like you know the answer you will be given, it is the general best advice to only circulate finished works. Circulating unpolished work is unwise- unless you are explicitly looking for feedback to help polish it (additional review, requests for comments, etc). A history of sloppy work will open the door to the idea that your work is inconsistent.

Note also, some journals will not publish if an article is placed in other locations. I have heard rumors (horror stories?) of journals refusing to publish articles because it was already put online in some manner and had gained traction as an unpublished article.

Suggestions if you distribute this unfinished version anyway (against my advice and the anticipated advice of your supervisor): watermark all documents as "drafts", make sure you track where it is posted so you can update with a polished version later or takedown as appropriate.

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  • Thank you for your answer. If I only intend to circulate it amongst three people writing me a recommendation letter, is that fine/ethical? Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 15:12
  • Ethical? As long as only your name is on the paper, you can do what you want. Prudent? Maybe, maybe not. If your letter-writers are already confident they can say good things on your behalf, why show them something that could disrupt that? They might be duty-bound to say @bladerunner's next work is unpolished. I tend to lean towards a discussion with your superior about who you intend to share it with exactly and why. Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 15:34
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Actually, there is no ethical issue with distributing your own work in progress. Your advisor is giving unnecessarily conservative advice as long as you indicate that things you distribute in a small group are still in progress.

I assume that the people writing for you know you well and your work. I assume that they won't be shocked (shocked) if the work in progress isn't perfect. I see no issue at all in that.

As for distributing it to potential employers, again, work in progress is fine when labeled as such. Alternatively you could indicate that you have such work and are willing to share a draft if they would like with caveats that it isn't done and that it shouldn't be further distributed.

It is always good to have "Work in Progress" in your CV, even when you don't distribute it.

I agree, however, that it is probably a mistake to publish it on arXiv or elsewhere (website...) until it is quite refined, though much work there isn't yet "perfect", and people expect that.

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