Supervisors are morally obliged to publish with their PhD students

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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.

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

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