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I have just graduated in B.A.Sc. Within my undergraduate studies, I had been considerably active in research, such that I succeeded to publish a paper on my own at a well-known conference.

At the conference and after the presentation, a very experienced professor asked me to present him some more details about the applied methodology into the paper. His tendency to my research paper fully diminished, as hew saw the list of authors and realized that I am the sole author. He advised me that such of research might not be so noticeable and the community may take such authors as nerd people. Furthermore, he explained that such research reports would not consist of coherent enough accomplishments, due to the lack of any effect of the idea cooking that could be acquired by co-operation with the other researchers. The ironic stuff is that, before he found that the paper has just one author, his attitude regarding the paper and its content was gratifying, deservedly!

My questions are:

  • Is this viewpoint an overall and widespread idea among researchers?
  • If the ideas, simulations, manufacturing and the other stuff for a paper were done by a single person, should this person consider faking some co-authorship for the paper to avoid presenting themselves as a nerd to others?
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    Weird comment, the one you got. – vonbrand Oct 14 '15 at 14:53
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    Nothing wrong with being a nerd, nurd, or gnurd. It just means you're dedicated to your field. Wear the term proudly and ignore the idiots. There are reasons to collaborate, but that is emphatically not one of them – keshlam Oct 14 '15 at 15:15
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    Was "nerd" the term used by the professor, or your interpretation of his comments using other words? It strikes me as a really strange term to use in this context. If it was his term, then it makes me question his judgment (and you should probably ignore his comments). If it's your term, then I wonder whether he communicated his comments clearly enough. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 14 '15 at 15:35
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    I'd write this professor off as really eccentric and forget about it. Warning you about being considered a nerd due to your solo paper is incredibly strange. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 14 '15 at 15:54
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    @keshlam Aren't most researchers nerds to some degree anyway? I've only seen "nerd" used negatively in anti-intellectual contexts previously, so it's strange for a professor to use it in such a way. – JAB Oct 14 '15 at 16:33
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There are reasons to be more careful about sole-author papers from young investigators, but pretty much none of them are the ones this professor told you.

I would be more cautious when considering a sole-author work from a young investigator simply because inexperience plus lack of supervision means there are more likely to be mistakes. These might be in the technical work, the scoping of the problem, the design of the investigation, or the interpretation of results. On the other hand, if your paper went through meaningful peer review, that's a pretty good initial filter for simple mistakes, and that means I'm likely to take the paper as seriously as any other that's made it through peer review (i.e., still with significant skepticism, but assuming basic sanity).

None of this, however, has anything to do with gratuitously insulting an undergraduate investigator. I would consider the professor you describe to be both a fool and a bully. Perhaps this attitude is widespread in the community where you published, perhaps it is not; certainly, there are toxic scientific communities.

I would thus advise you, if you want to continue working in that area, to keep doing so and meeting more investigators. If you find they are more constructive in their criticism, then ignore the first, nasty person that you interacted with. If you find the first scientist was representative in their attitude, then find a better scientific community to participate in.

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    +1 Excellent point about the fact that there is a high probability that a sole-author work from a young investigator might have mistakes (bugs) in the implementation that cannot be cross-checked by peer-review, since they are usually at a low level. – Alexandros Oct 14 '15 at 15:16
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    Besides actual mistakes, a big concern is that new people to the field don't know what's done, and the results could be a special case of more sophisticated results. (Of course this happens even for experienced researchers!) – Kimball Oct 14 '15 at 18:33
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    +1 but I think your third paragraph jumps to a lot of severe conclusions based on very little evidence. It's possible that the professor was a fool and a bully; it's also possible that he was just trying to be helpful and that langauge difficulties garbled the message. There's certainly not enough evidence to start suggesting toxicity of a whole field! – David Richerby Oct 15 '15 at 9:34
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    @DavidRicherby Please note a subtlety: "the professor you describe" may not be the professor in reality---we have only the OP's report of their experience. Nevertheless, I would note that although most people and communities I've encountered are positive, I replied the way I have because I've also encountered both people and communities for whom abusive behavior towards junior researchers would be quite normal. – jakebeal Oct 15 '15 at 12:13
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...and presents him/her to the others as a nerd, does he/she have to consider some fake co-authorship for the paper?!....

No, you should not breach ethics because you think people might think you are a nerd if you don't.

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  • I afraid that the other people do think like him, don't they? – Roboticist Oct 14 '15 at 15:02
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    @matinking regardless, you should not do something unethical. – user18072 Oct 14 '15 at 15:04
  • One important aspect within the research-based code of ethics is the CREDIBILITY OF THE PUBLICATIONS... If the mono-author papers would not be taken as serious works, their composition might be under question, at all... – Roboticist Oct 14 '15 at 15:07
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    @matinking Well, it certainly won't be considered credible if you add a fake author to it. – reirab Oct 15 '15 at 18:01
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    @matinking I understand, but either way it will not be credible and it wouldn't be hard for anyone to figure out if they actually talked to the other 'author.' Aside from the fact that you just shouldn't do it because it's the wrong thing to do, if/when you get caught (and that's probably just a matter of time,) such dishonesty would severely damage your reputation (not to mention the reputation of your "fellow author,") calling into question the credibility of both your past and future work. In any legitimate research institution, it could also get you punished, up to expulsion. – reirab Oct 15 '15 at 18:10
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If you are the only one that has worked on the paper, then the paper should only have your name on it.

However, to learn how to write good papers, initially needs some kind of mentoring, in most cases. Also in many disciplines (including mine - CS) sole-author papers are the minority. Collaboration with other people will improve your papers, since other researchers may be stronger in some aspects (e.g., programming, experiment design, writing) of producing papers than you. Thus, you should not aim to do everything yourself, if you can collaborate with other people and share ideas and implementations. And sometimes learning to collaborate is a more important skill than writing papers.

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    Even if your fellow researchers aren't 'stronger' than you in any aspect, just talking things through with someone and having someone else consider the ideas and any possible holes that you may have overlooked is quite valuable. – reirab Oct 15 '15 at 18:06
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Furthermore, he explained that such research reports would not consist of coherent enough accomplishments, due to the lack of any effect of the idea cooking that could be acquired by co-operation with the other researchers.

The grain of truth in this is that most collaborations are inspiring, but:

  • Collaborations do not make papers or results more coherent. Many collaborative works suffer from the effect of too many cooks spoiling the broth. More specifically, every coauthor contributes their part without paying much attention to things working together or during the writing process, there is a clash of different ideas how papers should look like. The results are often rather loose patchworks than coherent, streamlined products.

    Now, I have also participated in collaborative papers where this was not the case – but this was usually due to the first author taking the lead and not due to collaborative efforts. But even in those good collaborations, the coherence was en par with my single-author papers (at least in my humble opinion and going by the reviewer’s comments).

  • Not every multi-author paper is collaborative. At least in my field, a considerable portion of papers is mainly the work of the first author, with the other author(s) being supervisor(s), whose contribution mainly consists of outlining the research project and helping with the writing. On top of this there is the huge portion of papers where the supervisor is added for no reason other than being the supervisor (ignoring authorship ethics).

  • Being a single author does not mean that you do not communicate your ideas to others; it just means that none of them could make an addition to your work that justifies authorship. The paper of mine whose contents I discussed with most other researchers ended up being a single-author paper, because none of them found a major flaw or something to add to it. Also with no other paper of mine did I put that much effort in ensuring a thorough internal review.

  • Co-authors are not necessarily better at finding flaws than peer reviewers. This particularly applies to the papers authored by a PhD student and their supervisor which are common at least in my field. The student often learned a great deal of techniques from the supervisor and thus they can only inspire each other to a certain extent. In contrast, a peer reviewer has a fresh take at the work and a different perspective. Moreover, the supervisor will usually not check a lot of details of the work that do not end up in the final paper and hence are available to the peer reviewers.

    Moreover, with papers with a large number of authors, it may very well happen that not all of them read the paper thoroughly. I once reviewed a paper with five or six authors, which proposed a complicated measure that was bound to always yield 1 as a result (they did not apply this measure though). While I found it plausible that one author made this mistake, I found it much more likely that none of the co-authors even read this part than that they did not notice this.

To conclude, the number of authors is a bad metric for paper quality. In particular, many papers that are equally prone to suffer from the alleged problems of single-author papers have multiple authors.

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    About your third point. I've been told by my advisor that it is good to have a single-author paper (which may be impossible in some other fields, unlike mathematics) to show that you are capable of independent work, but I've also been told and seen some (positive) dissertation reviews where the referee mentioned that the work done appears to be isolated (which is bad in any field, I'm sure) due to single-author papers. Even if it is not actually isolated, I think it might give raise a flag when you are e.g. looking for work or submitting a grant proposal. So it's best to have a bit of both. – tomasz Oct 15 '15 at 9:23
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I totally agree with jakebeal's answer, but I'd like to add another possible motivation for the professor caution (however weirdly phrased). It might not apply to your case, but let me add it for the sake of completeness.

There are fields, like mathematics, computer science and theoretical physics, where publications with a single author are not at all uncommon, and PhD students are even expected to be able to produce a single-author publication.

There are other fields, especially in the experimental sciences, where publications with a single author are virtually non-existent, or limited to specific cases, simply because it would not be possible for an only person, however experienced they might be, to manage a complex experiment or to understand it correctly with respect to the state of the art.

In the latter case, an experienced researcher in front of a single-author publication from a student might think that the student actually received significant contributions from other people, but they chose not to appear as authors to boost the student's strength for some, possibly questionable, purpose (e.g. in view of an application for a position or an award).

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    other people ... choose not to appear as authors – even when they make significant contributions? i guess I have to wait a long time to witness such a thing... – silvado Oct 14 '15 at 20:03
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    @silvado Not necessarily: for a full professor with a hundred or more publications, a minor publication can be totally irrelevant, but for a student with none or few publications it can be relevant. Really, I wouldn't bet on the non-existence of the above (mal-)practice (actually, I wouldn't bet on the non-existence of any kind of malpractice). – Massimo Ortolano Oct 14 '15 at 20:11
  • A publication is never irrelevant as some universities evaluate people on the number of publications they make. Something like 6 or out. A paper with a professors name on it even if he didn't do anything is valuable for the university as it ramps up citations. On the other hand people won't think the author did all the work if there is a professors name on it, so the (no work) professor gets more credit for it. – Surt Oct 14 '15 at 23:00
  • @Surt "never" is too strong an adverb: surely most universities evaluate people on the number of publications, but in many cases if in a year you have already, say, 4 or 5 journal papers, adding a conference paper more is irrelevant. And in many universities around the world a professor is not out for not publishing. To be more specific: for me and many others I know would be irrelevant. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 15 '15 at 5:29
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    @semi-extrinsic: Yes, also in my country is like that, but what I mean is that the change of points given by a minor paper can be irrelevant for many professors, and some professors don't care too much about these national rankings. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 16 '15 at 8:03

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