co–writing with your supervisor – the authorship question

A doctoral researcher recently told me, and several others who were in the room at the same time, that he wanted to write a journal article. Good eh. No. Not really. The trouble was that his supervisor insisted on being named as co–author even though they weren’t contributing anything. The response from those listening was immediate, and negative. “No” came a chorus almost in unison, together with a few audible intakes of breath.

This is far from the first time I’ve heard of this. And in fact, I do know of some disciplines where it is automatically assumed that a supervisor’s name will go on whatever a doctoral researcher publishes, regardless of whether they have even looked at the paper. This default authorship practice seems to have its roots in the view that: (a)the conversations held in supervision inevitably mean that some of the supervisor’s knowledge is taken up by the supervisee, and (b) the supervisor’s intellectual contribution to the doctoral researcher’s project needs to be acknowledged through being named as co-author. But I’ve also heard some of my colleagues put exactly the opposite view – that the supervisor shouldn’t ‘interfere’ with their PhDer’s publications and should never co-write and shouldn’t ever appear as co-author.

So the question of writing with your supervisor is contentious territory. There aren’t clear cut policies and actually precious little discussion. Yet, as the pressure to publish during the PhD ramps up, and as more and more people undertake PhD by publication, it seems pretty urgent that the question of supervisor-supervisee co-writing becomes something more than a corridor conversation and a question at conferences.

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My own view, for what it’s worth, is this.

Teaching –  and supervision is a teaching relationship of a very particular kind –  always involves the teacher offering the gift of their views and expertise to the ‘learner’. This offer can be coercive, as in “you must think this way and woe betide you if you don’t.” Or it can be much more light touch and generous, as in “how about this point of view”, or “how about reading this next” or “this makes me think about” or this would be more readable if you put this here not there.” 

In supervision, it is almost inevitable that at least some of the supervisor’s perspectives will be influential on the doctoral candidate’s thinking. But not always. Regardless of the take-up, a supervision ‘gift’ is built into the pedagogical exchange. Supervisors don’t put their names as co-writers on the thesis because supervising is gift giving – the thesis is seen as the candidate’s own original work and the supervisor is thanked for their contribution in the acknowledgements. And of course, the ideal supervision relationship is one where the supervisor learns too. Giving is reciprocal.

Writing for publication is now part of the supervision process. This is formalised in the UK for instance, where the annual review process usually includes reporting on how the supervisor is supporting the doctoral researcher to publish. These days, a doctoral researcher can reasonably assume that, as with their thesis, they can discuss writing and publishing with their supervisor. They can talk over the purposes of writing a paper, get some direction in writing, and some feedback. The supervisor offers this conversation as part of their pedagogical process. Support for publishing is not a supervision addition, an extra. It is, like the production of the thesis, integral to the doctoral process. And the same rules that apply to the thesis ought to apply to writing for publication, the supervisor offers a gift. They don’t expect to be automatically named.

However, it may be that the supervisor does more than offer advice and a bit of feedback. They actually write part of the manuscript. They contribute something over and on top of what the doctoral researcher is able to do themselves – this might be by way of writing about relevant literatures or methods, some refinements of analysis, a theoretical framing, the development of the mandate and contribution… There is an actual contribution. These are circumstances where it seems not unreasonable for the supervisor to claim some degree of co-writing.  But because the substantive research is the doctoral candidate’s, the supervisor really ought to think quite hard about why they wouldn’t want to be anything but the second author.

It may be that the supervisor does more than simply make a contribution to the doctoral researcher’s paper. The supervisor might write something where the doctoral researcher is offered the contributing role, perhaps they provide some data to a larger supervisor-produced corpus, write specifically about research methods, offer some literatures, do some of the analysis. This scenario is often the case when the doctoral researcher is working in a research team, or on the same project as their supervisor. In this case, authorship credit and order needs to be carefully negotiated. Disciplinary conventions, supervisor generosity and calculations about percentage contributions all come into play at this point.

Writing with your supervisor is tricky. But not impossible to manage. Authorship negotiation can be difficult and sometimes unduly hard, and I will say even more about this in another upcoming post.

If you have helpful experiences or advice to offer to others about writing with your supervisor, do let me know. I’m keen to keep the conversation going.

 

 

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authorship, co-writing, supervisor, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to co–writing with your supervisor – the authorship question

  1. brendagouws says:

    Hi Pat. Thanks for your always interesting blog. I have an excellent relationship with what I can only term an amazing supervisor. He freely gives of his insight, be it into the methodology, structure of my writing, historical knowledge and so on, even though he is not an expert is my field of Holocaust education. He has a very light touch, but goes through my thesis thoroughly. As far as writing papers is concerned, if he makes a direct contribution, such as writing a portion, or editing, be it a small amount or a lot, his name is on the paper. However, he is insistent that my name always goes first as we are using my data. His generosity of spirit is indeed a gift. Brenda

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  2. Dr A. Thomson says:

    The (well-known in his discipline) supervisor of one of my colleagues insisted on being first author on a paper that he had barely even contributed to. Unsurprisingly the said paper soon became the main bulk of a chapter in the professor’s latest book without even a mention (other than the occasional citation from the paper) of my colleague.

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  3. Tom says:

    Hi Pat,

    I am really glad you have addressed this as my supervisors insisted on being co-authors even though they haven’t written any of it or contributed anything substantial. For some of my papers, they didn’t even read the manuscript but were authors (!). It was made worse when I submitted my thesis and was accused of plaigarism with my own papers because the papers were not single authored by me. It just doesn’t make any sense, as most of my thesis has been published in journals with co-authors but my thesis is of course published as a single author. It is bizzare and baffling, and it seems institutions are just ignoring this mal practice.
    Tom

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  4. davidtevans says:

    Thank you Professor. Personally, I try to follow the ethical principles of the International Committee for Medical Journal Editors (even though I am not one, of course). The “Vancouver Protocol” is cited at: at http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html

    Who is an Author?

    The Protocol states:

    The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

    Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
    Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
    Final approval of the version to be published; AND
    Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

    Best wishes,
    David

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erika Langham says:

    Hi Pat,
    this is an interesting, and I understand contentious topic. I’m currently doing my PhD by/with publication. I am also employed as an academic and a co-researcher on other competitively funded projects, including some with my supervisors. I understand that this puts me in a different position to the majority of PhD students. It also changed how I approached my PhD, my choice of supervisors, and my thoughts on authorship.
    At the start of the PhD we discussed the issue of authorship of the papers for my PhD and are following the COPE guidelines as we do for the other research we do together. Whilst my topic was my idea, I feel my supervisors have contributed in terms of their guidance and input to meet the requirement for contribution to the conception and design. We have had productive discussions about the interpretation of findings and they have challenged my thinking to improve those areas. Whilst they don’t write the draft of the papers they do critically revise them for important intellectual content, beyond just minor editing and moving commas or full stops. As such I am entirely comfortable that their input should be recognised with authorship. I am the lead author, but their names are on the papers. For me personally, this is important not only in terms of recognising their input but respecting their time and investment in my project. In terms of academic workloads, RHD students don’t count for a lot, certainly a lot less than invested by engaged supervisors. The publication provides another outcome indicator for their time. When supervisors (especially associate supervisors who may be ECRs themselves) are dependent on those indicators for their own progression, this is more important.
    There will be papers from the PhD that I will be single author for. This is something they have stated from the earliest conversations about doing the PhD by/with publication. On those they will be included in the acknowledgements.
    I think like all things with a PhD this comes down to the early discussions around expectations, mutual respect, and the quality of supervisors.
    Kind regards,
    Erika

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  6. Adam Barker says:

    While I know some people who have had problems, I had a great experience writing with my supervisor in 2012. We really shared a dialogue about what we wanted to say, and after the article was underway, she offered to have it single authored (by me) if I wished. When I said I really wanted it to be co-authored (because it was!), she insisted on my name going first. It was the kind of collaboration that I wish all PhD students were able to experience – it convinced me of the efficacy of co-authorship, which I’ve been passionate about ever since, and really built up my confidence in academic writing. And as a bonus, we are still writing together with another article coming out soon.

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  7. Nan says:

    This is so helpful, thank you! As a mature student and writer I’m keen to get as much journal writing done as possible before I graduate. One of my profs has been incredibly supportive in so many ways. She will often say ‘have you thought about this?’ Or ‘oh, read so-and-so’ and I would absolutely name her as co-author of anything I wrote in the next year or two even if she didn’t write a word. Our conversations have enriched my learning and writing.

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  8. Carmel Capewell says:

    I co-wrote papers with one of my supervisors. It was a very worthwhile process in which I learned a lot about how to write for publication. She was an experienced journal editor so was well aware of the pitfalls that authors could avoid.
    It continues to be a good working relationship post PhD. We have developed a good rapport and I continue to benefit from her experience and advice.

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  9. Hege says:

    Where I work the vast majority do PhDs by publication. The Vancouver guidelines are important for how the relationship between the candidate and the supervisor is understood, and another general principle that people adhere to is that if you haven’t contributed with actual text, you shouldn’t be listed as an author (PhD students are expected to have conducted the analyses themselves). There is also an institutional policy that PhD candidates should be the first author on all the published papers in the thesis. What I think is probably most important, though, is that there have been some (ir)regular meetings where these things have been discussed, both in supervisor only groups, and in mixed groups with supervisors and candidates. Formal guidelines don’t necessary help if they aren’t being kept “alive” though the institutional culture.

    When I did my PhD I wrote the first article with my supervisor and it was an invaluable learning experience.

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  10. Pingback: co-writing with your supervisor – do we need a code of good practice? | patter

  11. Karina says:

    In my opinion, it depends on the Institution, programme and country. Many times, this issue is not optional; this is considered compulsory, even if the advisors and co-advisors did not help in the study, in writing and/or reviewing the papers. In addiction, to manage bureaucratic issues and get the financing for article, sometimes, it is necessary the advisor publish as first author, although he/she was not the author.

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