Together with a colleague from a different university, I wrote a paper that has passed peer review in a respectable journal and is currently in press. The topic of the paper is very far removed from our usual research areas; let's say that my colleague is a chemist but the paper is about history (all details changed). We collaborated and wrote the paper in our spare time.

Now my colleague spoke to some university administrators and was told not to use university's affiliation on any papers that are written in the spare time / are outside of his or her direct responsibilities. As a result, my colleague wants to remove their affiliation from the paper.

I should add that my colleague is a senior researcher employed by the university, and that it is quite a well-known university in Western Europe.

My question is: How weird is that? Is such a policy common?

I was under impression that universities are only happy when their affiliation is used, and unhappy if it is not used.

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    My first reaction: what academic has "spare time"? Jan 28, 2016 at 20:34
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    How do you define 'outside your field' when you have tenure and freedom do chose your field? Might be common, but I do find it weird... Jan 28, 2016 at 21:08
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    @Fabio: I am not sure my colleague actually has a "tenure" (or a local equivalent). They might not. But I think it is weird even outside of tenure: e.g. I am a postdoc but would naturally want to put my current affiliation on any research paper even if it is outside of my main field of interest/work.
    – amoeba
    Jan 28, 2016 at 21:20
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    @StephanKolassa When else would they do research?
    – gerrit
    Jan 29, 2016 at 11:12
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    My first reaction was similar to Stephan's: how do you tell which papers are written in spare time, and which are not? Do you have to use a punch card or something? How do you separate work time and spare-time-during-which-you-are-doing-research? They seem like the same thing to me.
    – tomasz
    Jan 29, 2016 at 11:14

7 Answers 7


Let's call a spade a spade here:

  • This policy is not common. I have never heard of a faculty member in a developed country being dictated to in which area to publish or being limited in using their university affiliation only when publishing in certain areas and not in others.

  • This policy is not logical. Let's see, who is more competent to judge if a faculty member is qualified to produce high quality research on a subject? (a) The faculty member and the editor and referees of the journal they submitted their paper to; or (b) some clueless university administrator?

    Simply put, this policy ignores centuries of history that have developed academia into the bastion of creativity and free thought that it is, and proved that the academic model is one of the best models humanity has discovered for creating new knowledge. (Yeah, yeah, to the cynics among you, go ahead and feel free to kill me for this comment, and bring up everything that's wrong with academia nowadays...).

  • This policy is not surprising. This story establishes that there is at least one university somewhere in Western Europe that has at least one policy-maker who is, let's say, not the sharpest tool in the shed. I am shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

  • 7
    A agree with bastion of wossname and all that. But how does telling someone to go ahead and publish, but without their affiliation, have anything to do with who is qualified to judge the quality of the research? Generally speaking the key element of the bastion is held to be peer-reviewed publishing, not academic affiliation. Isn't it? I mean sure, it's annoying to publish your history paper as "Dr. Joe Bloggs, no fixed abode" instead of "Dr. Joe Bloggs, Senior Researcher in Chemistry at Dumbass University", but they aren't trying to prevent it being published. Jan 29, 2016 at 11:36
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    @SteveJessop you're right, the university isn't preventing Dr. Bloggs from publishing, but it still behaving foolishly and counter-productively by (as I wrote) "ignoring centuries of history ... creation of new knowledge". Specifically, there are many examples where a researcher from discipline X made a breakthrough discovery in (seemingly unrelated) discipline Y. The university's policy might discourage such a researcher from pursuing the research in the worst case, or at least make the university look very stupid when the discovery comes out without the university's name being involved.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 29, 2016 at 16:56

Generally the opposite is true in the United States -- the university wishes to have jurisdiction over all work done using university resources -- which includes the laptops and computers we use. Since faculty are exempt employees presumably we have no "free time," but instead work 24x7 for the university (except for the summer months for 9-month employees). So basically any idea that I come up with from August to May of the calendar year and that I use my school resources to work on, is the property of the university unless specifically disclaimed.

Just ask your patents and licensing office to sign a document saying that your university hereby releases you of all possible intellectual property and inventions that may come out of your paper (even if it's in History!) and see if they change their tune.

Note also that many American universities require their faculty to fill out a "Faculty Activity Report" every year that details all of their publications (as well as service/teaching work). The university uses it internally to determine promotions and retention; but it also forwards this data to organizations such as the National Research Council -- that determine university and department ranking using criteria such as number of publications.

Thus it is in the university's best interests (both for IP and for ranking purposes) to capture every single faculty publication that it can. So I would think your scenario would be implausible for most R1 universities in the USA, at least.

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    So basically any idea that I come up with from August to May of the calendar year, or that I use my school laptop to design, is the property of the university unless specifically disclaimed. I believe this is wrong. First, exempt employees do not work 24-7 - that's a ridiculous statement to make even figuratively. Second, at least in California an employer cannot claim ownership of IP an employee generates in their spare time that is unrelated to their normal work duties. I don't have a reference but was told this by a lawyer some years ago in connection to a discussion about patents.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 29, 2016 at 0:27
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    "A. An agreement to assign inventions and patents to the University, except those resulting from permissible consulting activities without use of University facilities, shall be mandatory for all employees, for persons not employed by the University but who use University research facilities, and for those who receive gift, grant, or contract funds through the University. Such an agreement may be in the form of an acknowledgment of obligation to assign. " ucop.edu/ott/patentpolicy/patentpo.html
    – RoboKaren
    Jan 29, 2016 at 1:33
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    @RoboKaren thanks for clarifying the post. Yes, inventions that were developed using university resources are a different story, so you're right about that. By the way, I assume you're posting here in your spare time, so if you still believe you work 24-7 for your university, be careful not to post anything of commercial value, or you may find that your obligations to your employer are in conflict with the license under which content on A.SE gets posted.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 29, 2016 at 1:41
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    If they do indeed own it then that means they get to decide whether and how it's published, not that they necessarily want their name all over it. So I think this answer misses describing the connection between how common it is to assert jurisdiction and how common it is to want the affilliation mentioned in the paper. Jan 29, 2016 at 11:29
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    +1. Thanks a lot for your answer. I liked both your answer and the one by @DonRomik and could not decide which one to accept. After some hesitation I accepted DonRomik's one but yours is rewarded by several more upvotes. It's a neat idea about asking the university to sign a document; I don't think my colleague is interested in fighting this fight though.
    – amoeba
    Feb 4, 2016 at 21:42

tl;dr: Endorsing such paper bears high risk and promises a low reward.

Long answer:

Not many academics these days write outside of their narrow scope of expertise. Clearly, there is no general policy or practice of how institutions deal with such rare situations as they occur; every administrator probably comes out with an ad hoc solution based on their personal understanding of what's appropriate.

I can think of several reasons why a University may want to disassociate from a Paper written by a Professor in a new Field.

  • The Professor may think they have made a breakthrough in the Field, whereas in fact (s)he only scratched a surface of a subject, or understand it completely wrong. One example is Fomenko's New Chronology but I'm sure there are more.
  • The Field may be highly controversial by its nature (e.g. politics, social science, religion) and Professor may lack understanding how to present the argument in a way which avoids potential conflicts and accusations. The University does not want to be involved in potential scandal, and avoids it.

The higher risks of endorsing the Paper come together with a reasonable low reward. It is less likely that someone completely new to the Field come out with a suggestion which will have a transformative effect. Unless the Professor articulates that they firmly decide to move to this Area (change Departments, attract new research grants, develop new programs, supervise new PhD students), the University does not really benefit much from the Paper.

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    This doesn't answer the OP's question, and furthermore I disagree with your explanation. The risk is not high, and the reward is neither lower nor higher than for "normal publications". And as for controversial research areas, plenty of researchers have a full time position doing research in such areas, yet presumably they would be allowed to use the university's name.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 28, 2016 at 22:56
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    Research getting a lot of attention (even if controversial) is usually a good thing for the institution. The peer review process should weed out crackpot ideas or work that completely misunderstands the field. However, it is far more likely that the paper will be low profile and have no effect on the University's reputation.
    – user24098
    Jan 29, 2016 at 15:12
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    I imagine that Florida Atlantic University would not like to be associated with Professor James Tracey's "work" on the Sandy Hook shooting.
    – emory
    Jan 29, 2016 at 23:35
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    Exceptions not withstanding, as others have pointed out, the risk for a university is low and the reward typically high. I find this answer neither factually correct nor helpful. Jan 30, 2016 at 0:12
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    @DanRomik I believe, both Qs of OP are answered in my comment: (1) This may look weird to some people, but not to me (this part is opinion-based); (2) This is not a policy, since there is no universal policy - particular administrators deal with such a rare event differently. Jan 30, 2016 at 22:51

I have certainly never heard of any such policy. It makes no sense. The university is giving away free good publicity for being named on another research paper. And an individual faculty member being successful by authoring another paper is also good for the department, the university, and everyone who's in this together. The policy simply makes no sense unless the paper is so bad that it would reflect poorly on the university (which doesn't appear to be the case here).

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    Your last sentence kind of suggests that you can assess the quality of a paper you've never seen. Jan 29, 2016 at 8:06
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    @Dmitry, in any case the university managers/lawyers who advised to remove the affiliation did not see the paper either, I think they were not really aware of what it was about or in what journal it was going to be published. Their rule (as far as I understood it) was simply: if the paper is outside of your field, do not use our affiliation.
    – amoeba
    Jan 29, 2016 at 10:36
  • This policy would certainly not be based on the quality of the paper.
    – user24098
    Jan 29, 2016 at 15:14
  • @DmitryGrigoryev -- I was just using a hypothetical. There may be cases where a university asked a faculty member to take down an individual paper that they know about (through whatever channels). Say, a university hears about a faculty member who submitted a paper to a holocaust denyer journal. -- -- -- But, obviously, in the case at hand, whatever strategy the university is following makes no sense whatsoever. Jan 29, 2016 at 22:58
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    @DmitryGrigoryev OP said that the paper was peer reviewed and accepted in a respectable journal, so it seems like at least the basic quality test passed successfully, so it is likely not bad (maybe not good, we don't know, but at least not bad).
    – gaborous
    Jan 31, 2016 at 2:02

A point that has not been directly raised in earlier answers and/or comments: while one's tenure or other confirmation does confirm one's competence in a certain bailiwick, it does not confirm universal competence. There is a well-known fallacy, with various insulting-to-unfortunate-individuals eponyms, that (exterme, let's say) competence in one arena begets competence in ... any other that might be desired. Well, duh, that's obviously not going to be universally true, although there might be instances of instances...

I do not know the particular "institutional" motivation for inhibition of "affiliation", but if I were "the decider" for faculty (and affiliates) doing "research" for which they have no detectable credentials, I think I'd be entirely happy to have my institution's name not linked. (Don't get me wrong, the ideologies and philosophies of ... apparently ... most of these institutions are venal, etc., but, still, manifest crackpottery doesn't help anyone, truly.)

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    Paul, this research was apparently accepted for publication in a respectable journal according to the OP, so your comment about lack of detectable credentials, and your use of sneer quotes around the word research, are off the mark IMO.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 29, 2016 at 3:27
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    While the tone of this answer is harsh, it is a rather plausible explanation of the situation. I was about to post something similar, though more diplomatic. Jan 29, 2016 at 8:11
  • I second this, I can think of one reason for such a policy: the university might not want that its name can be used to legitimate research done outside of the researcher's expertise. An example could be the colleague is a History professor and the hobby research is about the benefits of a controversial "alternative" form of therapy.
    – Cape Code
    Jan 29, 2016 at 10:39
  • @DanRomik, not "sneer" quotes, just quotes showing some coloration of the sense of the word. Also, I don't wish to disparage the people writing the papers, but only to explain the probable thinking of bureaucrats who seek a "simple rule". Jan 29, 2016 at 13:29
  • The answer does not support interdisciplinary research. In physics, Phys. Rev. X aims to link various approaches and directions. If the OP passed peer review in a respectable journal, then the paper is good and valid.
    – Nikey Mike
    Jun 12, 2016 at 19:50

The university actually doesn't have the right to make such demands. If an author is affiliated with institution X then mentioning that in the article is just a statement of fact, it's not meant to be interpreted as an endorsement of the paper's content by the university. So, the author should ignore this request from the university.

The university will, of course, take measures against employees who during work or in their free time engage in activities that have a negative impact on the university's reputation. But that's not the case here. Consider also the case of giving an interview on radio or t.v. on some topic that may be totally unrelated to your work at university. There is then, in general, no reasonable case for the university to demand that your affiliation with them should be kept a secret. It would be a different matter if you were employed by the CIA.


How about this real-life case: A tenured professor in Electrical Engineering, publishing papers about "Holocaust's truth". Should he use the University's name while being introduced as a speaker on the subject of Holocaust?

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    You're making the same mistake that a few of the other answers and comments make, which is to latch on to extreme situations, and to ignore the existence of similar extremes among faculty who are publishing in their "official" area of expertise. The EE professor could be publishing very good quality research on the Holocaust; certainly the fact that it was accepted for publication by a respected journal suggests that that's likely. Conversely, a faculty member doing "official" research on the Holocaust (or in EE) could be publishing complete garbage. ...
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 30, 2016 at 0:37
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    ... In other words, the policy described in the question draws a completely imaginary and artificial line in an attempt to separate research that's likely to be "reputable" from research that's likely to be unreputable. That's very misguided. It's simply not the administration's business to act as an arbiter of who can publish good research on what subject. No amount of rationalization or citing of anecdotal examples can change the fact that it's simply an illogical policy that will only discourage good research from being performed and/or make the university look stupid when it is.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 30, 2016 at 0:37
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    @DanRomik: Note that while I disagree with this position, it may be what motivated whoever made that policy (which in turn could be some PR person having no idea of academia whatsoever). So it can explain the existence of this policy and needs not even be CCL’s opinion.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 30, 2016 at 8:57
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    @Wrzlprmft all kinds of things "may be" what the writer of the answer intended to say, but did not say. If someone wants to say "I believe this is what motivated the decision-makers, but it's not my opinion" then they should say that explicitly. Citing incorrect reasoning to explain someone else's silly decision without explaining that you think it's incorrect is misleading and is in my opinion more harmful than not citing that reasoning at all, since you risk creating the impression that you agree with it and lending it whatever credibility you have.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 30, 2016 at 9:05

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