I am a grad student. I recently produced a paper myself. The topic of the paper does not have much to do with my advisor's research area, but my advisor was put on the paper as an author.

What are your analyses of this incident (especially how would it affect my contributions to the work if it is perceived as being part my advisor's project)? What are your recommendations?

  • 3
    While your advisor is certainly adorning himself with borrowed plumes, I'm not sure why this would have much effect on you (other than disappointment at your advisor's shady practices). Is this grant report public? Plenty of people publish with "hands-off" advisors, so the difference in perception between a first-author paper with your PI on it and a solo-author paper is not huge. Either way, it's clear who did all the work.
    – nengel
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 12:33
  • 2
    I don't feel this is a huge concern practically, although ethically it is a bit crummy. In your faculty applications you can talk about this paper as a largely independent project in collaboration with the outside faculty member. If that person writes you a letter it is pretty obvious they will support this version of events too.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 12:54
  • 4
    @Dandksl Neither of my advisors have ever touched a line of code in any of the papers I have written with them. Some of their ideas were certainly a valuable contribution, and talking out my problems with them was very helpful, so they entirely deserve the credit, but "all the work" was still done by me. I think that's how it usually works.
    – nengel
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 13:32
  • 28
    When you gave your advisor authorship, the paper became partially supported by the grant (because your advisor is supported by the grant), which means your advisor is required to include it in his grant report. Moral: If you object to giving someone credit, don't make them an author.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 14:57
  • 10
    @Dandksl So you don't bother keeping your supervisor informed, you do stuff without consulting them, you give them impossibly short deadlines and get huffy about them not meeting them, you sneer at their competence, you're not interested in their research speciality, you're not interested in sharing your work with them, you get upset and hostile when they try to share it. Why are you in this situation in the first place? I can pretty much guarantee that if you're treating your supervisor with this contempt, it will be reciprocated when you're trying to graduate and get recommendation letters.
    – iayork
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 17:15

3 Answers 3


"What are your analyses of this incident (especially how would it affect my contributions to the work if it is perceived as being part my advisor's project, while it is not)? What are your recommendations?"

My analysis is that this "incident" is normal, very common, and would not effect at all your perceived contributions. It is normal and common for scholars to list in their grant applications and reports any paper that was remotely done under the umbrella of the project, and that this is expected, for better or worse, in the academic system, where scholars need to justify their grants, in order to receive more grants.

What is written in a grant report/application has no bearing assigning academic credit per se, so it doesn't effect at all one's perceived contributions.

My recommendation is thus to be generous and not petty when assigning credits, and generally act with collegiality and not in a confrontational manner when dealing with your advisor, colleagues or, in time to come, your students. There are more important and consequential fights than nitpicking on precise credit assignment. I see too many people (usually beginners in academia) over emphasizing "precise" credit distribution, until they forget the big picture.

  • 1
    Under this logic, the major motivation for the advisor then would be to put the paper on the grant to get more grant, is this correct? And there was zero intention to steal credit?
    – Dandksl
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 17:59
  • 13
    @Dandksl no the major motivation was to comply with the funder's rules and list any and all work that is even remotely related.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 19:00
  • 6
    what is written in a grant application has no bearing on academic credit. It's an internal document submitted to the grant agency and few reviewers
    – Dilworth
    Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 23:00

When I was a phd student, I often felt that my PI did not contribute anything.

Now that I advise students myself, I see how much effort it takes to get a project of the ground. I have an idea, write a grant application, administrate the project, hire students, steer them in the right direction. When a student joins the project, I have potentially invested many years of work that might not be visible to a student.

For example, I might think that a certain class of materials might have some property. Later I get a student and have him synthesize the materials. Even if I would not talk to him during his entire experiment, I have still made a substantial intellectual contribution. From the students point of view it will look totally different. He'll probably think that he designed the molecule all by himself. I try to stay in the background, but that doesn't mean I don't contribute intellectually.

That doesn't mean that your PI contributed something to your current paper, but he might have done so in the background. If your PI feels deceived, rightfully or not, he can make your life miserable.

I don't know the exact circumstances of your situation, but in either case, you should just move on. Nothing you can do about it that won't backfire badly. Having your paper listed in his application really doesn't create any disadvantage to you, and I don't think your PI has done anything wrong or unethical.

Also, maybe he would have liked to contribute more, but he is busy getting money so that his group can continue.

Tricky situation, maybe next time you can nudge him to contribute a bit more by more forcefully including him in the discussions. Then you will not have to worry and can add him as an author in good faith, and your PI will also be happy because he gets to spend some time away from writing grant applications.


What are your analyses of this incident (especially how would it affect my contributions to the work if it is perceived as being part my advisor's project, while it is not)?

The major impact on your work is that you have spent whatever amount of time you have spent worrying about this, writing the question, etc. and the opportunity cost involved.

"Whether or not a paper is listed on a grant report" has nothing to do with assigning credit, or assessing your contributions. It does not imply your advisor has some expertise in the area, or you don't, or really much of anything.

It is entirely an internal document for a funding agency to go "So, what have you been spending your time on this year?". He's an author on the paper, therefore it belongs in that report. No single paper (save, perhaps, for a distinct lack of any papers) does much beyond giving a gestalt impression of productivity. Indeed, the only two impactful circumstances I can even imagine are both good for you:

  • If you are someday funded by the grant, the PO has already seen your name, and repeated exposure is good.
  • If that funder has open access requirements (ala the NIH) your paper may be more widely available without any additional open access fees paid by you.

But really, this is Not A Thing.

What are your recommendations?

Move on with you life. Though based on some of the language in your question and comments, some time pondering the relationship you have with your advisor may not be ill-advised.

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