I'm currently in the first year of my PhD. Some time ago I published a paper at a very small, accessible venue because I was required to do so by my advisor. It was my first publication, and I wasn't even involved in the PhD program back then. It was rushed (I did it all in a week or two) and I knew nothing about the field. Now I know that the paper is totally worthless. With what I learned over this period, I know that some basic knowledge and a reasonable amount of effort are enough to do something way better.

The problem is that now my advisor wants to submit pretty much the same thing to a journal, in order to meet academic requirements. I insisted that it was worthless, and that I could do something much better, but she just wanted to get something done with minimal effort. If I had other ideas we could publish, then that means we could have even more publications.

My worries are related to both the effect this could have on my record and ethics, of course. I was not too happy with the first publication when I realized that it was worthless, but I guess that anyone would understand the poor quality of an unimportant paper by a master's student, especially if it's the odd one out in the list (which I hope it will eventually become). Now, however, I'm starting to have contacts with other researchers in the field, and I'm worried that more publications of this nature in my CV might stain my reputation among them, since there are almost no other publications to judge my abilities from. I also worry that this could have an impact on my chances when I try to apply for a postdoc position further down the line, even if I manage to publish a couple of good things by the time I finish my thesis. Also, while I understand that institutions put strong requirements on their researchers and sometimes one has to publish not-so-great work in order to keep going, I think that is completely different from publishing something you know to be worthless sh*t. I've also suggested removing my name from the list of authors to no avail.

My advisor has NO knowledge of the field. She basically caught wind that it is a hot one and assembled a team of grads and undergrads in the hope that they would start producing publications pretty much right away. Of course, it took me about a year and a half of really, really hard work almost completely on my own to start feeling slightly confident about my (still very limited) knowledge, and to come up with something that I consider worthy of publication in a reputable venue. I would like to concentrate on these findings, but I'm required to devote effort to those questionable publications instead (as well as other duties that I don't want to discuss here). Sometimes I get the feeling that I'll complete my thesis in spite of my advisor, rather than thanks to her.

So my questions are the following:

  • How likely are these publications to mar my reputation/CV in the future? Will people just understand that everyone has had to undergo a similar situation some time in the past and disregard them in favor of better publications? Does everyone have a couple of stains in their record?

  • Is this common in academia? Are PhD students often pressured to publish no matter what just so that the advisor or the group can score one? How strongly should I consider searching for a position elsewhere? The main reason I'm staying is because I'm financially comfortable here, and I now feel that I am making a lot of progress by myself and I'll be able to complete the program with a decent contribution, even though I have little scientific support. Also, moving elsewhere would be a considerable personal sacrifice, so if I take the step it must be totally worth it. I know I could perhaps learn more with a knowledgeable advisor, but I'm positive I'll learn a lot on my own anyway (perhaps with occasional inputs from other professors from my institution who are active in the field), so it's not like I'm wasting my time completely.

About my worries for my reputation, it's not that I want to become a celebrity or that I'm planning to make a breakthrough in the field. It's just that I devote a lot of effort to becoming competent in the field and I am very thorough in making sure that the work I do is proper, so I would like at least to be recognized for this by my peers.

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    There are many inconsistencies in your post. "My advisor has NO knowledge of the field." Then why are you doing a PhD with her in this field? "my advisor wants to submit the same thing to a journal". If it is in CS (or any other field where conferences matter for publishing), you cannot submit the same thing without a 30% enhancement. And if you do those 30% enhancements, your paper might become a decent (not top) publication. – Alexandros May 15 '16 at 17:49
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    you cannot submit the same thing without a 30% enhancement — Within CS, that fraction varies significantly by subfield and by publisher; in some subfields (like my own), for all practical purposes, the required fraction of new material is zero. – JeffE May 15 '16 at 18:09
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    I think you should fire your advisor. – JeffE May 15 '16 at 18:12
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    Thanks, @YemonChoi. It's not so much that it contained errors, but rather that the proposed method was very poor. It was a naive approach and it did not actually solve any of the problems that arise when addressing the matter. However, is it possible to remove one's name without retracting the paper completely? That would leave the other authors in a very bad position, wouldn't it? Also, I don't see any editor keeping a paper that one of the authors decided not to stand behind anymore. – lost_researcher May 15 '16 at 20:19
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    It's difficult to advise without knowing further particulars, which I understand that you probably don't want to give here. I would tentatively suggest that you just let the paper appear with your name on, but concentrate on getting better things done and published during the rest of your PhD. – Yemon Choi May 15 '16 at 20:31

This is a complex situation, and to even attempt a truly thorough answer one would need to know more details than you have provided (though your reticence is understandable). I would begin by saying that in my opinion the main problem is not what you think it is.

My advisor has NO knowledge of the field.

This is the main problem. You're just starting a PhD with someone whom you feel has much less knowledge than you and accordingly is pushing you into professionally dubious situations. You say the situation is that she needs publications and is thus making you do the work...without enough understanding that the work you're doing is not mature.

I think you have one of the worst kinds of advisors. It would be less pleasant to have an advisor who is overly intense / unfriendly / borderline abusive, but such an unpleasant advisor would still impart knowledge and experience. I encourage you to very seriously consider transferring to a different PhD program. You describe the non-academic aspects of your situation as comfortable enough: that makes it harder to pull the trigger, but it does not make it less of a good idea.

I know I could perhaps learn more with a knowledgeable advisor, but I'm positive I'll learn a lot on my own anyway (perhaps with occasional inputs from other professors from my institution who are active in the field), so it's not like I'm wasting my time completely.

You can remove the word "perhaps." The main thing that makes one PhD program much better than another -- not necessarily in the sense of rankings, but really "better" for any given student there -- is the level of knowledge and expertise of the advisors, and their ability to impart their knowledge and skills to their students. I went to one of the top three programs in my field, and every faculty there is a world leader. My former PhD advisor is, truly, one of the world's great living mathematicians, and being guided by him for four years was really priceless. You mention that you are skilled at learning on your own, and I believe you, based on your ability to, at such an early stage of your career, gain expertise in a field beyond that of a faculty member. Learning on your own is also a very important and valuable skill, and I did a lot of that as a student. But you know what? If I had it over again, I would talk to my advisor more: there were times when I spent whole months doggedly figuring something out on my own which one conversation with my advisor would have cleared up. (I now see this happening with my own students sometimes.) Learning on your own and learning from the real luminaries are the two great tastes which taste great together. You're right: you are not wasting your time completely, you're only wasting it relative to what you could be doing. You sound like quite a good student: I think you deserve a better experience.

Let me now address the top-billed question:

How likely are these publications to mar my reputation/CV in the future?

Most academics I know worry about their reputation and standing to a degree that would make most fraternity guys / sorority gals envious. There are very few single events that outright ruin an academic's reputation: these mostly center around academic dishonesty or non-academic crimes (e.g. being truly abusive to a student). If you have published a paper that is subpar, then the way to bounce back is to publish more good papers. And by the way that is what you should do even if you haven't published a subpar paper! If the subpar papers are the first ones published, most people will understand that you wrote them as a young student before you really knew what you are doing.

To my mind, the key worry is not whether your paper is worthless, it's whether it is wrong. Publishing a paper that you know to be critically flawed in a manner that you don't call attention to is a form of academic dishonesty; some would view this as even worse than plagiarism. I would try to avoid publishing such a paper at virtually any cost.

Will people just understand that everyone has had to undergo a similar situation some time in the past and disregard them in favor of better publications? Does everyone have a couple of stains in their record?

It depends on the people, I suppose. I have never been pressured to publish a paper by anyone, but I work in a field (mathematics) with somewhat distinctive cultural norms. But if you're asking whether every academic in your field has been put in your situation: almost certainly not.

  • One quibble: "The main thing that makes one PhD program much better than another . . . is the level of knowledge and expertise of the advisors." While you do need knowledgeable advisors, you also need advisors who are good communicators and mentors. A genius who can't impart his knowledge to others does not improve graduate education in a department by very much. – aeismail May 16 '16 at 0:06
  • I have seen a case where a good mathematician's publication record began with some very poor papers. Fortunately, they were joint papers with his adviser, who was known for publishing junk. Once he escaped from his adviser's influence, he did some very respectable work. (I had to explain that as an outside reviewer when he was up for a promotion.) – Andreas Blass May 16 '16 at 1:19
  • @aeismail: Yes, I agree, and I have edited the answer. Of course, if you have little or no knowledge to communicate, your communication skills don't come into play. I think we all know examples of incomprehensible geniuses, but in my experience this phenomenon is relatively rare (perhaps because it is hard to tell someone is a genius if their communication skills are truly poor). – Pete L. Clark May 16 '16 at 1:36
  • Thanks for such a thorough answer. I am now a little bit more convinced of the importance of having a knowledgeable advisor. However, the problem that @aeismail points out is an important one. I could land a position with a very good scientist, but if they do not devote time to their students it might end up not making much of a difference. Also, as I said in another comment, I was planning to involve another professor in the program, but I'm not sure that's going to happen. I'll certainly look for positions elsewhere and give it a serious thought. – lost_researcher May 16 '16 at 8:43
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    @lost: Of course you want to avoid bad communicators and mentors as well. In terms of busy advisors: I think you would be better served by an advisor that is knowledgeable enough to put you on the right path even if they have little time to devote to you. In my answer I indicated how much I learned from my advisor. I did so while meeting with him on average of perhaps an hour a month. That was enough to keep me in the right direction and clear up my mistakes. But yes, try to find an advisor who is good overall! If you can switch advisors within your own department, try that first. – Pete L. Clark May 16 '16 at 16:14

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