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I'm a final year undergraduate student in the U.K. As part of my undergraduate research, I proved a long-standing conjecture in graph theory. I have now written up a detailed proof of the result, and it will be included in my Honours' thesis. When I spoke to my supervisor about publishing the result, he suggested that we write a paper together with the addition of my other supervisors. I don't have much of an issue with this, and of course wish to acknowledge the help of my supervisors in my research, however the writing and intellectual work is entirely my own. If this is standard practice, then I have no issue with it, but I'm just not sure that it is. Is this standard practice, and if not, how do I proceed?

I should mention that, I don't believe the collaborative paper my supervisor wishes to write will extend or alter the result. I've been led to believe that the result is publishable as is. Also, the only reason I'm interested in publishing as a sole author is because it will make me a stronger candidate for in a Ph.D. application.

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    Have any of your supervisors given you advice as you worked to solve this problem?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 4 at 15:18
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    The important question here is whether your supervisor has contributed anything to the problem.
    – Ambicion
    Commented Jun 4 at 22:57
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    "he suggested that we write a paper together" "however the writing and intellectual work is entirely my own" I don't understand how these two statements fit together. The former suggest the group is about to write a paper, so many people will be authors. The latter suggest you have already written the paper, and no one else even can contribute anymore. Which of these situtations is it? Do you consider "the paper" and "detailed proof" the same? Commented Jun 5 at 11:35
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    @question_time How does advice not help solve the problem? Formulating a research question is part of research, identifying relevant background is part of research, choosing paths likely to be fruitful or excluding those unlikely to produce is part of research, have they helped with any of these or similar? If so, they've worked with you to solve the problem.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 6 at 12:27
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    @Ambicion Sounds like something wrong with your personal circle, the computer scientists I work with work as a team. I agree it wouldn't be a "sport" but that's not the important part of the analogy.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 6 at 23:35

8 Answers 8

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If the work is truly yours and yours alone then, in mathematics and some other fields, it is perfectly OK to submit for publication as a sole author.

However, there are some other considerations that you should at least think about.

Presumably the supervisor has more experience in publishing and in writing for publication than you do and having them rewrite the work based on their experience in what reviewers will be looking for can be an advantage. In particular it can avoid a long series of requests for rewrites, even major revisions, that can come in a paper. This could lead to a shorter, perhaps much shorter, time to publication.

And having others in the loop to respond to reviewers can be helpful if they have prior experience in the "game".

Being associated with an experienced researcher in your publication also has some value, though it can be overstated. But whether a sole author work or one with a well known collaborator is better for doctoral application is a judgement call.

No clear recommendation here, but things to think about and perhaps discuss with your main supervisor. I'm less enamored of including several others in a math work even if they have some general supervisory rule. Many people may need to be acknowledged, however, especially in a sole author work.

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    +1. I'd add that it seems unlikely to me that an undergraduate's work is theirs and theirs alone. It seems more likely to me that supervisor(s) have provided help that merits authorship, and OP isn't yet experienced enough at the "game" to recognize that.
    – Reid
    Commented Jun 4 at 21:16
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    @Reid: it is equally likely that the supervisor has not contributed anything and just wants to put his name on it. It's a "game" indeed, namely a Game of Thrones.
    – Ambicion
    Commented Jun 4 at 23:00
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    I would consider evidence of any successful collaboration as a plus for any future candidate. But I guess some academics value collaboration more than others
    – penelope
    Commented Jun 5 at 12:09
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    @Reid and Ambicion: unfortunately, both is indeed equally possible. I treated this in my response below. Commented Jun 5 at 12:40
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    @CharlesHudgins I would not see why probabilities would matter here when they are not completely off the scale. I have seen students finding amazing results on their own, so it is not an outlandish possibility. More details are needed to make an appropriate judgement. Commented Jun 7 at 15:40
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Students tent to underestimate or even neglect the work of their supervisors.

I supervised multiple bachelor and master students. It was a lot of preparation before, during, and after their time as my students. For example I formulated their research question, to be not too hard, not to easy but likely to have a positive outcome. I prepared test cases, I reviewed their intermediate results and gave tips on how to proceed.

Most professors / advisors do the same for their workgroup. They develop a large framework what they want to achieve and most of their PhD topics is following this general direction. This leads to a series of good PhD thesis, as they add value, are new, and are embedded in a greater question interesting to parts of the community.

Are you sure, you are not affected by this? Did your research question come to your mind without interacting with your advisor? The methods to solve the issue, the process of finding the proof, reading the right papers as stimulus -- everything without your advisor?

I don't say it is impossible, but highly unlikely. I know two or three people who did exactly this. I think they are geniuses.

Just to be sure, talk to your advisor about this topic.

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    For their chair? Is this word used in even more ways than I knew?
    – Anyon
    Commented Jun 5 at 13:54
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    I changed it to "workgroup". In Germany a chair is a professor including his staff and PhD students. An institute can have multiple chairs. At least in the UK the term is used differently. Thanks for pointing this out.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jun 5 at 19:57
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    Normally, in math neither posing a research question, nor suggesting possible methods and relevant literature merits coauthorship. As for "process of finding the proof" - it depends. If it means contributing key ideas, then yes. Commented Jun 6 at 2:42
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    @MoisheKohan Math is to broad to make your statement true. For statistics or applied math like numerical simulation I know that coming up with a topic is part of the work. Not everybody is proving the Goldbach's conjecture.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jun 6 at 5:53
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    @MoisheKohan Some questions, even casually put, may merit credit. A postdoc of mine formulated an elegant and interesting question which they never followed up on. I made a point to always credit them when I presented the question (which was resolved by someone entirely else in the end). Commented Jun 6 at 12:39
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In my field (theoretical physics), single author papers are rare, and the answer to your question would be: yes, write the paper together with your supervisor.

However, in mathematics, single author papers are more common. In some (most?) areas of pure math, it's standard practice for students to write papers by themselves even if they got a little help from the supervisor, and a paper coauthored with a supervisor may imply that the student didn't do much.

You should check the standard in your field (i.e. graph theory or even the particular sub-area of graph theory). Is it common for students to write single author papers? Even better, look locally: does your supervisor coauthor papers with his own PhD students, or do they write their own papers?

Another important point is that simply having the main result is only halfway (often, much less than halfway) to having a paper. The results need to presented and formatted in a certain way, and writing the introduction and gathering references can also be a formidable task. In many fields, papers come with a lengthy jargon-laden introduction and long list of references that requires a good familiarity with the literature to prepare. However, this again depends heavily on the field: pure math papers for example, tend to have much less intro/references/figures/special formatting compared to the sciences. You should look at papers in your field to see what style they have.

It's possible that your supervisor plans on doing himself a lot of the work of writing the intro, gathering references, formatting, etc, or expects to closely supervise you in doing so, as that would be much more efficient than you figuring it out yourself. In my field (again, physics, not graph theory) this would be standard practice if a young student comes up with a new result but doesn't yet have experience in writing papers.

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The core question is:

  1. did the supervisor just check your results?
  2. did they contribute to the proof?
  3. did they help writing the paper?

The first merits an acknowledgement, the second a co-authorship, it's the third that is tricky. In some fields the write-up is difficult and a substantial contribution, as it might not be easy to be precise, or to put things into context. In that case, this deserves co-authorship.

In math, this is more tricky. If it is helping in formulations, but otherwise not contributing substantially to the intellectual scaffold of the paper, it is a gray area, and, in math, and probably does not strictly deserve a co-authorship unless the student is an awful writer and their writing needed major propping up.

The political dimension is a different one. It is not clear that being a lone author makes the PhD application more powerful. In some topics, a lone authorship might indicate a person that likes to work on their own and this may deter potential supervisors; it is not a given, but the point is that one should not assume that it makes the application automatically stronger.

Another point is that if the supervisors may think that they deserve coauthorship and OP thinks they don't, this may be a conflict between different levels of power and may affect OP's ability to get references. I emphasize that this does not suggest that OP should agree to undeserved coauthorship, but they should understand the ramifications. There is no point being naive about this.

Finally, OP should also make sure that, if they intend to deny coauthorship, that their supervisor(s) really did not contribute. There is more than one case where the supervisee believed that they had come up with work entirely on their own, when the problem was identified, formulated, formalized by the supervisor, sometimes including substantial discussions between student and supervisor. Inexperienced young researchers may not realize the contributions that their supervisor brought to the table.

If that would be the case, a generous supervisor might let that fly, but this would be equally inappropriate as the situation where a supervisor does not acknowledge a student's contribution when presenting work, especially groundbreaking one; in the ethics of authorial contribution, hierarchy does not matter.

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I find the DFG (German Science Council) guidelines on this subject very helpful. Here they are (my highlighting):

An author is an individual who has made a genuine, identifiable contribution to the content of a research publication of text, data or software. All authors agree on the final version of the work to be published. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, they share responsibility for the publication. Authors seek to ensure that, as far as possible, their contributions are identified by publishers or infrastructure providers such that they can be correctly cited by users.

Explanations:

The contribution must add to the research content of the publication. What constitutes a genuine and identifiable contribution must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and depends on the subject area in question. An identifiable, genuine contribution is deemed to exist particularly in instances in which a researcher – in a research-relevant way – takes part in

  • the development and conceptual design of the research project, or

  • the gathering, collection, acquisition or provision of data, software or sources, or

  • the analysis/evaluation or interpretation of data, sources and conclusions drawn from them, or

  • the drafting of the manuscript.

If a contribution is not sufficient to justify authorship, the individual’s support may be properly acknowledged in footnotes, a foreword or an acknowledgement. Honorary authorship where no such contribution was made is not permissible. A leadership or supervisory function does not itself constitute co-authorship.

Collaborating researchers agree on authorship of a publication. The decision as to the order in which authors are named is made in good time, normally no later than when the manuscript is drafted, and in accordance with clear criteria that reflect the practices within the relevant subject areas. Researchers may not refuse to give their consent to publication of the results without sufficient grounds. Refusal of consent must be justified with verifiable criticism of data, methods or results.

An important point here is also that the authorship should be agreed at an early stage (something to take on board for the future). Failing that, things can become complicated, depending on the character of the persons involved.

In your case, it depends (1) on the contribution of the supervisor according to the above guidelines and, if these are nil, (2) on your personal relation and their character. For applications on post-doctoral positions the reference from the supervisor is usually very important, so you don't want to alienate them. If you have a friendly relation, you may ask them to self-assess, using the above guidelines, their claim for authorship.

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    I don't think that the highlighted portion applies here, at least not at the moment. According to the question, the OP's supervisor has explicitly suggested to write the paper together. This means that (a) the authorship issue is indeed on the table at an early stage, as it should, and (b) the situation has nothing to do with honorary authorship.
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Jun 5 at 10:14
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    @Schmuddi Well, that's for the OP to answer. Merely suggesting to write the paper together, does not qualify as contribution and hence does not constitute co-authorship.
    – Walter
    Commented Jun 5 at 11:28
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In such cases, clarity and transparency are paramount in light of any possible future inquiries. It might be advantageous to request a written and mutually-signed authorship statement that you both discuss beforehand. This statement would specify how any future questions of authorship or proportion of contributions would be answered by either party.

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Welcome to science how it is really done

You should weigh political questions against research integrity. Here are some items

  1. In a somewhat professional setting, researchers would settle the terms of the collaboration right at the beginning. Suddenly coming up with that is a sign of trying to take advantage of you.

  2. If the senior guy already acts perfidious, what support will that person bring anyhow?

  3. Do you plan to leave academia? Then the support of senior researchers matters much less anyways. Have some research fun but realize they won't support you anyways.

Now let's suppose you want to stay in academia, including going for a PhD.

  1. Some people value single author papers if they are published in high-ranking journals/venues.

  2. At the same time, having "big names" on the paper can open doors by itself. Even if that person never contributed anything.

  3. Some comments have mentioned that senior researchers contribute writing advice/jargon, and so on. I call BS on that. Most of the time, you have to figure everything out by yourself. I have never seen a professor giving such substantial advice. You could submit a badly formatted paper in poor English and they wouldn't notice.

  4. Now, some might consider authorship as a reward for funding or in exchange for writing letters of recommendation as the rules of the mafia game.

  5. As a general advice, in life: be ready to quit at any time.

You are the only person who knows all the variables. Good luck.

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One option—popular in mathematics, physics, computer science—is to publish in the arXiv.

Then you can still do what others suggest; invite co-authors to setup your career and increase the chances of journal|conference acceptance.

That way there will be no question as to your contribution and little risk of sharing your Fields Medal 🥇

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