11

I have seen several questions on this site which suggest that there are (presumably and hopefully rare) occasions where an advisor seeks to publish work as the sole author on a collaborative project that they are working on with their advisees.

Some questions which highlight these occurrences:

While there has been some discussion on this site (e.g., here) about whether the advisor should be listed as a co-author on a student's paper, in my field (in the U.S.), it is common for the advisor to be listed as a co-author on their student's papers. So, I'm writing this question to come to some understanding of the "opposite" problem:

When it (rarely) occurs, what are the benefits for an advisor to seek sole authorship when their advisees deserve to be listed as co-authors?

In my (admittedly naive) view, it would seem that the advisor would benefit more from co-authoring papers with their advisees than trying to pass the work off as their own, if nothing more than to show (to, e.g., tenure/promotion committees) that they are actively engaging their student researchers in the research activities of the group. Perhaps an element of "ego trip" is involved here as well, but I wonder if I'm missing something more fundamental as to why this happens on those rare occasions.


Edited to add — I certainly do appreciate that there is variability in the ways that different departments/institutions in different parts of the world do things, and am attempting to gain some understanding about the not-so-obvious (from my perspective) motivators that lead an advisor down the road to the aforementioned behavior.

  • 5
    I'd really like to hear an answer to this too... I can't think of any reasons beside egotism and abusive behavior patterns. – jakebeal Jun 2 '15 at 1:48
  • 4
    I can't see any advantages for denying a student a deserved authorship. There are a small number of truly pathological jerks out there, so I have seen it happen--but only once in a reasonably long career. Another possibility for why we so often see questions of this sort is that students occasionally fail to understand that criteria for authorship, and perceive misconduct where none has occurred. Today's question where a research subject wants authorship may fall into that category. – Corvus Jun 2 '15 at 3:51
  • I recently attended a presentation given by someone else where I had prepared more than half of the slides and my contribution was not acknowledged. To someone in the audience it would have appeared that the speaker had done all of it. Maybe this was the speakers intention. In my experience people tend to overestimate their own contribution to collaborative work (which is understandable because of an unavoidable bias). I guess when you are in a position of power as a supervisor it is easier to get by without anyone correcting this perception (especially those below you). – Miguel Jun 3 '15 at 23:13
  • @Miguel In the talks that I give (at conferences, for example), I do not acknowledge my co-authors since their names appear on the title slide, and I think that is pretty common in my field. However, if your name did not even appear on the title slide, then that is pretty low if they did not acknowledge your contributions. – Mad Jack Jun 4 '15 at 1:08
  • 1
    High-up advisors may play down the contribution of students and incorporate data into their papers without malicious intent. Students sometimes overestimate their contribution. Providing data from measurements a technician could have done is not reason enough to be a co-author but they should be mentioned in the Acknowledgements then. The more authors a paper has, the less is the individual contribution. I came across a grant agency (Europe, cannot remember which one) that counts papers at 50% or less if there is a certain number of co-authors or if you are not first or corresponding author. – Heike R Jun 4 '15 at 9:38
16

In my (admittedly naive) view, it would seem that the advisor would benefit more from co-authoring papers with their advisees than trying to pass the work off as their own, if nothing more than to show (to, e.g., tenure/promotion committees) that they are actively engaging their student researchers in the research activities of the group.

I tend to agree with your sentiment here. The problem is that not every evaluation committee (for tenure, for promotion, for regular end-of-the-year raises) is that sane.

Example 1: in my old university, we had for some time a hard tenure rule that required applicants to have a small number of recent single-authored papers. In applied computer science, basically nobody writes single-authored papers. It is simply not done. I don't know any concrete cases, but I would not be surprised if that rule led to some "single-authored" papers where the work was really done by a master student.

Example 2: I have heard of universities in Asia that base end-of-the-year raises on accepted papers. The concrete amount is dependent on the number of authors, as well as on the place in the author list, making it very attractive to "forget" authors or put the supervisor's name first.

Here on academics.SE, we tend to forget that academia varies more than we think, and just because a certain unethical behavior would not make sense in our university, there is no reason to believe that this is true everywhere.

  • 2
    I somewhat disagree with your last sentence: This question to some extent originates from the realisation that there might be something else and is asking for it – so it illustrates that we are aware of it to at least some extent. Also, in my experience, we are much more aware of the diversity of academia here than the vast majority of academics. – Wrzlprmft Jun 2 '15 at 8:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.