When browsing this site, I see a lot of questions like

Should I let a senior student/professor/etc be a coauthor on my paper when he didn't do any work/made only negative contributions to the project?


What should I do if someone asks me to write my letter of reference myself?

The answers usually encourage the OP to be ethical, and say stuff like

You shouldn't write your own letter because that would be academic fraud


You shouldn't let your colleague be a coauthor because coauthorships are supposed to reflect the contribution you made to the project

Now I think if I asked these questions to academics in real life, their answers would be something along the lines of "of course you should let him coauthor your paper/write your letter of reference yourself, because doing otherwise would be career suicide, and you are in no position to take the moral high ground here." Why is the prevailing opinion on academia.SE so different (and is this a problem)?

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    Why is the prevailing opinion on academia.SE so different? Citation needed. "Everybody does it" is what people talking themselves into a bad decision say. Are you so certain that your colleagues are all making bad choices and giving bad advice?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 21:50
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    Related: Are we presenting an idealised view of academia?
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 22:24
  • @ff524 I think this is at its heart a duplicate of my earlier question.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 22:49
  • Really? I see a lot of "in practice it's very common and there are good reasons this should be the case" a lot.
    – user18072
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 16:15
  • In fact, it seems to me that answers often clearly state whether they are about "the right thing to do" or "the best thing for you", or discuss both aspects. Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 12:22

5 Answers 5


Many of the questions that we get on Academia related to ethics necessarily involve "grey" areas, since what is the most ethical choice, as you suggest, may not be the most practical choice.

However, I believe we would be remiss if we, as a board, did not encourage best practices—what we believe should be done in a given situation. Of course, people reading the answers need to weigh the advice given against their own personal situations. There may be circumstances in which following the advice given may be detrimental. It is better, though, if the reader knows what is appropriate, so that they can try to avoid having to do something less ethical in the future.

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    Along with this, there is a reason why the OP can select the best answer that fits their situation regardless of what the community voted for.
    – NotMe
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 16:48
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    In essence, the standard disclaimer applies: always apply due caution before following advice from strangers on the internet.
    – E.P.
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 22:44

The following is a good paraphrase of a conversation I had with a junior colleague yesterday:

I: I just wanted to say that I would have discussed the issue of coauthorship of this paper with you if I thought there was any chance that you would consider it.

She: I didn't contribute any of the results of the paper.

I: Yes, but I've seen cases where people get added as coauthors with less involvement than you've had, in some cases just by being in the room when the work was done.

She: [reddening] There is no way that I would agree to that!

I: I know. So I didn't ask.

Or, from the other side, here is the last paragraph of a recently accepted paper by Jacob Hicks (my PhD student) and Dr. Kate Thompson (a 2014 PhD from my department):

All of the computer implementations and almost all of the mathematics was done by the named authors. P.L. Clark’s mathematical contributions were (only) the statement and proof of Theorem 4 and the proof of Corollary 1. The statement of Corollary 1 is due to the named authors and was (earlier) proven by them via a different and more computational method making use of quaternions. Clark also contributed to the writing of the paper, working off of an early draft of the named authors.

I had been invited by the named authors to be a coauthor, but I declined.

Or let's switch it around again: twice in recent memory I wrote papers that benefited substantially from conversations I had with more senior academics (one of whom is many years older; the other is not that much older but many times more famous and eminent); in the latter case there was no way I could have written the paper without the ideas this guy gave me. It happened that the ideas were difficult for me to implement, required some variations, and I finished the paper years after I had the conversation, but I have no reason to believe that he could not have carried through what he proposed to me. I offered coauthorship to both of these people and got turned down both times. And, to come full circle, in the former case I did coauthor the paper with a (different) student in my department. I wrote the whole paper and contributed the majority of the results: still, what he contributed was the best part, and his name comes before mine (alphabetically!).

I could go on, but you get the point: when it comes to issues of coauthorship, in every coauthorship situation I have been directly involved with, all parties involved have taken what the OP calls "the moral high ground". I don't really like that term because it makes the practice sound different from the norm. Speaking for myself, i would rather say that I have always acted according to the ethical standards that I was taught and that are followed by the majority of my colleagues the vast majority of the time. My career is alive and reasonably well. In fact I would like to think that I have a reputation for acting honorably and that reputation helps my career.

So my recommendations that other academics uphold professional ethics no matter which way the power flows are not only unhypocritical but sincere: I really do think that following these recommendations are in junior academics' best interests.

I have never directly witnessed a refusal to compromise on these kinds of professional ethics end anyone's academic career. Perhaps I've been very lucky, been in the best places, surrounded by unusually great people. Perhaps mathematicians are more samurai-like in their codes of honor than other academics. Perhaps. But overall my reaction to such questions on this site tends to be the diametrically opposite one: I find it shocking that so many young people are being placed in situations where they feel like they have to choose between their professional integrity and their career. When no one around you is behaving well, it seems hopeless to take an ethical stand even when it actually isn't. So having people on this site firmly steer questioners in the direction of "best practices" seems very, very important.

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    Well, in your situations you are offering coauthorship to people, and they are declining. This is quite different from being coerced into sharing coauthorship with a senior colleague when you as the junior colleague don't believe they deserve credit. Specifically, offering someone coauthorship will rarely hurt their feelings or ruin your career. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:10
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    @Ben: Yes. I have never had a senior colleague try to coerce me into coauthorship: everyone I have ever actually interacted with knows better than that. But if one of my former students was being leaned on by his postdoctoral advisor in this way, for instance, I would strongly advise him not to roll over on this and I would remember that in all my future dealings with this errant person. The community as a whole needs to push back when people in power are behaving badly. If the junior academic rolls over, there can be no push back. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:28
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    What if this ruins his career? Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:31
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    If standing up for what you know is right ruins your career, I have to ask what kind of career you had in the first place. If you're working in a coal mine to support your family, feel free to punch me in the nose for saying that. But if you're in a PhD program hoping for an academic career: then (this is my own choice and opinion, of course) do it right, and if your career is really ruined for not doing the wrong thing, go on to the next career. But again, I have never seen a young person's career ruined in this way. Have you? Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:35
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    The more likely outcome is that it leads to a parting of the ways between a student and a bad advisor. By the way, students switch advisors (and even universities) quite frequently for lots of reasons. A lot of the OPs here imply that they are unwilling to leave their current location, but moving around periodically is an inherent part of the academic lifestyle anyway. If you're in a country with only one university, I hope you're deeply discounting my advice, but in a place like the US there is always somewhere else to go. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:41
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    I knew someone who took forever to get his PhD because his advisor wanted him to do something unethical and he didn't, and the advisor was his enemy for the rest of the PhD. If he had gone with what the advisor wanted he would have gotten the PhD years earlier. Transferring schools/advisors was not a great option for him because his CV was weak and he wasn't good at networking. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:49
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    IMO it's a lot easier to be ethical if you are strong and in a good life position (in this case, a position where you could easily transfer to an institution of comparable quality). For instance, it's easy for me to say cheating on tests is morally wrong, because my grades have always been good enough that I've never needed to cheat. But if I was literally in danger of failing classes I imagine it would be a much harder ethical dilemma Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 3:51
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    I've definitely seen people run into serious career problems due to resisting unethical behavior. That doesn't mean the wise thing to do is to be unethical.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 4:06
  • @Ben: So what happened to your friend after he got his PhD? Did he go on to an academic career? Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 7:00
  • @PeteL.Clark He's unemployed and I believe he has not published in the past decade or so. Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 7:22
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    As a fellow mathematician I have had exactly the same experience. Unfortunately it seems to be different in some other fields, where dishonesty has sometimes passed even far beyond false attributions and actually endangers lives. Cancer research seems to be mostly not reproducible: One group found 11% reproducibility, published in Nature. An extreme example for how corrupt the medical sciences have become: Joachim Boldt caused wrong treatment by faking dozens of clinical studies.
    – user27799
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 15:12
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    @BenBitdiddle Regarding your comment about cheating: I assume that you understand why people on academia.SE tend to suggest not cheating as a course of action, even if it might have practical disadvantages in some situations. It seems that the same reasons would apply to your question. Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 18:42
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    @TrevorWilson: Good point. I've never heard an academic (in grad school or higher) actually advocate cheating, even in real life. This is probably because the people who cheat aren't strong enough students to go to grad school. Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 20:36
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    It is my impression that mathematicians are in fact more samurai-like on these matters than fields where experimental work demands larger teams where author contributions are more dilute and tangled up, or where expensive experiments introduce strong financial incentives to skew the authorship assignments.
    – E.P.
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 22:51

I think some reasons may be

  1. People on academia.SE don't truly care about anonymous Internet posters in the same way they care for their family and friends. They would rather uphold ethics than side with a random person, but in real life they would side with their friends rather than upholding ethics.
  2. Many people on academia.SE post under their real name, and they wouldn't want to endorse unethical behavior where people could see it. On the other hand, never endorsing unethical behavior may be one of the things that make them comfortable posting under their real name in the first place.
  3. As others have said, people who stay in academia have generally been screwed over less than people who don't, and have good relations with their colleagues and supervisors. They can afford to disapprove of writing letters of recommendation themselves, because they've probably never been in a position where they had to write one.

Is this a problem? Personally, I think it is okay as long as questioners are aware of this community bias.

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    "On the other hand, never endorsing unethical behavior may be one of the things that make them comfortable posting under their real name in the first place." I think there's some truth to that, yes. Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 2:34
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    The best remedy to many moral ailments is sunshine.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 6:02

I like a lot an answer by Suresh to Are we presenting an idealised view of academia?, i.e. that we should make a split:

  • what we would all like to happen
  • what typically happens
  • what should NOT happen under any circumstances (even if it's sadly not rare)
  • what is completely abnormal.

I understand that [survival bias, etc] many profs here may never had to write a recommendation for themselves or were never in situation where presence and positions of authors reflected other factors than thier contribution.

(And I am sure that they would not set their advisees in these conditions.)

Yet, to answer: Why do people on academia.SE often suggest courses of action that are very different from what most people would do in real life?, I think that:

  • some people didn't met these problems in person,
  • idealizing academia, advisor-advisee relations, etc (survival bias + wishful thinking),
  • it may be dangerous to put under one's name an advice for a breach of ethics,
  • "lesser evil" doesn't sound well plus may be an excuse for others as a normal, acceptable behaviour.

Apart from the other good arguments, I think that we should answer “what should I do?” questions from the point of view of ethics and academic standards, because that’s the only point of view from which we can give a useful answer to most of these questions.

Let’s take this question for an example:

Should I let my supervisor be a coauthor on my paper when he didn't contribute anything to the project?

The decision that the asker eventually has to make strongly depends on the following questions:

  • How high is the risk that not making the supervisor a coauthor has negative repercussions of what kind?
  • How high does the asker value the damage done by these repercussions?
  • How high does the asker value the ethics involved?

The first question obviously strongly depends on the supervisor and can only be answered by somebody knowing this person; the other two questions can only be answered by the asker.

We cannot make the decision for askers of such questions; we cannot even give direct advice for such situations; we can only help them to make an informed decision. To this end, the main thing we can do is to inform askers about ethics and academic standards. We can and should also inform them about possible repercussions originating from them being expected to breach ethics – but in most such questions that I am aware of, the askers are already aware of possible repercussions.

  • 1
    I think that it is a good thing to help give people ways to weight the tradeoffs, though. I have noticed that some answers advocate dealing with an ethical problem immediately, while others advocate waiting until a person is less immediately in peril from acting. I think this is appropriate.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 21:55
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    I certainly agree that it is only appropriate to inform people of the risks of various actions, and part of the advice should be the best way to pull something off, not just what is abstractly the correct thing to do. I think that we are pretty good about doing that. Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 3:27
  • We typically only have the problem description of one side. Which we do take care of by (staying in the example) e.g. asking the OP to consider whether the supervisor really didn't do a scientific contribution (and by a variety of answers that covers within the ethical a variety of different "local" = field-specific customs).
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 21:12

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