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I am the advisor of an absolutely brilliant but unusually young student.

He has written an outstanding paper relating to this field, one which I am extremely certain will be worked upon and appreciated by many, because of the paper's influential value.

However, he has asked me to publish the paper under my own name because he wants to "expose himself to the insights of others regarding his own insight." He doesn't want to publish under his own name, because he feels that when people find out that the author of the paper is so young, they'll give him the treatment that a clown gets in a circus; praise and praise. Such praise he believes is extremely detrimental to this stage in his career.

He says, further, that he doesn't want to feel like some child prodigy, which in turn feels like being some painting on an exhibition that people admire and later walk by, and that it's likely for his peers to feel "intimidated" or be struck by some other negative thought which will come naturally.

I insisted that none of these things will happen and that he should take the credit for what he has rightfully done, but he says, "They need to know and if you publish this paper, they will know. And if I publish this paper, they will know and later forget."

I don't know what to do in this scenario.

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    Why can't he publish under a pseudonym (and disclose that it's a pseudonym)? That's a lot more ethical than misleading others by saying you wrote the paper. – ff524 Dec 4 '15 at 20:38
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    New account, implausible story....this one triggers my troll detector. Perhaps related to academia.stackexchange.com/questions/58929/… ? – Corvus Dec 4 '15 at 20:47
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    Haha! Someone doesn't want to take credit for their work? Def Trolling – FirebladeDan Dec 4 '15 at 22:01
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    I am sorry, but I do not believe this story. The whole premise that publishers find out about the age and care of the author is flawed (at least in physics, where I have not yet seen a journal that publishes or requires CV’s of the authors). As a supervisor in this field you should at least have commented on this. The only exception is if your student has published his CV/age somewhere but then he risks being “discovered” as a child prodigy much more through this (being a PhD student at the age of 17 makes him eligible for this anyway) than through publishing a paper. – Wrzlprmft Dec 5 '15 at 7:30
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If he's a PhD student, he has to publish papers regardless of his age. I doubt many journal publishers would ask for the authors age (even the top tier ones). Make him understand the importance of publication and his destiny as a researcher.

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    Yep. My advisors were not limited to the academic/scientific part, I got some life lessons from them as well. Learning to deal with the consequences of the research is well within those boundaries, IMHO. – Fábio Dias Dec 8 '15 at 5:16
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Well, of course, you absolutely cannot publish the student's work under your own name, so take that off the table right away. You can explain to the student that a fundamental principle of academic ethics is that one absolutely does not take credit for the work of another, and that doing so would jeopardize your entire career. So whatever the resolution of this situation is, it can't be that.

Ethically, the student could publish under a pseudonym, but I don't think it is a great idea. If the work really is that significant, researchers in the field are going to want to talk to the author: contact him to ask questions about the paper, invite him to conferences and seminars, suggest collaborations. In principle he could refuse it all, or decline to give any contact information, but this would ultimately limit the impact of his work, and it seems that it's important to him that his work should have an impact. Moreover, I think using a pseudonym would actually divert the attention away from the work and toward the mysterious author, and when his identity eventually is discovered (as I think it must), the result would only be more of the unwanted "circus clown" treatment.

Now, I think I can understand the student's fear. I think many people in fields like math and physics have had the experience of laypeople saying "I don't have any understanding of what you do, but you must be really smart." It may be meant as complimentary, but it can be very frustrating - there's an implication of "You are different from me, I cannot relate to you, and I don't want to try". It's emotionally uncomfortable. So for a person who not only works in a specialized field, but shows unusual talent at an early age, this effect must be greatly magnified, and I can sympathize with the wish to avoid it.

The difference, though, is that people within the field really don't behave like that. Their attention really will be on the work itself. There may be just a little bit of extra amazement at the author's age (since physicists are human too), but it won't overshadow the work. It seems that you've tried to reassure the student of this, but he's not convinced.

So perhaps you should try to put the student in touch with one or more people in your field who has had the experience of being a "prodigy", and gone on to be a successful, mature researcher. This person should hopefully be able to better relate to your student's concerns, share their experience of what it is actually like to enter the field from such a background, and offer guidance for managing unwanted attention or similar issues. This might help the student understand that his fears are unfounded, and encourage him to go ahead with publishing under his own name, which I think we can agree is ultimately what's best.

  • Absolutely amazing point made there! Put him in touch with other brilliant students! – Jony Agarwal Dec 8 '15 at 10:45
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I will attempt to answer this question from experience. In the comments @tonystg suggested that 17 would count as "exceptionally young." I started my research career at approximately that age. I got to know quite a few young people who were making exceptionally rapid academic progress.

Sometimes a student will make a lot of progress in one academic field; this does not mean they will have equally good understanding of the broader social context of that field. The solution is socialization with other people who are exceptional or unusual, preferably including those of a similar age and with similar disciplinary interests. Personally, I got this sort of experience at Simon's Rock College. You should also teach your students, exceptional or otherwise, about how to strategize effectively to achieve their career goals; tell them how admissions/hiring decisions made.

Imagine an African American student came to you and said they were concerned they would face racism in an academic setting. Hopefully you would advise them that while racism is not normal, it does occur. It can also be overcome by a variety of strategies, such as persistence, education, and unity among those who support diversity. You can support an academically talented student in a similar way. Please do not suggest that they will not be mistreated. This will only increase the harm the student experiences because it implies the student deserves the unfair treatment. Personally, I was frequently treated like a clown at a circus when I was young. I was also occasionally physically assaulted. However, I do not regret my efforts to learn and become a scientist one bit. It's worthwhile to learn to cope with other people's bad behaviour so it does not stand in the way of your goals.

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  1. Ethically, you cannot publish that student's work under your name which you will need to assertively convey to this student. The suggestion of a pseudonym can be a viable solution.

  2. A conversation that needs to happen is about the value of research & publishing papers. Make sure to acknowledge the student's fear and explain why you feel this paper has merit and should be read by others.

  3. Especially with younger students, the feeling of being outside the norm makes them uncomfortable. They struggle to fit in and often choose to conceal any ability that makes them "different." As it was suggested, connecting them with peers of similar age and talent can help.

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