#80: Do I have to include my supervisor as a co-author?

The co-authorship of supervisors on papers of their PhD students is a hot topic in academia. Should they be included or not? All sorts of rules, conventions, and rumours seem to exist. Let’s clarify a few of them here! 

1. Why worry about co-authorship of supervisors?

Oh dear, when we started to look into the question of whether PhD supervisors should be included as co-authors on a paper, we had no idea what kind of discussion we’d end up in. Of course, we always had our own opinion on it, but let us explain the situation: The question regarding whether PhD students should or must include their supervisors as co-authors/main author on the paper is a question that we get asked in almost every other course. Last time this question came up was only last week in one of our writing courses. So it must be a question of great interest to early-career researchers and PhD students! But it must also be a question that displays a lot of insecurity and perplexity. 

The answer to this question seems to be so easy because there are clear rules about what makes somebody an author on a paper and what does not. Ethical bodies dealing with publication ethics, like the COPE, CSE or ICMJE (see below) provide great guidance about authorship, and most journal publishers have adopted their suggestions. So it should be clear who is expected to be credited as an author and who is not. But having discussed it so many times in courses with students, we know a simple YES or a NO on the question above is not enough. So, we’re not providing a simple answer here either.  

2. The case of Rebecca and her supervisor

Rebecca is a 3rd year student in a biology programme and she told us her story: She is doing exciting research in a field that she loves. She’s highly motivated and brings a lot of energy and effort to her PhD work. The regulations of her university, where she will hopefully get awarded a PhD soon, require that she has to write and publish three papers in international peer-reviewed journals. Rebecca’s research is going fine, she is progressing well, and is just about one and a half months behind her original schedule for her PhD. She’s in a good mood and optimistic to bring the research work to an end, to get the papers published, and complete the degree. But she still has one big problem: She has no idea if she should include her supervisor as co-author on the paper.      

She spoke to many fellow PhD students and Postdocs and asked for their advice. The stories she heard were so diverse that she still has no idea how to do it right. Some suggested the supervisor has to be on every paper, while others said they wrote their papers totally without them, got no input and, consequently, did not include them as co-author. Another suggestion was to include the supervisor as the main author, even if they contributed very little because it might be helpful to have a “big name” as a first author on the paper. A former PhD student told Rebecca that in his lab, it was a “must” to include the supervisor as the last author on all the papers, regardless of whether they were written by Master students, PhD students or Postdocs. One friend directed Rebecca to another friend who did a PhD and included the supervisor on all his papers because he was afraid that if he didn’t do it, it would affect the successful completion of his doctorate. 

3. Is Rebecca a solitary case? 

No! We spoke to many people like Rebecca and it was surprising how diverse the advice was that students like her had received. But as diverse as the single stories are, they have one common thread: Co-authorship of supervisors on the papers of their PhD students seems to be dominated by confusion, fears, and a lack of communication. 

You can browse the web and you will find many references and cases that deal with all sorts of problems, opinions, conventions, and misconduct in the PhD student-supervisor relationship with regard to co-authorship on publications (see e.g. Find a PhD 2014, Thompson 2017,  Academia Stackexchange 2018). Cases are even reported where supervisors either neglect to co-author with their students, or where they publish work from their PhD students without even considering the student as co-author (e.g. COPE 2010 Hayter & Watson 2017). So, it is definitely a tense field in which we’re operating when trying to answer this question.

4. Who is an author on a paper? 

Luckily, you can find clear instructions in publication ethics guidelines. According to them, an author on a paper is somebody who has contributed to the research, written parts of the paper, reviewed successive manuscript versions, and taken part in the revision process. Sole provision of research funding or carrying out routine based activities that are linked to the research presented in a paper does not qualify for authorship (COPE 2000, CSE 2012, ICMJE 2019).  

So let’s go back to our question: Do you have to include your supervisor as co-author on your papers? The answer is YES and NO!

5. No! Supervisors should not be included as co-authors!

There is no rule that says PhD supervisors have to be a co-author on a paper of their PhD students. So, you don’t have to include your supervisor due to one of the cases described below: 

  • Just because they happen to be your supervisor. 
  • They are in a hierarchically higher academic position than you.
  • They are well-known and respected in the field.
  • You think you have to be grateful and pay back your supervisor.
  • You’ve been told that it is always done like that in your field. 
  • You’ll feel guilty if you don’t include them as co-author. 
  • You fear a negative impact on your PhD if you don’t do it.
  • You have applied for a PhD position at your supervisor’s lab/institute and think you’re obliged to include them.  
  • They provide funding for your project.  

6. YES! Supervisors should be included as co-authors!

We do not suggest that your supervisors have to be excluded in all circumstances from your paper. No! There are very valid and compelling reasons that make your supervisor a co-author on your paper, e.g. if …

  • they contributed to your work
  • they contributed to your writing
  • they were advising you on the steps of the writing process
  • if they provided substantial intellectual support for the work you publish
  • if they provided substantial input to help you with the revision of the paper  

In the cases reported above, your supervisor is a natural co-author, and withdrawing their right to become a co-author would be a violation of publishing ethics. 

7. How to avoid a co-authorship dispute

Rebecca’s problem in the case reported above is obvious: She was never involved in any discussion with her supervisor about co-authorship on any of the three papers she has to do. She kept silent, and the supervisor didn’t initiate a talk about it. Both are operating on the assumption that things will work out in their interest. 

Another question deals with how far supervisors involve themselves in the research of their PhD students, and how much support they offer, but this is a different question which we’re not going to discuss at this time. Regardless of whether the supervisor has contributed a lot or only very little, it would have been wise for both PhD student and supervisor to sit together and get the co-authorship question out of the way. 

For Rebecca, it would have been helpful to get familiar with the rules that apply to her institute or faculty. She could speak to somebody at the university who can advise her independently. 

A good way to avoid the hassle and frustration from unsettled authorship-disputes would be to take the PhD student-supervisor relationship seriously, and let both sides do what they’re supposed to do: The supervisor is providing a supportive framework and involves themself in the student’s work only insofar as they allow the student to grow and reach their goal. Get your supervisor involved in your work, and then co-authorship will never be questioned.This would be mutually beneficial, and would provide benefits to both parties.

We hope that this article has helped you get a clearer idea of YOUR answer regarding the question of whether to include YOUR supervisor on your papers or not. Make a good decision, and then move on with your good work! 

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