Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Advisors and Publications

There have been several interesting comments regarding the student/advisor relationship on my previous posts (here, here, and here) on co-authorship.  It's clearly an issue that stirs up strong feelings in many, with several anonymous students (or ex-students) protesting do-nothing advisors who still put their names on the papers, and some anonymous advisors suggesting graduate students underestimate the value they provide. 

I tried to do a little reading on the subject, and found some food for thought on my searches of the web.  (References are very welcome in the comments;  here's one and another and another and another, three articles and a guideline for students, that seem pretty good.)  Most schools seem to have a basic official policy or guidelines in place.  Some examples include this bit from the Harvard medical school, this from Duke, and this from Berkeley.  The best I've found is this statement from Penn, which is amusing first because it seems to blatantly plagiarize directly from the (earlier dated) Berkeley one, but also because it links to the specific policies of individual departments.  Indeed, one issue here is that is clear is that different fields seem to have different interpretations of what constitutes authorship, as well as different protocols for author ordering.  The Berkeley/Penn statement go so far as to say, "In some fields, the Principal Investigator of the lab is first author of all publications."  (Take that, graduate students!)  So perhaps one issue is that computer science, as a relatively new field, hasn't set up its tradition for authorship and author ordering;  as we've discussed, even within computer science, theorists default to alphabetical order while systems defaults to students first/ordered by contribution. 

As far as official policies go, though, in general the authorship bar seems to be set intentionally low -- clearly tilted in the direction of advisors.  While there is often a statement that each author should have contributed intellectually to the work -- which would not include just funding the project -- conception and design of the project is considered sufficient for that.  (This seems to match "the PI rules the lab" mentality of some fields -- you may have done all the work, but the PI has set up the entire framework for what the lab works on, so that counts.)  Similarly, while its generally understood that all authors should be involved in the writing, that can be limited to reviewing (and revising) the work.  (PIs are, after all, too busy writing grant proposals to spend too much time on papers.)  

As for my own opinion, I must admit, I'm on the side of the advisor.  That's not surprising;  after all, I am currently one.  As a graduate student, I may have had my complaints about my advisor, but when I switched sides, I became a lot more understanding and sympathetic.  In my experience, many graduate students do undervalue the contributions of their advisors, and the work they put into the students in general (and specific papers in particular).  I'm not saying there aren't bad advisors out there, and that there aren't cases where advisors put names on papers they shouldn't, but my benefit of the doubt will tend to fall to the advisor.

Also, independent of the underlying ethical questions, my personal take is also that graduate students may not realize the "cost" of having your advisor on the paper is small.  Whether using alphabetical order or by contribution, I think the default assumption is that the student was the "primary" author on a work unless other information is available (even when this assumption is unwarranted, which I think is a non-trivial fraction of the time).  (Others may certainly disagree.)  Here, again, recommendation letters and direct word-of-mouth, as well as longer established histories, are extremely important, moreso in my experience than who has their name on what papers.  

We can, certainly, get back to arguing about what is the "right" answer, where the line should be drawn for an advisor to put their name on the paper.  Or perhaps we should go to the extreme of having (as suggested in the HMS guidelines or the authors' guide for Nature) a small writeup for each paper where a description of each authors' contributions are provided.  (Sarcasm note:  as I'm sure I've previously stated, I would hate such a system.)  More realistically, as these many guidelines all seem to state, authors need to talk about this and set expectations earlier in the process.

Where does this leave the unhappy graduate students?  Ideally, entering graduate students should try to find out potential advisors' authorship policies before signing up -- ask the current students for an off-the-record honest appraisal.  Or, ideally, graduate students should talk to their advisors if they have an issue -- let them know early on if you think you're writing a solo paper.  If you've waited until the paper is being written, and then tell your advisor you don't think they've done enough, I don't think you've set up the situation appropriately.

And what should you do when your advisor says, "No, I'm the PI, my name goes on the paper."?  As a practical matter, keeping in mind the strong advisor-oriented tilt of the authorship policies I've seen, realistically, I'd suggest finding a way to live with that, or find a different advisor who has expectations more in line with your own.

28 comments:

Jeffe said...

I think the only reasonable stance is to be generous — offer coauthorship to students and other colleagues who contribute x%, but only accept coauthorship yourself if you've contributed y%, for some x<y.

And then don't work with jerks.

Whether using alphabetical order or by contribution, I think the default assumption is that the student was the "primary" author on a work unless other information is available.

That's the exact opposite of my experience, both as a student and as an advisor.

Anonymous said...

Agree with JeffE: I have NEVER been aware of such an assumption nor do I assume it myself.

I think my default assumption is that the "advisor" person came up with most of the main ideas and insights and the "student" person did most of the grunt work (e.g. any experiments, writing up the proofs etc.). (Obviously this changes if you are talking post-docs or very senior students...)

I have no particular justification for this assumption as I have seen cases where it was valid and cases where it wasn't.

Some advisors won't co-author with students unless it was a truly genuine collaboration (or at least they contributed a significant breakthrough). Some advisors expect a co-authorship even if they don't understand the problem or solution.

Andrew said...

It can benefit the student to have the advisor's name on the paper, regardless of contribution. For instance, the average researcher is more likely to read the latest paper by someone famous than by someone unknown. Also, a famous name tends to result in a smoother review process, which I've certainly noticed since I graduated and started writing my own single-author papers.

David said...

In contrast to your claim that student-advisor papers are typically credited to the student, J.E. Hirsch (inventor of the h-index) writes in PNAS that junior co-authors "are likely to have made a lesser contribution to the paper" and claims that one advantage of the h-index as a bibliometric is that it appropriately gives them lesser credit than their senior co-authors. So it seems that (in Hirsch's mind, at least) having one's advisor as co-author can hurt the amount of credit one gets.

Anonymous said...

As a graduate student, I'm surprised this is even an issue. I have become convinced, through experience, that there are always more pros than cons to being generous. The amount that you learn from, and the strengthening of the relationship with, an additional quality collaborator (advisor or otherwise) far outweighs the dilution of credit in all but the most extreme of cases. If the advisor/additional collaborator even teaches you one thing you didn't know, this will pay dividends for a lifetime -- whereas the additional credit from having one less author on the paper will likely become less important with time.

Anonymous said...

"If the advisor/additional collaborator even teaches you one thing you didn't know, this will pay dividends for a lifetime -- whereas the additional credit from having one less author on the paper will likely become less important with time."

That is true, if you manage to get a job. When you are looking for a job, the extra author will likely hurt you. These days, when 90-95% of graduates don't get research jobs, every marginal advantage is important.

Stefan Savage said...

When you are looking for a job, the extra author will likely hurt you. These days, when 90-95% of graduates don't get research jobs, every marginal advantage is important.

Marginal advantages can potentially help in tight labor markets (especially if there are many similar candidates in the same area), but I think author count is not a particularly useful quantity to optimize here. This just isn't how recruiting works. If a candidate looks strong, but we're concerned what their contribution was to joint papers, we look to letters to resolve it or we call their co-authors to find out.

If you want to optimize for marginal advantages work on networking, interships, etc. since being known in your community dominates these other things. Yet another reason to blog non-anonymously.

David Andersen said...

Jeffe: I like that. One can summarize the rule by reference to Postel's Law: Be conservative in where you demand credit; be liberal in where you grant it to others.

I'm with Stefan on the unimportance of the marginal benefit of reduced author count. Position matters somewhat, but total count matters little. And the nuances tend to come out through the whole application package, not just the listing on the C.V.

Anonymous said...

"Position matters somewhat, but total count matters little."

In theoretical CS, position is alphabetical, so total count matters more. It is more subtle than that, though, since it depends on who the coauthors are and on what the letters say.

Fahad Dogar said...

This blog attracts people from both theory and systems communities, which is probably the main reason why there is a fair bit of difference in opinion. This is compounded by anonymous comments -- as a result people may not be able to fully appreciate the views of others. For example, someone made a comment that there are scenarios where the advisor makes all the contribution and the student's contribution is very little. This is probably more likely in the theory community, but in systems such cases are very rare, simply because of the nature of the work.

I think it will be a good idea if people reveal their background (theory vs. systems) when they post anonymously :-)

Shirish said...

Does the author order, or the number of authors really matter so much. From my experience, Industry in general seems to care more about your core skills, while in academia only the obvious stars get the jobs.

I or anybody I know has never had a problem with including their advisors name on a article. It almost seems strange to me that an advisor and student could have disagreements of this nature.

Typically such problems are likely to occur between people of equal stature. Maybe two students, or CoPIs......ummm maybe between a postdoc and PI too (seen such cases). Nevertheless, really think that if you are young researcher, it is best to be generous and stay clear of creating conflicts.

Paul said...

The solution is simple. Just work with different coauthors on dozens of papers, each more beautiful and earth-shattering than the last, until the sheer quantity of masterful work overwhelms any skeptics of your unprecedented genius.

Everyone always makes things so much harder than they have to be. :)

M said...

I actually would have loved to have my advisor's name on my papers, but he insisted that our discussions didn't warrant adding his name when I'd done the actual work myself. On the other hand, if he'd insisted on being first author, I might have been irked. My roommate's advisor insisted on being on his papers, which he thought of as kind of a joke, since that advisor had limited knowledge of, let alone contribution to, what he was doing. To me, it's not fair to have someone on the paper who hasn't understood or in some cases even read it. Remember Hwang Woo-Suk? Could he have gotten away with years of fraud had all his coauthors actually been true collaborators?

Anonymous said...

There's been a bit of talk of recommendation letters clearing up things for hiring committees. Note that this is irrelevant for students who mostly publish with other students, which sometimes happens.

Stefan Savage said...

There's been a bit of talk of recommendation letters clearing up things for hiring committees. Note that this is irrelevant for students who mostly publish with other students, which sometimes happens.

In general this is a plus because it shows initiative. That said, an important lesson is that it is your responsibility to let your advisor, mentors, supporters, etc. know what you're doing and how you are progressing in your research. If you are brilliant but invisible then you will suffer for it. This is also true at conferences, internships, etc. You cannot safely depend on others to just read your papers and infer that you are really good.

Anonymous said...

"As a practical matter, keeping in mind the strong advisor-oriented tilt of the authorship policies I've seen, realistically, I'd suggest finding a way to live with that, or find a different advisor who has expectations more in line with your own."

I guess I agree with the advice, but it is somewhat circular: the policies themselves were most likely written by professors (or administrators kowtowing to professors). So in some sense this advice comes down to: "If a professor wants authorship on a paper, give it to them because they have more power than you (the lowly graduate student)."

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I'd first point out that I think Stefan's comments are spot on. (No surprise.) Thanks Stefan.

Anon 16: Your interpretation of what I said was: "If a professor wants authorship on a paper, give it to them because they have more power than you (the lowly graduate student)." Just to be clear, that's not my interpretation. One clear graduate student power is to walk away, and/or find a different advisor. That's what I emphasized.

I admit I'm a bit surprised that people don't default to the student doing the work. I agree that there's a theory/systems difference here -- although, arguably, in both there's some expectation that the advisor did the "high-level thinking" and the student more of the "grunt work". (Perhaps it's that theorists just think more highly of the high-level thinking.) But isn't the right first cut in evaluating a student (for a postdoc, job, etc.) to assume that they did a significant part of the work for the papers they're listed on? If that's not the case, do you completely dismiss the CVs when you're hiring? Why even ask for them? Yes, you check it with letters, phone calls to their advisors and co-authors, etc. But really your default assumption, say when you meet a student who is giving a talk, presenting a poster, etc., is that they're just an extension of their advisor?

I admit that multiple papers, with different co-authors, does help cement the impression that the student was a significant contributor.

Paul Beame said...

My assumption, unless explicitly contradicted, is usually that on early papers co-authored with an advisor, the advisor chose the problem and probably a large chunk of the approach to its solution so that the balance skews towards the advisor but that as the student matures the student has much more of a leadership role in the papers and the advisor less.

Anonymous said...

my multi-year experience as an advisor is the opposite of what Michael says. My students always contributed essentially nothing to their papers with me, but because they were beginning students I could not bring myself to tell them that they shouldn't be coauthors. In situations like this I let the students do the writing, as an opportunity to learn how to write publishable work. Often this creates even more work for me later. I believe that a large part of student-advisor publications in theory happen because of the differences in seniority: the advisor feels that it is too cruel to remove the students name, wants to give them a research experiences, wants to give them a second chance, etc. Good students should not be publishing their first papers with their advisors before they are established as independent researchers.

Anonymous said...

As a graduate student in theory, I think its hard to overestimate the importance of adviser's contribution or as such any co-author's contribution. And contrary to many other students' experience, at times, my adviser has been reluctant to put himself as a co-author even though I felt he contributed a lot to the development of the overall idea.

In general about co-authorship, I look at collaboration as a long term thing. Sure in some paper, you may have done 80% of the work while someone else did only 20%. But a) it is plausible that without that 20%,
your single-authored paper might have been a far less impressive result b) May be you contributed more, but may be on some other result, your co-author will do more and then it is really amortized.

Anonymous said...

How come in Economics you almost don't see an advisor on the paper and they do advise...? These are two different equilibria

Anonymous said...

Here is a different point to this discussion. I think if one has a famous advisor, he would prefer to have her name on a paper submitted to one of top conferences, specially when the papers is not a clear accept paper. I have seen this many fellow students in theory. The reason for this is the feeling that PCs are biased toward famous names about papers which are not clear accept or clear reject. Having a student get a good job is also a plus for the advisors, so a senior advisor who has established her name in the field may be biased toward giving more credit to her students. On the other hand senior theory professors seem to be very conservative about having their name on a paper that they have not contributed significantly.

I am happy about the situation in theory about whose name should be on a paper, liberal in putting other peoples names even when they have not contributed significantly, and conservative about when my name should be on a paper, and alphabetical listing of the names of authors, which is similar to math culture.

From comments on this and the previous post, it seems that situation in systems is completely different. It would be nice if future anonymous comments state if they are working in theory or in systems, if they are students or professors, and and if there is a difference between senior and junior professors.

Stefan Savage said...

Good students should not be publishing their first papers with their advisors before they are established as independent researchers.

With all respect, and with the understanding that theory is not a field in which I contribute, I think this is backwards. The purpose of advising is precisely to help new students learn how to become independent researchers and there are few experiences as educational as those leading up to writing a paper. Its the rare student who suddenly emerges, like Botticelli's Venus, as a fully formed research colleague. Were this the norm presumably we wouldn't bother with graduate school, no?

As Paul writes, one expects a greater contribution over time as your students mature but those earlier papers are part of how they get there. Its not clear what value would be gained by removing student names during that initial period.

Anonymous said...

As Paul writes, one expects a greater contribution over time as your students mature but those earlier papers are part of how they get there. Its not clear what value would be gained by removing student names during that initial period.

I agree. There is an important point here, however: the student/advisor publication relationship is often in the favor of the student. Especially in theory, I don't think that it is the case that advisors get an advantage by adding their names to the student papers. More often it is the other way around. Good students will learn from this experience, but all students are by nature of their position taking advantage of their advisor when it comes to joint publications. The relationship is more exploitive to the disadvantage of the advisor. Most advisors are clearly happy to perform this service.

Anonymous said...

These comments are getting quite one-sided. It probably really depends on the quality of school that we are talking about.

Of course advisors are doing their advisees a favor, but they get a huge benefit. Good researchers have more ideas than they know what to do with. If they didn't have a student to work with and to work out the non-trivial details, they likely wouldn't get so many papers! If a student is really "to the disadvantage of the advisor", then there is something wrong, and I don't think this situation is common at top schools, which is why it is so beneficial to one's career to get a job at a good school!

Anonymous said...

What if the advisor tells you that they don't have time to even read the manuscript before submission but still expect co-authorship?

Anonymous said...

Most of the comments here seem to be from faculty who have been on a tight leash when they were students and now are tightly leashing their own students.

If this is the dominant culture then there is no way I, who has been rogue from day one, will get a job without doing a postdoc so that I ``prove myself'' once again. All my papers are with my advisor, and all of my advisor's papers are with her students.

Aren't there any more faculty who are biased in favor of students? Or am I doomed under an advisor with an unusual co-authorship policy?

Anonymous said...

I am wary of the self-serving bias in favor of advisors and even more wary of someone who promotes such a bias so blithely. I have an advisor of great reputation who has contributed very little to my papers, and absolutely zero to my most recent one. He has not provided funding, he has not provided problems, and he has not provided any original ideas whatsoever. All he has done is read and review a final draft, which, while useful, is no more than a referee's work. Yet he insists on being a coauthor for his mysterious contribution to my work, which doubtless the author of this post believes I have "underestimated". Unfortunately, some advisors have some kind of egotistical lens that distorts their self-importance far out of proportion, and to counteract this there should be concrete standards of contribution that everyone is ethically required to follow.