My PhD supervisor has contributed 0% to my research and he even does not know the basics of my research. On the other hand, I have a collaborator from another university who has contributed significantly to my work. Now that the manuscript is ready to submit, my supervisor demands to be the second author, after me as the first author and before my collaborator. My colleagues recommended that I do whatever he asks because he can easily screw up my life for few years by delaying my graduation. The reason he claims for the second position is that my university pays my scholarship, not my collaborator's university.

I am confused and worried. I do not want to be unethical .... Any idea?

Just and update : According to my university authorship guidelines "Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, DO NOT JUSTIFY authorship. "

But if I remind him the ethical issues, it's like a declaration of war!

  • 25
    There's several different things to consider and its sounds terrible, but before that it's really helpful to know what field you're working in (specifically to know if the professor is say funding a lab and whether your funding is generically from the school or from a grant).
    – virmaior
    Apr 18, 2016 at 23:45
  • 4
    What do your other coauthors think?
    – adipro
    Apr 19, 2016 at 0:07
  • 10
    @TheFireGuy "In engineering, the most important "guy" is the advisor! " - uh, major [citation needed]. Many students in engineering collaborate with people besides for their advisors, with the collaborators sometimes contributing more (especially if e.g. the work is closer to the collaborators' expertise than the advisor's).
    – ff524
    Apr 19, 2016 at 15:57
  • 12
    In my field, putting the supervisor second and the collaborator last is giving more weight to the collaborator.
    – Fomite
    Apr 19, 2016 at 20:47
  • 4
    Ask yourself: if getting your desired degree requires you to be unethical, what does that say of people who have gotten it? In that situation, I would directly confront my supervisor and inform him that his name will not be on my paper, and I would record the conversation. If this causes problems for you, I would send that recording to his peers and anyone who has authority over him. If that doesn't work, go to the press. In my opinion, your supervisor's behavior is not befitting of any honest human being and that won't change until it is brought out for everyone to see.
    – Adam
    Apr 19, 2016 at 21:55

11 Answers 11


Your supervisor sounds most unreasonable. "The reason he claims for the second position is that my university pays my scholarship not my colloborators's school." Perhaps you should add the president of your university as the second author. (Of course, don't actually do that: it would expose your supervisor's immature behavior in a very passive-aggressive way.)

My feeling is that given the callowness of your supervisor, you should consider yourself fortunate that you are first author. Isn't that what really matters? That's not a rhetorical question, because in my field ordering of authors is strictly alphabetical, but I don't know of a field in which being second author means much. So it may well be that your supervisor is just being petty without really harming any of your collaborators. Anyway, it seems to me that you have already discharged your ethical responsibilities by suggesting what you think is a good ordering of the coauthors. If the coauthors other than you disagree with the ordering among non-first-authors, isn't it really up to them? If your other coauthors are among the ones who are advising you to put Professor Immature as second author: under the circumstances, I would go with that. If on the other hand they object: well, of course they have that right, and they should hash it out with your supervisor.

  • 4
    The problem is that I have been the link between my advisor and my collaborators, so my advisor forces me to convince them and I really feel bad to ask them, also I am afraid that this will discourage them to continue collaboration with me. Especially I think that my supervisor will demand the same thing for all my future papers
    – LoLo
    Apr 19, 2016 at 0:37
  • 18
    @LoLo: It sounds like a very tough situation. But I don't know what it means to force you to convince someone else to do something. Authors of a paper have to be able to talk to each other about issues of coauthorship, so if one of your coauthors is unhappy about your supervisor being second author, they need to discuss it with your advisor and your advisor needs to listen. By the way, if you really do have a valuable continuing collaboration with these other professors: have you considered transferring to be their student? Your advisor sounds like an ogre to me. Apr 19, 2016 at 0:52
  • 4
    Concerning your last two comments: it takes at least two to play God. You simply don't have to accept that role. For me personally, you have already accepted way too much bad behavior from your supervisor: he doesn't have any expertise in your field, and he doesn't have your interests at heart. What else is there? If it is a question of spending a year longer and working with people who can actually mentor you and have a good relationship with you....isn't that why you're in a PhD program? If you can get a formal offer from another department, maybe your supervisor will straighten up. Apr 19, 2016 at 1:08
  • 27
    "I have only one collaborate, I used just plural form just to mention the issue in general!" Wait, what? Please do not obfuscate. Describe the situation as it actually exists, otherwise you're wasting people's (e.g. my) time. Apr 19, 2016 at 1:10
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    Piling on Pete L. Clark's penultimate comment: in my opinion, the main criticality of your situation is the attribution of authorship to a person who "has contributed 0% to my research and basically he even does not know the basics of my research" rather than the order of the authors. If I were in your shoes, I'd start searching for a new more serious advisor (e.g., the co-author) right away (even though it may cost spending one more year on your degree) since being associated to your current supervisor (and his questionable policies) might actually harm your career.
    – user51802
    Apr 19, 2016 at 11:47

I agree with others that your advisor is somewhat despicable, but as a graduate student it is just not worth playing the hero. You should say to your collaborators: "Look, this guy wants to be a second author and there is not much I can do." and they will understand (they already seem to pretty understanding) and won't notch a minus to your name because it is not your fault. So just relax and don't behave like that once you get up the pole.

  • 4
    Right, let's not play hero now - let's put that off until some other time.
    – user296844
    Apr 19, 2016 at 17:29
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    I agree, especially since the O.P. elaborates in a comment under the question,: The other co-authors are reputable professors and they strongly disagree because of all the time they have spent on this project and all their efforts. I think that's the key: this should be a matter between the professors to sort out amongst themselves, and the student shouldn't be the one caught in the middle of it, trying to figure it out.
    – J.R.
    Apr 19, 2016 at 20:36

Authorship discussions should be had out in the open, as early as possible, as often as needed, and always with the involvement of all authors. While your advisor may or may not be correct in asking to be second named author, they are certainly not correct in pushing for this change without the knowledge of the third person involved. They are now putting you in a difficult position and they probably know it.

Hard to say what's best without knowing more about the situation (how is your relation in general? has authorship been discussed previously?). But one way to play it would be to just be honest about your own discomfort and say something like:

"Thanks for your suggestion, let's see how we can work this out. Given the involvement of X, I had assumed 2nd authorship would be fitting for them, and they may assume the same. So I feel a bit uncomfortable unilaterally pushing them back to 3rd position. If you think authorship should be renegotiated, it's probably best if we involve them in the discussion. That way everybody can speak for themselves."

Finally, authorship conventions differ a lot by field. In my field (cognitive science), last author usually implies "this is the lab the work was done in", so I am usually fine with final position for projects on which I am involved as an advisor.

  • 1
    Your suggestion cannot work when you are facing with bad human beings, they pretend to be nice to people who are in the same level as them but so mean to people who are at the bottom of the food chain, if those two discuss it and that hurts my supervisor's ego, I am the one who will pay the price.
    – LoLo
    Apr 22, 2016 at 16:02
  • 1
    Well it seems you've already made up your mind then: your advisor is a bad human being and you'll accept his suggestion to bump down the other one to 3d and move him up to 2nd authorship. You may have already agreed, in which case our suggestions here are moot, but I think you may be too much motivated by fear. People "up the food chain" may try to get as much as they can as long as there is no resistance, but they are also sensitive to reasonable suggestions and worries. The point is to at least make the suggestion in a clever way, not to go along silently, whatever the final outcome. Apr 24, 2016 at 8:37

Since your advisor is asking you to convince the collaborators, just tell him that they disagree strongly and that you don't want to ruffle their feathers since "you'll work with them in the future." But you tried, oh, so very hard to convince them. Tweak as needed.


There may be a way out, depending on the journal that you intend to submit to. Some journals, such as those associated with the American Physical Society, have very clearly delineated ethical rules about who qualifies for authorship. As I recall, in those journals (e.g., Physical Review Letters) to not violate ethical considerations, authorship requires "substantial" participation. Your supervisor does not meet that requirement so, in principle, should not be among the authors.

However, no one on the reviewing end is going to ask pointed questions about who did what, so, in the end, it will depend on how far you are willing to stick out your neck.

  • 1
    It could help the advisor see that what they're doing is wrong, in a less confrontational, "I don't hate you and it's not my fault, but you're not the 2nd author" way
    – Xen2050
    Apr 19, 2016 at 18:43

In my university authorship rules it's clearly mentioned that "Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, DO NOT JUSTIFY authorship. "


There are two issues that need to be addressed. The first is has your supervisor done enough to warrant authorship. While these rules depend slightly on field and journal, they are usually well documented and no field allows gift authorship.

The second issue, assuming your supervisor has done enough to warrant authorship, is author order. As far as I know, the conventions of order are field depend and not generally well documented. If you are in a field that list authors based on contribution, then it is a difficult situation. As your coauthors are willing to accept the ordering, it is not a huge issue. One thing to consider is writing author contribution statements.


All Australian universities adhere to the 'Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research'; you can search for this. This document spells out who can be co-authors. All universities should have a page on co-authorship policies. Perhaps you could kindly make your supervisor aware of such policies. Maybe then he/she will think twice.

  • 1
    My colleagues say he definitely knows the policies but he also knows I need his signature for graduation. If I remind him the ethical issues, it is like declaration of war for him!
    – LoLo
    Apr 22, 2016 at 15:48
  • In my university authorship rules it's clearly mentioned that "Acquisition of funding, the collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, by themselves, DO NOT JUSTIFY authorship. "
    – LoLo
    Apr 22, 2016 at 15:48
  • @LoLo on the signature comment: at my university, a student can go up to the Dean of Research to overrule the supervisor. This is made possible to protect students against their supervisor(s). Apr 22, 2016 at 21:37

In my field, Chem and EE, it was and is considered "normal" and ethical to list authors in the order of their contribution. In your specific case, I would list you first, your collaborator second, and always the advisor(in my case, major professor) last. it is then obvious who contributed what and in what amount. your "boss" gives you credibility, he is, after all, your advisor and your supporter. Once you graduate you will have plenty of opportunity to be the single author of papers you generate but you will find that the source of your funding may still desire recognition. Same rules apply.

  • 5
    This doesn't answer the question at all. The OP wants to know what to do, given that the advisor is insisting on an authorship order that violates conventions in OP's field.
    – ff524
    Apr 19, 2016 at 15:54

There's an adage my supervisor told me when I had an issue with her. You heard this before it goes "don't bite the hand that feeds you".

Whoever controls the purse has the power. Getting lead is pretty good. If any body should be fighting it's the second and third author. It's better for you to stay out of this one.

  • 23
    Sorry but this is terrible advice. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you" means "Don't abuse the person who provides for you" not "Accept abuse from the person who provides for you." Apr 19, 2016 at 5:06
  • Fair enough. However, if you retaliate against the abuse, the provider might perceive that as biting back. Apr 19, 2016 at 5:11
  • 1
    Certainly, one should consider the consequences of one's actions and whether this is a fight worth winning. It may be that, in this particular case, accepting the supervisor's demands is the best course of action; without knowing more about the situation, it's hard to say. Apr 19, 2016 at 5:15
  • 1
    OP is trying to make an ethical decision. Ideally, that weighs more than just the ideal of self-interest/-protection. If so, any answer should engage his ethical considerations.
    – user296844
    Apr 19, 2016 at 17:26

It sounds like you want to fight this, the best way is always through a lawyer.

  • 5
    Are you suggesting that the advisor's actions are illegal? What law has he broken?
    – ff524
    Apr 19, 2016 at 17:37
  • @ff524 Beats me im not a lawyer. Thats why im suggesting he speaks to a professional to protect his rights on his own works. So IP lawyer would be a good place to start. Apr 19, 2016 at 19:04
  • 5
    This is a matter of assigning academic authorship credit, not ownership of IP. The two concerns are orthogonal: it's possible to deserve academic authorship credit for a paper involving IP you don't own, and it's possible to not deserve academic authorship credit for a paper describing IP you do own. Academic authorship credit is not a legal matter.
    – ff524
    Apr 19, 2016 at 21:59
  • If anything he should discuss the situation with the department chair or someone in the research office or grad studies office like a Dean if available. Apr 20, 2016 at 16:00

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