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I am a PhD student in the field of Applied Cat/Dog Technology*. I recently conducted an interview study with Cat and Dog owners. To analyse the interviews, I used and developed a theoretical framework invented by a semi-prominent professor in the field, let's call them C. Dogson. Using the analysis output, I have finalised a first draft of a journal paper detailing the interview study and improvement of Dogson's framework. Since I'm swamped with other work, I won't have time to submit the journal paper for about a month. Also, Dogson joined a recent seminar of mine and seemed very engaged in my work and eager to collaborate. Thus, I thought it might be a good opportunity to invite Dogson to read the journal article draft and potentially join as a co-author if they feel they can contribute substantially to the article before submission. I could see several benefits:

  • The paper might meaningfully improve if they felt they had something to add
  • They would help spreading the research in their context which is in another country
  • It would teach me to manage international research collaborations
  • It could lead to further collaboration e.g. a research exchange
  • (Somewhat cynically) it seems like a natural career step to not only co-publish with my supervisors but add further co-authors to show proficiency in collaboration

With all these possible benefits in mind, I breached this idea to my supervisor. To my surprise, they rejected the idea, proposing that I do not invite Dogson as a co-author but instead try to publish alone and notify them after publication. Their argument was that inviting co-authors might "water down" the value of the research (which I do not entirely understand). They further argued that since Dogson is not an expert in the application of Cat/Dog technology but rather an expert on the Cat/Dog technology itself, their perspective on the interviews is probably not very useful.

I am not planning to go against my supervisors' advice, but I'd like to know if Academia.SE can put an end to the bad gut feeling I have about all this.

Considering this, I arrive at the following question: what are the potential drawbacks of inviting a researcher in my field as a journal paper co-author if they have expressed interest in collaboration and might provide a meaningful improvement to the research output? What might my supervisor mean by "watering down" the research by adding further collaborators?

*Field name censored for privacy reasons

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    For your list of benefits, only the first one approaches legitimacy. The rest sound like the practice of "gift authorship".
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 19, 2023 at 15:15
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    I assume that your supervisor is suggesting that more authors on a paper makes your contribution sound less significant (if more people have contributed to the same amount of work, it means someone’s contribution has to be less). However, my own supervisor has said the opposite; that it doesn’t affect the way people will see your contribution. That being said, I agree with your supervisor. You can suggest a collaboration after this work is published. Dec 20, 2023 at 0:54
  • @BryanKrause maybe you could add an answer which explains why this is problematic, or refer to another question about that practice which provides that information? Dec 23, 2023 at 16:08

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If you have something legitimately publishable that doesn't require further work, then your advisor's advice seems best. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to extend the work of another without their participation. Even if you need to refine it a bit, but know how to do so, you should probably just do it yourself with possible advice from your advisor.

However, after you submit the work, and perhaps after it is accepted, it might be good to contact the other author with a reference to (or copy of) the work and suggest that future collaboration would be welcome.

And as implied in a comment by Bryan Krause, it would be a mistake to get into a situation where you gift "authorship" to someone for any reason. Literally, the drawbacks are that gift authorship is considered unethical, though, oddly enough, it is seen in some fields, though mostly with or at the insistence of advisors.

The time to establish collaboration is at the beginning of a project (or near to it), not at the end.

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  • In many areas, the time to establish collaboration is when it is necessary to improve the project. In my research areas, I have seen too many times an abuse of that principle to use others for materials, data, and resources, only to restrict authorship all in the name of "ethics". The term gift authorship is also thrown around quite a lot. A collaborator can come in at any point, and once they do they should be allowed to contribute to the publication, familiarize themselves with the entirety of that publication and decide if they are willing to assume responsibility for it.
    – R1NaNo
    Dec 20, 2023 at 5:23
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    With regards to the OP. I would only bring in someone who can contribute meaningfully to the direction of the project. Perhaps your advisor sees their involvement as unnecessary and tangential, and I would assume they have the bigger picture concept than a student would given experience. If my group finds a novel application for a previously reported material, and we are working on an application-based paper, offering authorship to the people who first synthesized that material is not particularly relevant. A citation is warranted, or acknowledgement if they offered insight.
    – R1NaNo
    Dec 20, 2023 at 5:29
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Ordinarily I would not be too concerned about "watering down" authorship if there is a potential to improve the research work at issue. Nevertheless, because you are a PhD student, in addition to the general injunction to be productive in your research, you have the additional requirement of demonstrating the requirements to graduate from your candidature. One of these is to demonstrate that you have conducted novel and valuable research yourself. Your supervisor might be concerned that bringing in a coauthor on this paper ---at this late stage of the work--- dilutes your own apparent contribution and makes it harder to determine your own research contribution in the work. There are some ways around this, but your supervisor may feel that it's best to avoid the situation entirely, which is reasonable advice.

In this circumstance I recommend that you write to Prof Dogson and tell him that your PhD supervisor has asked that you complete and publish your present paper without an outside coauthor, but tell him that you are interested in doing joint work with him on future projects. It might even be worth having meeting with him to see if you have any shared research interests where you could start together from scratch.

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  • > There are some ways around this, but your supervisor may feel that it's best to avoid the situation entirely, which is reasonable advice. Could you please ellaborate on this?
    – MyName
    Dec 20, 2023 at 17:09
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    Well, if you were to proceed with joint research, you would need to keep track of the respective contributions to the research and create a short statement of this. This could be supplied to the referees for your PhD dissertation along with your dissertation/papers. That way they can tell which parts of what they are reading are yours and which parts were figured out by coauthors. The referees then make a recommendation to the university on whether your work meets the requirements for a PhD.
    – Ben
    Dec 20, 2023 at 20:37

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