Give PhD students credit where it's due

As the trend for mass-authored papers in science spreads to other fields, PhD students’ work is still going unacknowledged

August 27, 2015
Huge crowd of academics (illustration)

Anyone who has ever stayed up late to watch the Oscars will have learned to dread the words: “I’d like to thank…”

This is the point at which the gushing star credits everyone from their great-great-aunt to their pet hamster for the golden statuette clutched in their white-knuckled fist.

It would be touching if it didn’t feel so disingenuous (and if it didn’t happen quite so often).

The same, some would argue, could be said of the trend for mega-lists of co-authors on academic papers – lists that in extreme cases can be longer than the papers themselves.

In an analysis in our news pages this week, it is suggested that the phenomenon that has been particularly prevalent in certain science disciplines is also on the rise in the social sciences.

There are many reasons for the mega-list. At the less defensible end of the spectrum, according to Tara Brabazon, professor of education at Charles Sturt University in Australia, is “byline banditry”, when senior scholars seek inappropriate credit for work carried out by their PhD students.

According to a study presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, and reported by Inside Higher Ed, one-third of papers in the biological, physical or social sciences had at least one author whose contribution did not meet some definitions for co-authorship.

Interestingly, the study also pointed to a serious problem with so-called ghost authors – contributors who should have been credited but weren’t. This is an issue that could result in undeclared conflicts of interest, it was noted, but also in PhD students being denied recognition by senior scholars unwilling to share credit.

It highlights the tricky balancing act: how to give credit where it’s due but avoid emulating the embarrassing Oscar-winner and clogging up the system (for our part, this year, for the first time, we have decided to exclude papers with more than 1,000 authors from the data behind the Times Higher Education World University Rankings).

It’s also a reminder of the precarious position of the doctoral student, who will always be vulnerable to the vagaries of supervision – a generous mentor can help them to build a publishing profile, while a supervisor who appropriates undue credit or withholds co-authorship can cause real harm.

This vulnerability is also discussed in our cover feature, which offers 10 cautionary tips on “how to fail your PhD”. Several of these focus on the potential pitfalls in the crucial choice of supervisor, and echo advice given by Brabazon in an article for THE a few years ago, in which she warned would-be doctoral candidates that “byline bandits abound”.

“Does your prospective supervisor write with PhD students? Good. Do they write almost exclusively with their PhD students? Not so good – in fact, alarm bells should start ringing,” she wrote.

“Some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written during the candidature. Do not think that this is right, assumed, proper or the default setting. The authorship of papers should be discussed.”

Brabazon’s rule for deciding on co-authorship? “If I write it, it is mine. If you write it, it is yours. If we write it together, we share the authorship.” She makes it sound so simple.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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