should you, could you, would you… co-write with your supervisor?

It’s not hard to find a horror story or two about the PhD researcher who wrote something with their supervisor only to find when it was published that they weren’t given credit for the work. The supervisor put their name first, they made false claims about how much of the research was theirs. The worst case scenario is of course that the doctoral work was just taken and published under the supervisor’s name.

Co-writing is common in lab teams. Most science researchers working in research groups expect that they will co-write with others. Indeed, it also seems to be mainly lab teams that produce the horror stories of plagiarism and not giving due credit. Well, there is just much more co-writing going on, and some of it is pretty high-stakes, we mustn’t assume any in-built disciplinary evil. Co-writing is less common in the humanities and social sciences. It is, however, becoming more usual – not only because of the PhD by publication, but also because supervisors are taking up co-writing as part of their supervision practice.

I’m sure that the horror stories are true and I’m sure that there are some unscrupulous people out there. But the majority of supervisors aren’t out to rip off the doctoral researchers they work with. So, if we don’t take corruption and unethical behaviour as the starting point, then what IS the answer to the question of whether doctoral researchers should co-write with their supervisors?

The usual reasons against co-writing – I found these by doing the inevitable bit of google searching – were:
(1) the doctoral researcher is the expert in the research not the supervisor and they should therefore just write by themselves
(2) the supervisor is getting a free publication on the doctoral researcher’s back
(3) hiring committees look askance at articles co written with supervisors and discount them.

There’s actually not a lot of knowledge about the last point. When I found mention of this, I googled around a bit more to see if there was any discussion about hiring committees and I did find a tiny bit. One suggestion was that if the hiring committee saw a co-written article, then they assumed that this was because the supervisor thought highly enough of the doctoral researcher and their work to want to write with them. Another comment was that if there was ONLY one co-written article then this could be seen as an indicator of poor productivity. I don’t know the answer to this, and it’d be interesting to do a bit of systematic re-searching to find out.

BUT, what if we reverse the question. Why should supervisors co-write with the researchers they work with?

The answer now seems to be either that supervisors are in it for a free publication – that’s the mean and nasty version – or that they co-write in order to help doctoral researchers learn the genre of the journal article and to help them get the work out there as soon as possible. If the latter helping is more generally true than the former self-interest, then we can see that while the doctoral researcher does absolutely contribute their research expertise, the supervisor also contributes by way of knowledge about academic writing.

So to go back to the original question then, why co –write with supervisors?

My answer is that doctoral researchers might want to co-write with their supervisors in order to learn the publication game. There’s also some safety in writing with a more experienced writing partner. The doctoral researcher ought to be able to rely on their supervisor to avoid the most obvious writing ‘mistakes – no focus, lack of signposting, too much literature, not enough methods, no conclusion, too much jargon. They also might learn how to get the right authoritative stance.

Of course there is always the vexed question of author order, but that’s a topic for another post.

For now, what do you think about co-writing? If a doctoral researcher, do you write with your supervisor? Would you? Or would you avoid it like the plague? If a supervisor, do you do this, why and how?

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in co-writing, journal, supervision, theft, writing, writing research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to should you, could you, would you… co-write with your supervisor?

  1. sherranclarence says:

    I think I would like to write with my supervisor when the Thesis is finished. She is well known in her field so this would add credibility and perhaps also recognition to my own work, and I think I can learn a lot about writing for publication from her, which will help me to stretch myself as a young academic who is new to publishing my work. I can understand the hesitation and the arguments against, but in my case it would be all positive.

  2. megan says:

    Could it also be that the supervisor and the candidate actually have a generative writing relationship? That the contributions of both supervisor and the candidate are worthwhile endeavours speaks to the collaborative identity and agency aspects of both supervision and candidature… we speak about the PhD candidates identity in formation, what about the supervisors?
    still thinking this one…

  3. Tine S. Prøitz says:

    I think writing my PhD on my own kind of comes with the territory, but as co authoring with supervisors has become so popular I almost get the impression of being off track. I had to ask my supervisor if it were something that we ought to do, if it were the smart thing to do as I worried about being considered unable to collaborate doing it all alone. She told me to relax and keep up the good work : )

  4. Daniel says:

    I’m all for co-writing that deserves the name and I had good experiences writing with colleagues. But from … what I have heard, I am skeptical with *some* supervisors. I have seen too many cases where some supervisor contributes nothing but bad advice.

    I think an inherent problem if the supervisor “expects” to be on a paper s/he did not contribute to (e.g., if PhDs are hired to *cover topics* without any expertise in the area), is that a supervisor might negatively influence the publication strategy. If the supervisor wants to be on a publication s/he invested no effort in, s/he probably does not know/care much about the discourse community, or know anything about it. So s/he cares only about a “high-level” publication, this is the main goal, not to help the PhD/PostDoc establish him-/herself in the community. To get “the most” out of the work of a PhD, it makes sense for a supervisor to take a blind, high risk strategy and go for the “top” journals, not the best fitting ones. And while the supervisor can usually ‘take it or leave it’ (no effort invested, other horses in the stable), the submit-reject-cycle that plays out (when chasing A-journals without looking for fit) might seriously hamper (or even kill) a PhDs/PostDocs career.

    Personally, when looking for a PhD position I would highly recommend taking only a position where the supervisor also publishes as first author with own original work. Meaning s/he takes publication seriously and still knows how to do it (or s/he is *very* unethical). And I would be highly skeptical of any supervisor who argues to pick the journals with the highest impact on that fact alone, especially if the last publication as first author was over a decade ago.
    (Sure, I would take the journal with the higher impact if I had to chose between two and all other things were equal (they never are), but I’d chose between two that would fit the research question and the way it is answered, and not by scanning a journal list ranked by impact.)

    But like written, I think this is mainly a problem if supervisors have PhDs/PostDocs who cover sub-domains they have no expertise in. And while science is a high-risk creative endeavor where no-one can guarantee success as you step into the unknown, you should know how to get to the yet-unknown, and who your fellow explorers are, and what the unspoken rules are for contributing to science in that community.

    • I know this post is somewhat older, but your suggestion of working for a supervisor who continues to publish as a first author with own original work is excellent advice. If more people considered this prior to starting a PhD, there would likely be fewer “idea vultures” in the academic community; especially in science and engineering where co-publishing is more the norm.

  5. Simon Bailey says:

    I guess the good/bad experience tells you something about a good/bad relationship with your supervisor. Co-authoring was a very productive thing for me, I never got the impression that it was motivated by self interest, and to this day it remains the most trouble-free journal publishing experience I have had. The only itch I ever had with it was when I came to put the paper back into the thesis, and I re-wrote it and put a note in about the contribution, but there was still a question for me of whether it was entirely my own work. With the book I have put that chapter as ‘with’, and it feels better that way. Being ‘with’ means that it is written in the third person and I was worried that would be a bit jarring, but in fact it does some nice ‘objectifying the objectivity’ type work.

  6. Paul Matthews says:

    From the point of view of the student, one benefit is that a joint paper with an established author is likely to have an easier ride through the review process than one by an unknown single author. That shouldn’t be the case of course, but sadly it’s true.
    For the supervisor, it’s some recognition for the amount of time and effort that’s been spent in meetings with student and in reading through and commenting on their work. If you are a dedicated supervisor of 3 or 4 students, this can take up most or all of your research time, so if you didn’t have joint papers with students your publication record would look a bit thin.
    In maths, the usual arrangement is a joint paper with student first.

  7. Julie says:

    “My answer is that doctoral researchers might want to co-write with their supervisors in order to learn the publication game.”

    That – absolutely!

    I’m in the business sector and not looking for tenure so I view potential supervisors with the same eye as when I look over any other business proposal: What resources does this person bring to the table that I don’t have which will get the job done? Simple as that really….

  8. Ben Kraal says:

    With the exception of my PhD and papers arising directly from my PhD, I’ve always co-written with my supervisors and colleagues. I co-write with my PhD students.

    I had not thought much of it, other than accepting it as the way things were done because so much of what I’ve done has been teamwork. I feel it would be strange to have regular meetings with colleagues, students or supervisors and contribute to analysis and not include them as co-authors when the time came to publish.

    Only recently, as I have become aware of some of the subtler politics of academia has co-authoring become something to reconsider. For example, when applying for the top tier of grants in Australia, my field is grouped with humanities and is reviewed by, at the highest levels, by people who are senior and internationally well regarded humanities scholars. Their expectations of what “counts” is shaped by their experience and for them, sole-authorship is what really counts. In my field, sole-authorship is fine, but as I’ve indicated, that’s not how I was taught to work and is not how my colleagues and I work now. Given some grant reviews I’ve had, this could be at least part of the problem.

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  10. Liz says:

    Would at least have liked the chance to have a go at co- publishing first. Completely left to my own devices to work it all out. Didn’t think I had the right to ask! Fortunately I managed a good top journal publication on first attempt. If I had had lots of rejections and had to deal with them alone I may have given up.

  11. Verbynoun says:

    In my field it is customary that publications for the PhD are co-authored by one’s primary supervisor. I’ve learned heaps from co-writing with my supervisor. Co-writing the first paper was essentially a long and detailed practice-based course on paper writing and publishing covering aspects ranging from summarising background literature, structuring text, and choosing and using appropriate vocabulary to choosing a journal, submitting, and dealing with reviewer comments. Invaluable.

  12. Alessandra says:

    I did co-write with my supervisor, but not articles, book chapters. It was a good experience, and I would recommend junior researchers to try to publish articles on their own, and co-write book chapters. The peer-review process is different, and I do think it is good practice to throw yourself in at the deep end when it comes to journal articles, but then I have been quite lucky in that I have not received a rejection (yet…).

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