Friday, May 11, 2012

The value of single author papers

There can be significant career value is writing a single author paper, particularly for graduate students and postdocs. It clearly shows that one has become independent, and is not completely dependent on senior people for ideas, guidance, techniques, ...
Hence, one is ready for a faculty position.

I try to encourage my postdocs, particularly senior ones to do this, occasionally suggesting my name should not be on a paper because I have not made a significant contribution.

Unfortunately, there are some senior people who will not allow or will strongly discourage this. They believe that if they pay the salary or provide the lab that entitles their name to be on every paper produced by someone in their group (even sometimes associated junior faculty). Hence, negotiating single authorship can be a difficult and sensitive subject. Thus, it can also be potential career killer...

For experimentalists single author papers may be difficult, except for review articles. For theorists it should be relatively straight-forward.


  1. yeah,

    plus the more publication/grant/selfish oriented the advisor, the less willing they are to show you the way to independence or give you the freedom to try. i have had ZERO help doing anything i wasnt told to do. even when i had a decent idea i was told to work on what pays the bills.

    1. I doubt why anti-competition laws don't get any wind of this. They go after big tech and big companies, but hardly ever do they pursue academia. Why?

  2. Is it desirable for experimentalists to write single author papers?

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Do mean "desirable" in terms of doing good science or as a career move? I realise it may be unrealistic or lead to poor quality work in some cases.
    I dont think it is as important career wise for experimentalists. However, I think it clearly shows independence and leadership and so is worth thinking about.

  4. Does similar credit come from being last author? Also, what if you publish with another young person? Should you clearly state on job/grant applications that this is the case, since I don't think many would actually notice this without it being pointed out?

  5. Similar credit may come from being last author on a paper in a high profile journal with many authors. However, I would think such a scenario is fairly unlikely.

    I don't think co-authoring a paper with another junior person at comparable career stage counts for as much. The question can always be asked as to who made the more significant contribution. I don't think this should be pointed out in an application. To me it may be seen as desperately trying to justify oneself.

    On the other a postdoc producing a paper with an undergraduate clearly shows leadership. This may need to be pointed out in an application.

    All of the above underscores the unambiguous value of a single author paper. There is no need for justification or clarification or debate. You did it all!

  6. I have recently completed my ph.d. but my supervisor published my thesis as a review article with his name along with a senior postdoc girl, surprisingly without my name. When I asked him he rebuked and abandoned me. He has even declined to forward my recommendation to anyone for a possible postdoc position anywhere.
    Six months later from this episode I was able to publish a paper as single author in a reputed international journal with impact factor more than 5 in physics.
    Will it help me in getting a postdoc especially without a reco from my ph.d. supervisor.