Is there a lower value to publishing with other co-authors instead of just oneself? Why are some people so reluctant to acknowledge your participation and contribution?

  • 1
    There's already a got answer, so I wanted to just point out that in my field (engineering) it is almost never the case that someone has single authorship. Usually students or PhD students write papers and the team leader and professor will be involved as kind of internal referees until they are content with the paper, so their names will appear, too.
    – Ian
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 6:59
  • 1
    Worth less to whom? Lower value to whom?
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 11:50

4 Answers 4


This is, in my (admittedly limited) experience, heavily dependent on your field.

In some fields, single-authorship is the norm; I believe a lot of highly-theoretical mathematics and some social sciences go this route. In other fields, such as astrophysics, this is almost never the case, as the work is often conducted among dozens of researchers working on multiple continents.

From what I can tell, publishing with co-authors tends to signify one or more of the following things:

  • The work is highly multidisciplinary (even within a single field) -- some research requires many experts in many different domains working together.
  • The work is "labor-intensive" -- some research requires a great deal of preparation that would be infeasible for a single researcher. For example, in my field of computer engineering, there's usually a significant amount of coding that goes into the research, which is most easily/quickly accomplished by many students and postdocs working together.
  • The work is large in scope -- larger, more ambitious projects require a higher level of support and more minds working together.
  • The work involves someone famous and everyone wants a piece of the pie -- okay, admittedly I made this one up.

That's not to say that single-author paper don't fit into one or more of these categories. These are just some rules of thumb that I've seen so far.

As for why some people are reluctant to "acknowledge your participation and contribution": well, this ranges the gamut of everything from the evils of:

  • Narcissism
  • Ego
  • Desire for fame/prestige

to the more mundane/less evil problems of:

  • Disagreements on what constitutes a large enough contribution to claim authorship
  • Misunderstandings as to what is being contributed (by one or both parties)
  • Traditions on what is deemed worthy of acknowledgement in publication.

In short: human nature.

If you're concerned that you aren't being credited for your work, you need to speak with the other party ASAP and set out clear guidelines moving forward as to where credit will be given and for what. Get this in writing -- timestamped and signed preferably, email is great for this.

  • 4
    There may have been a tendency in pure mathematics towards single-author papers long ago, but this has changed drastically in recent decades. However, multi-author papers still have a SMALL number of authors; having more than 3-4 authors on one paper is still fairly rare in mathematics.
    – Tom Church
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 2:37
  • 1
    University regulations can also be a factor. For example, we have the directive that quite some involvement in the work is required for coauthorship, while elsewhere they might just put their Nephew's name on there just because.
    – GDumphart
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 6:49
  • You missed one of the major things that seem to discourage people from co-authoring: the overhead involved. Edit conflicts (version control is still far from being widespread), disagreements over style and storytelling, unclarities about who is responsible for what and which decisions need to be made together (particularly as it comes to submitting), lack of understanding of the other authors' contributions (particularly in a cross-subject collaboration, where authors can have completely different goals) and plain old timezone incompatibility slowing down communication. More ... Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:11
  • ... important than ego in my experience. Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:11

here is a grad student perspective:

I actually find that it is more time consuming in my field to work with co-authors. I have to wait for feedback, navigate busy schedules, navigate diverging perspectives and approaches. It takes me a couple months or so to draft up a solid empirical paper but then it can take months to progress its way through the inner working of a large R01 research center. I actually think that for student's the trend toward large research teams is a double edged sword. Having 4-8 co-authors significantly extends the time it takes to get it out for review. 1-2 co-authors is perfect I have found. I also think it is quite silly to penalize or raise questions over sole authorship or even judge students who can see a project through from start to finish. Say you have a dataset and you know how to code the data and run the statistical analyses. If you have an outside person look over the code and read the study to verify accuracy this is sufficient I believe to publish a sole piece. As a grad student we are in our mentor's shadow constantly. It can be extremely difficult to differentiate yourself from your mentor. THis is not the case when using secondary survey data and can truly carry out your own study. I am a very productive grad student (16 publications) where about 40% have been solo authored work. I would have never been able to get through the bureaucracy that is large research centers and sustain this level of productivity. On the other hand, all of my papers benefit significantly from co-authors and the final product is always extremely refined. So I think we cannot establish hard and fast rules to govern this type of process. As researchers we are burdened by so much unnecessary hoopla. It is so cumbersome, especially the needless paperwork, self-promotion and negotiating that is academia. I am always shocked because it seems to me that tenure committees are intent on establishing as many obstacles as possible to get in the way of our work while also expecting more. A good CV in my eyes should show a mix of high and low collaboration work. With a clearly demonstrated path that is focused and shows independent thought.

A big problem with grads now in public health, applied sociology to an extent, social welfare and these other professional fields is that they have become producers of globs of students all doing similar work with about 2-5 publications (2 or so first and the rest co-authored). And it is expected to do a post-doc on top prior to entering the tenure track. So it is increasingly difficult to differentiate yourself from other students. My opinion as a solution to this is a return to a BALANCED approach. Demanding students to produce 1-2 SOLE authored pieces during graduate school that firmly establishes their voice as a scholar. Then 3-5ish additional pieces that demonstrate collaboration with primary mentor and others in the field. A similar composition with greater quantity should be expected in the TT and PD tracks.

The last thing I would say is that it is important to emphasize a career stage approach to this. I think for grad students producing several sole/first authored papers is particularly important. In the TT it is important to be first author on a lot with grad students and a smaller number of first author pieces. Then in the Tenure position placing your name last on many publications with 1-3 authors is ideal and for very large productions can have more authors. These are not rules but rather how I would recommend we shift moving forward. Just my own perspective as a grad student.

This would allow for committees to better understand who they are getting with grad students. All in all the existing standards/norms around publishing to just glob out as many co-authored papers as possible is significantly hurting the social and professional sciences.


Is there a lower value to publishing with other co-authors instead of just oneself?

This will vary heavily by field - and indeed a lot of fields struggle with interdisciplinary research because of it. For example, in my field it is routine to have very large authorship lists. This occasionally causes issues with fields where single-author papers are more common in how they parse the value of a particular paper.

Similarly, in my field single author papers are not usually "mainline" findings that would drive the field forward, but interesting side musings, methodological papers, etc.

Why are some people so reluctant to acknowledge your participation and contribution?

There are, as with anything, a number of possible reasons that are all non-nefarious:

  • They have a different notion of what your participation and contribution were
  • They have decided that the formal author guidelines put out by some journals are what they're going to stick to, come hell or high water, and they don't think you qualify
  • "Stretching" to include you would also necessitate the inclusion of a large number of other people whose qualification for authorship is marginal

The first is, in my experience, the most common reason who someone who thinks they should be an author isn't.


There is one and only one reason to not include someone as a co-author. If the prospective co-author did not contribute any vital input to the work then they should not be included. Not all agree with this, including a former post-doc 'advisor'. Back story: I refused to include him as a co-author on work that he had no involvement in. He reciprocated by scrubbing me from a paper for which I generated all the experimental data. (I quit the lab prior to work up. I don't handle charlatans well.)

  • You probably meant "one and only one legitimate reason". As your story demonstrates, people may have other reasons, such as retaliation. Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 5:00

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