I'm a PhD student in the math sciences. I've written a few papers, each officially coauthored with my advisor, although essentially all of the research and writing was my own. The story is the same for my advisors' other students; they regularly coauthor papers with my advisor on which all the work was theirs.

We are all unsure how we should feel about this. On one hand, we regularly hear stories from other students about their advisor chipping in on projects, or encouraging them to write solo if unable, and we would all appreciate this sort of freedom, guidance, and help. On the other hand, we all recognize that we are paid out of our advisor's grants, and we don't want to appear ungrateful or unprofessional.

I guess my question is: are we being taken advantage of, or is this a fairly standard feature of advisor/advisee relationships that we should just accept?

We've all tried to casually broach the topic of when coauthorship is expected or when solo authorship is okay, but we've mostly been met by blank stares and awkward subject changes.

  • 2
    Related (but not specific to mathematical sciences): When should a supervisor be an author?
    – ff524
    May 27, 2016 at 21:59
  • I'm just a PhD student myself, but from what I gather, this is common in the natural sciences (where the advisor is the head of the lab you're doing work in), but haven't heard of that happening in mathematics (though of course, how much contribution exactly is enough for coauthorship can be a contentious subject in any context). On the other hand, I'm not paid by my advisor's grant, even if I do use his recommendations to get funding.
    – tomasz
    May 27, 2016 at 22:20
  • 10
    You say "math sciences" and not math. Having your advisor listed as co-author, even though he was not a co-author, is not the norm in mathematics itself. Perhaps it is the norm in some "math sciences" field, however.
    – GEdgar
    May 27, 2016 at 23:24
  • 3
    Agree with @GEdgar: I think you need to be more specific than "math sciences" in order to get an answer. May 28, 2016 at 19:01
  • Thanks all for the feedback so far, I am reading carefully. My advisor and I are in a computer science department, and his/my work is in CS theory and a bit of math. May 29, 2016 at 0:20

2 Answers 2


I disagree with the given answer by Buzz in a few ways, especially since it does not address one decisive part of the question:

We've all tried to casually broach the topic of when coauthorship is expected or when solo authorship is okay, but we've mostly been met by blank stares and awkward subject changes.

If there is a justification for the advisor being included as an author, then why has it not been brought up by said advisor when being confronted by his students? It would perhaps be understandable if the author just didn't pick up on the subtle clues his students were giving him, but that does not seem to be the case as per the indications of 'awkward subject changes' and 'blank stares'. It seems that the advisor is simply trying to avoid talking about the issue. Why would he do that? It certainly indicates that something fishy may be going on here.

Then, the other answer asserts that nobody is less impressed by a student who always has her advisor as a co-author*. This is verifiably wrong, which you can prove, being a mathematician, by "contradiction": if nobody is less impressed by a student who publishes papers of a certain quality with her advisor, then a direct implication is that nobody is impressed more by a student who publishes papers of an equivalent quality independently of her advisor. This is wrong. It shows great promise to be able to do independent research as a young student.

But I hesitate to even make that point. This should not be about recognition but about a matter of principle: if your advisor did not contribute to the research (either through substantial amounts of guidance or by actively doing it) or the writing, your advisor is not an author of the resulting paper, and making him one is a direct lie.

In your situation, judging by your post, it seems clear that the students are doing all of the work (in fact, that's a direct quote from your post). If true, you should be worried, both by the ethical issues that exist if you continue this practice, and the potential aftermath (e.g, in regards to your relationship with your advisor) if you decide to take this further (which you should, but that's just an opinion).

Note that all of this is entirely dependent on the assumption that what's going on here is not normal. If it is, if advisors are usually co-authors on all their student's papers despite no contribution, if that is understood by everyone, then you are not lying, you will get all the recognition, and there's really no issue at all ... but how are you supposed to know whether this is normal in your field or cultural domain? We cannot really answer that for you without a bit more information. But your advisor can ... and this brings us full circle: why is the advisor not willing to explain to you whether this is normal?

*.. I now realize that I may have misread the other answer. It's not quite clear whether by "work" they meant "effort" or "actual quality of the mathematical content". Clearly, I took it to mean the former.


I work in the mathematical sciences; specifically, I am a theoretical physicist (with a Ph.D. in applied math). And I can state that, in many cases, an student's advisor may do as much work as a student on a calculation, even if the student seems to have performed the whole calculation themself.

This may seem like a puzzling contradiction, but there is really a simple explanation. A student's advisor may be doing quite a bit of work that doesn't get noticed. When I give a student (particularly an undergraduate or even a relatively junior graduate student) a calculation to work on, I may need to do the whole calculation myself, at the same time the student is working on it. That way, when the student comes to show me their work, I can spot any errors and give them guidance how to get through the difficult parts. Sometimes the students may not even realize that I have done the calculations independently myself.

As students get more mature, and my confidence in their abilities grows, I don't feel that I need to do this as much. When I'm working with more advanced graduate students, I'm generally happy just to check over the calculations that they do first. However, it is still commonplace for me to find errors or points of confusion in the students' work.

Obviously, I also provide a guidance to students about what problems they should be tackling and how their results should be interpreted. Then the question becomes whether all these contributions are sufficient to make me an author on a student's paper. I generally leave this up to the student. I'm a tenured professor, and I publish enough that I don't need to worry about counting publications. However, even before I had tenure, I left the decision about whether my contributions were sufficient to merit authorship up to the students. We discuss the matter and how much each of us has contributed to a project, and in every case, the students have decided that I should be included as an author.

Other faculty may be less relaxed about this question and insist on being authors on their students' papers; and in many cases, I think this is fully justified. As I pointed out above, an advisor may need to do all the same calculations as a student (and possibly more carefully). Moreover, I don't think it detracts from other people's impressions of a student's work to see their advisor as a coauthor. If I see a paper by a student, I often presume that their advisor played a crucial role in devising, checking, and interpreting the results, unless I have a specific reason to believe otherwise. However, I do not view this as any kind of negative reflection on a student. Even the best students need guidance; that's why they are students.

Of course, there can be cases where an supervisor declines to be included on a student's paper. This happened to me once with my Ph.D. advisor. He had been working on a problem with another faculty colleague, and they asked me to look into it further. In the end, the published calculations were done primarily by me and other professor. My advisor contribute one small result, which, so far as I know, had never previously been published, but he felt that it was too obvious to earn him a place as an author. So the authors on that paper were me and my advisor's faculty colleague.

Ultimately, different faculty members may have somewhat different feelings about authorship in these situations. However, it is easy for students to underestimate the amount of work that their advisor has put into a project. And including the advisor as an author is not likely to change readers' evaluations of a student's work very much. So my advice is that you are probably worrying about this too much.

  • 6
    Just FYI: a lot of the practices you describe are against the cultural norm in theoretical mathematics. Especially, in that field there is a feeling that by placing herself as a coauthor on a student's thesis work, the advisor signals an unusually strong contribution, which would -- even should -- be taken into account. I don't know any mathematics professor who would include herself as a coauthor on a student paper because they spotted errors, gave guidance, and so forth. But I don't know what field the student is in: if I had to guess, closer to yours than to mine. May 28, 2016 at 19:11
  • 7
    I also wanted to say that I had a slightly negative reaction to the fact that you have asked students whether you should be a coauthor, and in every case they said yes. That is not an innocent question for a student; they have much less experience, much less knowledge and the power dynamic cuts against them. The fact that the conclusion has always been the same perhaps indicates there is less than a real choice there. On the contrary, I think an advisor should address authorship issues at the start. If she thinks the student is not doing enough to get solo authorship, she should say so. May 28, 2016 at 19:15
  • 5
    And including the advisor as an author is not likely to change readers' evaluations of a student's work very much. -- Not the work, perhaps, but it certainly affects the community's view of the student. Both as a student and as an advisor, I have seen joint work consistently attributed to the advisor until the student publishes independently. This is a significant enough effect that I require my PhD students to publish at least once without me before I'll sign their thesis.
    – JeffE
    May 28, 2016 at 19:34
  • Yes, pure mathematics does not work the same way as the other "mathematical sciences" in these regards. I take it, however, that the questioner is not in pure mathematics.
    – Buzz
    May 28, 2016 at 21:53

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