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Background: Consider a postdoc P in the field of natural sciences. P has completed her PhD rather recently and is lucky enough to be in a group where she has a lot of independence. P gets to decide what projects she can work on. P has also been told my the group leader that she can go ahead with single-author papers at some point. There is no strong expectation that the leader has to be on every single paper.

Situation:

  1. P has never written a paper with less than 3-4 other authors, although she was always the lead author and did most of the work.

  2. P is unsure if she is mature enough to write her own paper without making 'mistakes'.

  3. P has learnt a lot from the past papers but has never written a paper where significant corrections were not required.

Question:

Should P wait to be more 'mature' or barge ahead with a single-author paper right away?

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    What is the nature of the mistakes / significant corrections that were done in the past? Apr 14, 2023 at 12:52
  • Better interpretation of the results; doing new simulations to fill in gaps; storyline of the main result.
    – quantacad
    Apr 14, 2023 at 14:23
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    Please tag a field. I will likely never publish a single-author paper, until I'm some 70-year-old emeritus professor publishing some overview of the field (if the water wars don't take me). Apr 15, 2023 at 3:43
  • Even if you are a single author, you are always free to ask people in your research group to proofread your paper for mistakes, and pay them back by doing the same. This can be mentioned in the Acknowledgements section.
    – Daron
    Apr 15, 2023 at 9:39
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    @quantacad "doing new simulations to fill in gaps" etc. - If this is what reviewers wrote about earlier publications, this one (and maybe to some extent the others) doesn't necessarily mean you made a mistake. In my field (statistics), regarding methodological papers with simulations, this request comes almost surely, pretty much regardless of the quality of the paper, as you can never simulate everything, and many reviewers feel they need to request something. Keep in mind in many fields requesting revisions is a standard. They (almost) always find something. Apr 15, 2023 at 18:26

4 Answers 4

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To me the "when is the right time" framing of the question doesn't make sense. I think of this from the angle of research and results rather than when is the right time. In some fields and cultures people publish on their own very early, in some others research is essentially always collaborative and many people do single author papers very rarely if at all.

For me it boils down to the question whether P has results on her own that deserve to be published. If there is good material for which she deserves to be sole author, I think she should go for it. (This doesn't rule out asking a colleague for an opinion about certain details or writing issues.)

On the other hand, if the project/results need substantial input of competence from somebody else, this person should be co-author.

In practice, the social system of P could play a role - it may be a little help is needed and people who help may or may not expect to be co-authors. For the sake of building experience, in case that there is no help available without demanding co-authorship, one option is to submit a first version alone, and if this doesn't work out to involve a co-author when resubmitting.

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If the work is yours, you should present it as yours and submit it for publication as yours. If it is group work, or others make substantial intellectual contributions to it, then it is joint work.

If your field highly values sole authorship, then the earlier you start on the process the better. If the field more highly values collaboration and joint authorship, then it is much less important.

And, in many fields in which tradition favored sole authorship, the modern world (electronic communication...) is pushing toward easier, hence more frequent, collaboration.

However, in any sole publication that you have in preparation, it is still useful, when possible, to get feedback from colleagues, and especially the PI.

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I think that a better question is to ask "When is the right time to try publishing as a single author"! The reason I say this is that if, for example, you were to try writing a paper on your own (and then succeeded), and tried to submit the paper on your own to a journal (and succeeded) ... up to the point of having your paper published, then you would know that right now is a very good time to start publishing on your own. And if you don't succeed at any step despite trying, then you can always enlist help. And the help doesn't have to be the whole cart-load of four co-authors; you might just invite one colleague to work with you on a paper.

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    On the contrary, Erdős had over 400 single-author papers (which is over 25% of his papers). Apr 14, 2023 at 12:55
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You publish solo when it is time. I'm not saying collaboration is bad, but at some point, you must flee the proverbial nest and be confident enough to publish by yourself in journals that you can get in. If you're a postdoc, then surely you're ready to publish by yourself. Whether you're confident enough is another matter, but any PhD program worth its salt should make you prepared enough to publish by yourself. It is part of the life of academia, so practice and experience with it is always helpful.

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