I understand that in a lot of big-lab fields it is common for the principal investigator to append their name to a paper even if they did not write the paper, design the experiment, or collect data since they spend energy securing funding, and managing the whole lab. What about for small labs?

What are the requirements for a supervisor to be included as an author on a paper, as opposed to just appearing in the acknowledgements? If you are working on your own projects independently of your supervisor, but using funding provided by your supervisor (how does this change when the funding provides resources versus just your salary), are you suppose to add them as authors or just acknowledge the source of funding?

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    See also the same question on MO: mathoverflow.net/questions/57337/… Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 8:21
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    @trav1s Please see the Principal investigator Wiki page.
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 8:05
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    My university's research ethics policy (rightly!) prohibits this. Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 9:47
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    @cagirici By that standard, I should become coauthor on every paper I reviewed. Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 14:35
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    @cagirici That's why you frequently see Acknowledgments such as "We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers" (or supervisor, or colleague, or random internet stranger) "for comments that improved the presentation." For co-authorship, the intellectual contribution has to be much more substantial. (A useful rule-of-thumb I once heard was that a co-author is someone without whom the paper could not have been written at all.) Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 9:39

9 Answers 9


Allow me to strongly disagree with eykanal's answer. There is no universal standard. You must ask your advisor in advance what her coauthorship policy is.

In theoretical computer science (and mathematics), it is generally considered unethical to list someone as a co-author who has not made a novel and significant intellectual contribution to the paper. In particular, merely funding the research is not considered an intellectual contribution. Adding a supervisor's name to a paper to which they have not directly, intellectually contributed is lying.

In practice, writing a good grant proposal requires at least as much intellectual novelty as writing a good paper. Most of the good ideas that PIs pour into their proposals also appear in papers; as long as those ideas constitute novel intellectual contributions, the PI merits co-authorship. But that only works once per idea; once an idea has been published, it's no longer novel, by definition.

To be specific and personal:

  • I am not a coauthor on all of my PhD students' papers. (Of course, I still report my students' independent work back to NSF as outcomes on whatever grants supported them. So I still get credit from NSF for having the foresight to fund the student.) The same is true of all the other theoretical computer science faculty in my department.

  • My PhD advisor is a co-author on only one of the papers I published as a PhD student.

  • My PhD advisor doesn't have a single co-authored paper with his advisor.

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    See also this answer on MathOverflow, which takes the even more extreme view that advisors should not be coauthors on the main paper from a student's PhD thesis, even if they made a substantial intellectual contribution. (Like Gil Kalai, I think this is a bad rule.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 16:27
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    No -1, because it's a valid answer, but I'll definitely take issue with the "lying" statement. As a grad student, in almost all cases, you did not write the grant, do any preliminary research, and do the necessary background reading. You just did the project itself. By doing all that, your professor definitely contributed to the project. Saying that he has no contribution is simply incorrect.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 2:13
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    In my research community, adding a coauthor who made no intellectual contribution to the paper is considered straight-up, black-and-white dishonesty. Who wrote the proposal Does Not Matter. If the preliminary research is a novel intellectual contribution to that paper, it merits co-authorship; otherwise, it does not. Background reading per se is not an intellectual contribution—anyone can read—although figuring out how to apply those prior results to the problem at hand could be. Most importantly: The publication IS the project.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 8:26
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    @eykanal In the case of an independent project (If you are working on your own projects independently of your supervisor), although it is not the most common thing, OP means no preliminary research/reading support. There is a difference between a project proposed by PI on which one is working solo than an independent project. Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 8:31
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    @JeffE - I guess this is another "it differs from field to field". It appears that the heart of the question is whether writing a proposal counts as an "intellectual contribution" to the research by itself, which (I'm guessing based on the discussion) differs from field to field.
    – eykanal
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 12:34

The following answer is based on my experience in the fields of Neuroscience, Biology, and to a lesser extent, Electrical Engineering.

This is often an unnecessarily touchy subject amongst graduate students. To be clear: As a graduate student, you can expect that your advisor will appear as an author on all of your papers. He is providing your funding, your resources, and (ostensibly) is the Primary Investigator on whatever project you happen to be working on. Even if he does not contribute, you are working on his project, and he wrote the grant for it, not you. There may be situations where you will be the sole author of a paper you published during your graduate career, but those will be unusual circumstances, indeed.

That being said, you can read through the Wikipedia article on the subject, which discusses conflict. This Canadian Medical Association Journal article (thanks, Wikipedia) states that authorship ordering conflicts occurred in over 60% of published papers. To help with things, there's a good chance your university has it's own authorship guidelines (e.g., [1][2]); speak with your department.

Most importantly, speak with your advisor. Clear communication early on can help to stave off future problems, or sometimes communication will alert you to the fact that there may be future problems that you should address early on.

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    This seems to be the norm in my lab for Computer Science, rather than JeffE's answer. It's good to see that this is the norm some other places before I started to wage a big ethics war. Additional note: my lab has two professors on a tenure track. Perhaps once you have tenure you become more ethical? ;D Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 21:52
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    This answer is not really helpful for deciding about a specific case of authorship (as the question is asking for) but only reports general observations (“you can expect”, “There may be situations”, …). Also, should you indeed propose that providing funding and resources suffices for authorship, you are contradicting authorship rules from journals in the very fields you are mentioning (e.g., this one) and I am with JeffE.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:17
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    While I agree with the idealistic answers, one of which is sitting further up in this thread (as in, that's how things should be), I think this is a good real world answer. Although, it may have been nice to explicitly invoke the power structures of a Supervisor-PhDStudent relation (dynamics) too. That's also one of the possible reasons why these kinda' supervisors get co-authorship in all papers of their students :)
    – 299792458
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 5:27

There are two reasons that authorship is a difficult area for students:

  1. Power dynamics make students suspicious of being exploited, but
  2. Attribution of ideas is very difficult. Supervisors can spend months or years describing an idea to a student, and when the student finally understands the idea they get the "ah ha!" sensation of discovery and think it's their own.

No one thinks less of you for having your supervisor's name on a paper since everyone knows this is tricky, so I think it makes sense to be generous – at least so long as your supervisor has agreed to have their name on the paper. If they feel they have made enough of an investment to deserve to have their name associated with your work, then I would give them the benefit of the doubt. If you can't even trust them on this, why are you taking their academic advice at all? But if your supervisor has specifically asked that you keep their name off your paper, you should respect that (and be sure that you understand why!)

In general, authorship on any article with any group of people should be agreed well in advance of submission by all involved parties, in writing (email or recorded chat sessions). The generosity principle works so long as whoever did the most work and the most writing is the first author, and efforts by the team should be made to ensure where possible that that is the same person.

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    I agree entirely with your first point, but not quite with the second. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Writing them up, embedding them in the existing literature, proving them, validating them and going through all the work to get them published is a whole different ball game. If anybody has an idea but is not willing to go through at least part of the whole process with their students, well, then their idea is worthless.
    – Pedro
    Commented Mar 21, 2012 at 21:50
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    Pedro, I can see your perspective but I respectfully disagree. Some ideas have more value than others, both in terms of "legs" (how far will it go? how many publications & extensions can we derive from this work?), uniqueness (how many other people understand the problem well enough to have this idea?), and realised financial value (we have a grant to study this.) I agree though without the effort you mention nothing will happen – that's why students get an authorship too. Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 19:31

I will address only the last questions (just to add to the other answers):

If you are working on your own projects independently of your supervisor, but using funding provided by your supervisor, are you suppose to add them as authors or just acknowledge the source of funding?

Funding is to be mentioned in acknowledgements, not in co-authors.


  • In experimental projects often you are supposed to add your supervisor as an author. Actually, I does make sense as setting up lab, collecting equipment and gathering know-how is a (scientific) resource you base on.
  • Unless it is a completely independent project, you may be expected to add your supervisor (or rather: (s)he may expect you to add him/her) for relatively small contributions, e.g. comments or revisions of the manuscript. But this may be very discipline- and group-dependent (better discuss it with your supervisor in advance).

Honestly, as @eykanal has said, the easiest thing to do with this is to speak with your advisor ahead of time and establish a clear policy you both understand and agree to. You should do this even in cases where there doesn't seem to be any clear conflict, everyone's roles are perfectly predictable, and contributions to the paper seem obvious. It's one of those things, like frequent backups, that spares heartache later.

There are many ways such a policy might be made. Your department or university might have rules, your field might have rules, etc.

Generally speaking however, here are things that have happened in my experience:

  • Major papers that make heavy use of a lab's resources (including you, a grad student funded by the lab) will likely have your supervisors name on the paper.
  • More important than does/does not your supervisor's name appear on your papers is (if you field follows the non-alphabetical author ordering scheme) where they appear. They may most often appear in the senior author position, but on a paper where you had a great deal of help and advice from another faculty member? It may be more appropriate to place them in the middle. Again, this should be settled ahead of time.
  • If its truly an independent effort that doesn't draw from lab resources, it may be appropriate for your supervisor not to be on the paper. But before you press that, consider whether or not it's particularly worth not having them on. Your answer may vary, and if you think you'd benefit particularly from a solo paper, you might wish to bring it up.
  • While collaborators who provided data, technical expertise, etc. may be appropriate for authorship, if you can, try your hardest to avoid having "co-authors" who are only distantly connected with the paper. I have never, ever had anything but trouble getting things like draft approval or copyright transfer agreements from people with no stake in the paper other than their name buried in the middle of the authorship list.

After some science fraud scandals, the German Science Foundation published ethical rules which also cover this — here I paste the version from Heidelberg University (which is more or less the same as the original). They talk about "substantial role": that still leaves some space to interpretation. However, they specifically exclude just providing funding.

If multiple authors have contributed to research or in writing a scientific report, those persons are to be named as co-authors who played a substantial role in

  1. defining the problem, drawing up research plans, conducting research, evaluating or interpreting research outcomes, and
  2. drafting or critical review and revision of manuscript content. Co-authorship does not apply to persons who merely technically contribute to the collection of data, or who merely provide funding, or who merely serve as the head of the department or institution in which the research is carried out. Likewise persons who merely read the manuscript without contributing to its content are not considered co-authors.

As other said, different fields have different conventions and different labs have different conventions, both on who's an author, and on the author ordering. The first author is often who did most work; in biology, some grant programs require >=X papers as first author and >= Y paper as last author (senior author).

But some common practices are indeed unfair/unethical.

  • Also see here for the authorship guidelines of a publisher covering several scientific fields. They also require specific lists of authorship contribution and I do not think they will accept someone whose only contribution was to provide the lab.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:01

You should of course research the norms for your specific field. However, in order to resolve precisely this ambiguity, it is becoming much more common in certain fields to have a section of the paper that actually specifies exactly what the author contributions are. The Cell Press and PLoS journals, among others, actually require the use of a defined vocabulary called the CRediT Taxonomy, first outlined in Brand et al., 2015 [pdf]. Some of the role descriptions include "Supervision", "Project Administration", and "Funding Acquisition" in addition to "Investigation", "Formal Analysis", and others relating more directly to carrying out the research itself. Compared to author order, which is a field-dependent and sometimes low-information indicator, this makes it much more clear why each given author was listed.


The authorship guidelines of my university says " Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, DO NOT JUSTIFY authorship." However my supervisor kills me if I do not mention his name as the second author in my papers in which he did not have any contribution and he even does not know the basics of the work.

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    [T]he collection of data. What field are you in? In mine - optical spectroscopy (of crystals) - running an experiment can be quite an ordeal, especially if a sample is sensitive to atmospheric oxygen or water vapor. We, therefore, list every member of our group, that helped out with long night shifts at synchrotrons and running measurements, even though this amount only to collection of data.
    – LLlAMnYP
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 12:51
  • My field is electrical engineering and collection of data in my field means to get a real-world dataset from a relevant agency.
    – Nile
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 16:38

Since your question included the word "lab" the answer is that the supervisor will be on it, regardless of contribution.

The best justification for this is that labs are expensive, and the supervisor's main job is to keep it running, and they need all the kudos they can get. Labs that go broke are in no position to attract students, so you could say that your supervisor earned their keep before you even started.

Is this fair? No, obviously not. If you are looking for fair, get out of academia.

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