Supervisors are morally obliged to publish with their PhD students

Objections to co-authorship with juniors display a misguided sense of ethics, say Mark Hayter and Roger Watson

May 18, 2017
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Should PhD supervisors publish with their students? Should PhD students include their supervisors as co-authors on articles emanating from their PhD projects? To many academics, the answer seems, self-evidently, yes. But some – especially, in our experience, in the social sciences – remain adamantly unconvinced.

We have worked in two universities where PhD supervisors publishing with their students has been a contentious issue. The arguments against are scrupulously ethical. They include the claim that PhD projects are the students’ work, and that academics should not see their doctoral students as a production line for publications.

But are PhD supervisors who want to publish with their students really predators? We contend that they are not. We believe that supervisors have a right to be included as co-authors on their students’ publications. Moreover, they have a moral responsibility to help their students to publish, promote and defend their work. And if supervisors have made a substantial contribution to a project, then failure to acknowledge them as an author removes their obligation to stand by the work in the public domain.

The authorship guidance from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors makes the criteria for co-authorship crystal clear, and supervisors’ contributions to the work of their students fall well within them. Indeed, for supervisors to argue that they do not meet these criteria raises the question: “Then what have you been doing as a supervisor?”

If a supervisor has made a genuine contribution to a student’s project and genuinely assisted with the production of publications, refusal to be an author could be considered ghost authorship. This is, in itself, a breach of publication ethics, most common when a medical academic puts their name to a paper that was actually written by a pharmaceutical company.

We accept that in some science and medical models of supervision, supervisors can be very “hands-off” when they are the leaders of a large project. Those not involved in the close supervision of a project do not necessarily merit authorship. But most types of PhD supervision entail that the supervisor make the appropriate level of contribution to merit authorship. That is definitely the case in most spheres of health and social science research.

As a way forward, we suggest that institutions develop clear guidelines for staff publishing with students and include them in their PhD programme materials. These should include a requirement that students and supervisors formally agree, at the outset, to publish their work jointly. They should also include information about order of authorship – with the student as first author in most instances – and make clear supervisors’ rights to publish from students’ theses when the students themselves do not wish to do so.

And let us put out this challenge to the faint-hearted: why should we not see our PhD students as a production line? We may have developed the project they are working on, or have played a major role in its development. We are also responsible for their development, and what better way is there to fulfil that responsibility than to help them to co-author manuscripts and to negotiate the processes of submission, rejection, revision and, ultimately, publication? The student will be grateful to have something on their CV in addition to their PhD. They will be more employable as academics, and a few refereed publications appended to a thesis also make the case for passing the student more compelling to examiners.

Time spent supervising is an opportunity cost; the supervisor could have been conducting his own research or writing her own publications. If the supervisor is not included on a publication, then it also represents an opportunity cost to their department when it comes to research assessment.

Refusing to publish with PhD students – and arguing that others should not do so – is not an academic stance that has any merit. Its ethical thrust is utterly misguided. It does the student no favours whatsoever and serves only to diminish the academy.

Mark Hayter and Roger Watson are both professors in the Faculty of Health Science at the University of Hull.


Print headline: Joint enterprise

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Reader's comments (2)

Dear Drs Hayter and Watson, You may not use my child as part of your production line. Here are the reasons why. 1) The issues are not moral or ethical but legal in nature. 2) My child has paid a fee to the university to be trained ( contributed towards your salary & this takes care of your opportunity costs). 3) I expect the 3-5 years my child spends on your premises and under your guidance to be fruitful ones. May I suggest the following methods to fulfil your obligations as supervisors? 1) Teach my child how to ask answerable questions (and perhaps some unanswerable ones too! 2) Teach them all about designing good studies and the limitations of their studies 3) Teach them good data management practises 4) Teach them statistical analytical skills. 5) Teach them good writing skills, and please ensure they understand the sometimes unclear rules and guidelines with regard to plaigiarism. 6) Teach them how to submit for a Grant application or Ethics Committee application 7) Teach them how to defend their scientific arguments. 8) Supervise their project closely- this used to be known as "continuous assessment" or "marking" many years ago. 9) Teach them the process of journal submission (PS: Don't forget to tell them that not all journal editors or peer reviewers are qualified to assess their submissions). 10) Teach them to deal with revisions, re-submission and rejection. So, as you can see, I only expect you to teach and supervise for the fee paid. I don't expect you to "contribute" in any way to their project. The reason for that is I don't want there to be any confusion as to who did the project and wrote it up. If you "contribute substantially" to my child's project, how will the external examiner get their marking done? Who will the marks be awarded to- 25% to you and 75% to my child? You are free to do your own research using non-fee paying collaborators such as post-docs, research assistants etc. If you still want your name on the paper, then please ensure that it is clearly identified as "Supervisor" Best Wishes Mrs P
I didn't publish any of my PhD because I didn't want to include my 'supervisors'. I liked them as people but didn't rate them highly as supervisors and was horrified by the actions of one during the corrections process. Moreover, in my opinion, I've given much more feedback in a single essay than they provided on my whole PhD! I'd have preferred to do the PhD without 'supervision'.