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I am 3th year PhD student. I have written 4 math-stats papers (good Q1-Q2 journals but not the top top), one alone three with my supervisor as a coauthor. I am finishing my next paper: my best idea and best work, in my humble opinion deserving to be considered in the best of the best journal. The problem with my previous papers is that although 2 of them so far were accepted to a journal, they have no citations so far (I know that takes a while, but other peers have already more citations etc and it bothers me a bit).

I am going to Berkeley for a research visit for half a year under a big name prof. Now, I can choose - either I submit the paper as a single author, or I can also ask the new prof (maybe he will have some more ideas though and maybe will help) and include him as a coauthor.

What would you recommend doing? Some pros and cons? For a good journal acceptance, big name is always a good thing to have, and the paper can be much more cited. However, it will diminish a bit my contribution.

Edit: many answers deal with the ethical implications of including a person on a paper that did not do any work. I am not saying that I come to the prof and say 'be on the paper please'. I am trying to improve the paper in several ways: increase visibility+citeability+journal acceptence of the paper. These are the things that the prof can surely help if I ask. Also, the prof can help with certain unsolved parts of the paper-- I can solve them somehow myself but he can solve it differently and maybe more elegantly (maybe not). I am wondering which is a better option for my future academia life.

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    The answer to the question in the title is "no, that's unethical". Based on the body of the question, perhaps you really mean "is it a good idea to collaborate with a 'big name'". If that's what you mean, I suggest revising the title. Apr 16 at 16:12
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    A friend tried this in his first paper. Not only he is "et. al." now, but the big names didn't do anything or increased the citation numbers of the paper.
    – user347489
    Apr 17 at 22:33
  • There are a couple of unclear writings. For example regarding your edit there is the "Also, [...] " which is awful, since you stated: "increase visibility+citeability+journal acceptence of the paper. These are the things that the prof can surely help if I ask" False. You do not do this with "the help of big prof", you improve these aspects by "improving the unsolved part of the paper". Whether the big prof is really the person that can help with the unsolved parts of the paper remains to be discussed, and it is worthwhile to ask before going to Berkeley, so you know if it is worthwhile.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 18 at 8:48
  • "The problem with my previous papers is that although 2 of them so far were accepted to a journal, they have no citations so far". How do you advertise them? do you present at conferences/workshop/peers? are you working on the same topic? Big professors publish so many papers that you probably do not realize that even they have papers that go not cited for months/years.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 18 at 8:53

6 Answers 6

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If your paper contains some nice results and is essentially done, then I think you should submit it before you show up at Berkeley. Once there, show it to your big name prof and suggest working together on extensions and new ideas it suggests.

If it's not really finished and there are results you are close to that ought to be included, ask your big name prof to work with you to prove them.

Just pay attention to the mathematics. Trying to game the system by massaging authorship is at best a waste of effort, at worst unethical.

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    "Trying to game the system by massaging authorship" big professor is smart enough to smell if OP is tricking them in the paper just for the name: it will be a rough and sad half a year visit starting on that premises...
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 18 at 8:50
  • @EarlGrey Indeed. The great name prof had been an ambitious youngster themselves and know their psychology, whether on themselves or their peers. Apr 20 at 10:58
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Unless they contribute to the paper, they cannot be co-authors.

But maybe they can contribute if they are so brilliant, and they can improve the paper.

What you should not do is to add them just to puff up the paper. If they have integrity, they will be insulted by the idea, and if they do not, do you really want to work with them?

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    Reeks of "wishing for some reverse nepotism". If the celebrity prof accepts the proposal, the OP and the prof sounds like a "Marriage made in Heaven!" </sarcasm>
    – Fe2O3
    Apr 17 at 0:44
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    @Fe2O3 I like the word "reverse nepotism", although I am not sure what it means, precisely. Does it mean "adopt an uncle" or "adopt a nephew"? Apr 17 at 15:37
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    I had "adopt an uncle" in mind when reading the OP's scheme. Change my name to "Gates" and move to Seattle for that 'accidental encounter' in a bookshop with "my long-lost cousin Bill"...
    – Fe2O3
    Apr 17 at 19:29
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I agree with the other answers that a person should be an author only if they make a substantial contribution to the paper. But I have another point: "Big name prof" also knows this. If you ask him to be co-author without doing any real work, then he might start thinking less of you.

OTOH - you got accepted for a program at a really good university under (apparently) a really good professor. Congratulations! You are doing many things right.

So, submit this paper solo. See what happens. You will have plenty of time to submit papers with big name prof.

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Let me give you a more pragmatic answer than all those saying that this is unethical. Yes, this is unethical, but pretty much the whole academic pipeline is tainted in one way or another. Those who think academia is a completely moral space are delusional. In the grand scheme of things, this is probably one of the least harmful ways to go around the established rules. However, I think this is a bad idea for other reasons:

One risk you may run into by adding them as a coauthor is that people won't know who came up with the ideas, writing, execution, etc. Unless this person clarifies it from the get go, many will think that the idea and main arguments were provided by them and you are just tagging along. In fact, I know of a couple of big names who would gladly take the credit in a situation like this.

A second concern is the Professor may take this badly over ethical concerns or some other reason. I wouldn't risk my reputation for something like this.

Instead, you should let your work speak for itself. I would make it a point to present my work to them and to the rest of the faculty in the area. Then, you can ask the Professor for insights on how to extend it, and perhaps, invite them to collaborate if they feel so inclined.

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You already know damn well that it's absolutely unethical to put someone as author on a work to which they didn't contribute anything substantial, let alone one which was entirely completed by others.

The academic sphere will have no honesty at all in it if this principle is not respected.

And neither will you affect the award of a fellowship at a prestigious research group at the expense of sharing/donating the credit for your best independent work so far. People like this bigwig professor will always have research students fawning at them so as to gain fellowships in their group. It will be flattering for them. But it won't affect their selections in the least: they will want to add people with self-belief and a measure of integrity to their group - not sycophants.

It's time for a complete mind reset about your place in academia. You seem to have been overcome by the selfishness and competitiveness of the PhD student environment. You shouldn't really be tracking others' publication progress so much because you seem to be "on schedule" as far as your own work is concerned.

It's important to note that academia doesn't culture good human virtues like honesty and humility. Yet academia still expects people within it to exhibit such virtues - even against a background that sometimes seems to reward those lacking integrity.

The post you've sent us today would never have been sent had you raised this matter with your PhD supervisor. (By the way, if anyone deserves a freebie co-authorship, surely it is him/her.) I have no doubt that they would have strenuously advised against this type of stunt.

Competition is something academics of all ages have to deal with due to the public nature of their work, the responsibility to funders and unrelenting fear of having good work eclipsed by others publishing earlier.

The trick is to accept this and never to consider any shortcut, as doing so would destroy what is most priceless to an academic - their reputation.

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Yes, by all means try to be a co-author with Dr. Bigshot.

Just don't go and say that you have this paper already written up and you want to add him, because this would be prima facie unethical. Just invite him to co-author the paper with you, send him your paper with the word "draft" at the top, and he'll send it back with a few minor corrections, if any at all, and voilà, you've co-authored a paper with a big shot. This is how super stars in academia get 50 papers published a year.

One of the demigods in my field used to publish dozens of papers a year while living 215 miles away from campus and having a full-time job promoting his 22 popular-science books. I knew him and some of his close colleagues (some of them deities themselves), and I assure you that he performed 0% of the research written in those papers. This is just normal life in academia.

How beneficial this will be for your career is another matter, but that's another question.

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    Although "he'll send it back with a few minor corrections" is possible, it's also possible that he'll decide that he doesn't actually want to be a co-author. Apr 16 at 22:21
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    This is absolutely not an appropriate way to game authorship. A few comments is not sufficient for authorship, this answer proposes a highly unethical approach. The people publishing this way are faking their way to productivity based on name recognition alone. This is the worst category of gift authorship. Gross.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 17 at 0:04
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    Worthwhile to note that the author of the 50 paper published in a year says himself "I do consider myself someone who publishes lots of papers. I think my peak is around 50 in a single year."
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 17 at 7:25
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    to be honest, this answer sounds very postironic where it is hard to determine if it is a joke or not and is at the edge of irony and seriousness but leaning towards irony
    – Mihail
    Apr 17 at 16:53
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    @Mihail Yes, I was being ironic, thank you. But I am surprised how much I enjoyed the downvotes. Gift, honorary, and ghost authorship have absolutely ruined publishing in academia, and I am sick of it. How many papers you publish has come to mean nothing. Maybe the upside is that at one point we'll be forced to evaluate researchers based on the merits of their ideas and not publication count, grant money, and bigshot affiliation.
    – Cheery
    Apr 17 at 17:10

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