Co–writing with your supervisor – the authorship question


coauthorA doctoral researcher recently told me, and several others who were in the room at the same time, that he wanted to write a journal article. Good eh. No. Not really. The trouble was that his supervisor insisted on being named as co–author even though they weren’t contributing anything. The response from those listening was immediate, and negative. “No” came a chorus almost in unison, together with a few audible intakes of breath.

This is far from the first time I’ve heard of this. And in fact, I do know of some disciplines where it is automatically assumed that a supervisor’s name will go on whatever a doctoral researcher publishes, regardless of whether they have even looked at the paper. This default authorship practice seems to have its roots in the view that: (a)the conversations held in supervision inevitably mean that some of the supervisor’s knowledge is taken up by the supervisee, and (b) the supervisor’s intellectual contribution to the doctoral researcher’s project needs to be acknowledged through being named as co-author. But I’ve also heard some of my colleagues put exactly the opposite view – that the supervisor shouldn’t ‘interfere’ with their PhDer’s publications and should never co-write and shouldn’t ever appear as co-author.

So the question of writing with your supervisor is contentious territory. There aren’t clear cut policies and actually precious little discussion. Yet, as the pressure to publish during the PhD ramps up, and as more and more people undertake PhD by publication, it seems pretty urgent that the question of supervisor-supervisee co-writing becomes something more than a corridor conversation and a question at conferences.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is this.

Teaching –  and supervision is a teaching relationship of a very particular kind –  always involves the teacher offering the gift of their views and expertise to the ‘learner’. This offer can be coercive, as in “you must think this way and woe betide you if you don’t.” Or it can be much more light touch and generous, as in “how about this point of view”, or “how about reading this next” or “this makes me think about” or this would be more readable if you put this here not there.”

In supervision, it is almost inevitable that at least some of the supervisor’s perspectives will be influential on the doctoral candidate’s thinking. But not always. Regardless of the take-up, a supervision ‘gift’ is built into the pedagogical exchange. Supervisors don’t put their names as co-writers on the thesis because supervising is gift giving – the thesis is seen as the candidate’s own original work and the supervisor is thanked for their contribution in the acknowledgements. And of course, the ideal supervision relationship is one where the supervisor learns too. Giving is reciprocal.

Writing for publication is now part of the supervision process. This is formalised in the UK for instance, where the annual review process usually includes reporting on how the supervisor is supporting the doctoral researcher to publish. These days, a doctoral researcher can reasonably assume that, as with their thesis, they can discuss writing and publishing with their supervisor. They can talk over the purposes of writing a paper, get some direction in writing, and some feedback. The supervisor offers this conversation as part of their pedagogical process. Support for publishing is not a supervision addition, an extra. It is, like the production of the thesis, integral to the doctoral process. And the same rules that apply to the thesis ought to apply to writing for publication, the supervisor offers a gift. They don’t expect to be automatically named.

However, it may be that the supervisor does more than offer advice and a bit of feedback. They actually write part of the manuscript. They contribute something over and on top of what the doctoral researcher is able to do themselves – this might be by way of writing about relevant literatures or methods, some refinements of analysis, a theoretical framing, the development of the mandate and contribution… There is an actual contribution. These are circumstances where it seems not unreasonable for the supervisor to claim some degree of co-writing.  But because the substantive research is the doctoral candidate’s, the supervisor really ought to think quite hard about why they wouldn’t want to be anything but the second author.

It may be that the supervisor does more than simply make a contribution to the doctoral researcher’s paper. The supervisor might write something where the doctoral researcher is offered the contributing role, perhaps they provide some data to a larger supervisor-produced corpus, write specifically about research methods, offer some literatures, do some of the analysis. This scenario is often the case when the doctoral researcher is working in a research team, or on the same project as their supervisor. In this case, authorship credit and order needs to be carefully negotiated. Disciplinary conventions, supervisor generosity and calculations about percentage contributions all come into play at this point.

Writing with your supervisor is tricky. But not impossible to manage. Authorship negotiation can be difficult and sometimes unduly hard, and I will say even more about this in another upcoming post.

If you have helpful experiences or advice to offer to others about writing with your supervisor, do let me know. I’m keen to keep the conversation going.