co-authoring: ask a scatterbrain

From an esteemed colleague:

What set of issues should be discussed before two (or more) people agree to write a paper together?  There are obvious contenders here – order of authorship, timeline, etc. – but what else is important?

11 thoughts on “co-authoring: ask a scatterbrain”

  1. The most important thing is to talk overtly in advance about all these issues. Don’t make assumptions. This is especially important if there is a power/status inequality between the authors. As my experience is mostly with relatively unequal situations, I’ll list some things that come to mind from that perspective and let others chime in regarding more egalitarian situations. (1) Whose work is it? Does the paper/research primarily “belong” to one person, with the other as a helper? This is partly who is first author, but also who gets to decide when there is disagreement about what to do? If it is “equal co-authors,” exactly what does that mean? (2) Who will do what? On what timetable? Will one of the authors be hurt more if the paper is delayed? What recourse does the more one partner have if the other person does not do their share? Maybe a kind of pre-nup would be appropriate, i.e. an agreement about the circumstances under which one author can “take control” of the paper and get it done if the other person does not do their part. (I would assume that the other person would stay on the paper as a coauthor even if they don’t help finish it, unless they really did nothing.) (3) What norms are in play about what authorship and authorship order means? Under what circumstances will order of authorship change from the original agreement? Does just being an RA get you on the paper, or do you have to do some of the writing? (4) Talk honestly about the career goals of each. Each partner in a coauthorship relation has the right to expect to enhance his/her career from the paper. Understandings about whose needs should come first in the case of conflicts should be talked about at the beginning of the project. (5) If there is an ongoing project with multiple parts that is likely to yield multiple publications, plan the different parts and consider allocating the work and credit/authorship for each in different ways so as to be sure to meet all the authors career needs. (6) If you are the junior or more vulnerable partner, it is especially important to you that these issues get talked about, and you should bring them up. You can do it in the form of questions if you feel insecure, but don’t just let it slide. If you are the senior partner, you ought ethically to bring up the issues and make a point of helping to teach the junior person about his/her career interests in planning work. If you as a senior person think only of your own career and not that of the junior people working with you, people will justifiably think badly of you. By the time you are a full professor, you ought, when in doubt, give the edge to the more junior person. But if you feel your own career needs the boost from that project, be honest with your junior collaborators about your own career goals and the role of the paper in them. (7) How do you like to work? How do you envision this happening? Will you divide labor? Will you pass drafts back and forth? Do your feelings get hurt if you are heavily edited/rewritten by someone else? Do you tend to be controlling about your writing? Do you hate people who obsess about writing?


  2. Wise words from OW as always. An important thing from my observing of others’ collaborations, especially among graduate students, is to keep in mind that none of the stuff involving credit matters if the paper doesn’t get done.


  3. My advice: (1) read OW’s advice. (2) For grad students: particularly, read her first sentence again. Have an overt conversation about this. It may seem uncomfortable. If that’s the case, one way to approach it is to say, “I’m unclear on the norms of this…” In other words, you can ask for it to be a mentoring/teaching moment. But be explicit. You don’t have to draw up a contact, but you do want to know what is expected to (1) be a coauthor, and (2) what is required for different levels (second vs. first author vs. coauthor). I would also suggest revisiting the conversation to make sure you’re both (or all) agreed that you’re doing what you agreed to.


  4. I’m a little late to this one — but I am currently trying to do my part to finish a co-authored paper that needs to be completed by next week…

    I have experience collaborating with both senior colleagues and another grad student. Since almost all of the things said about co-authoring with a senior/junior combination have been said very eloquently, I won’t add anything except to say that through co-authoring with senior colleagues, it has been a great way to enhance a sociology network.

    OW highlights some of the problems that can come about with a junior/senior co-authoring relationship that can be problematic. I wanted to highlight a couple of areas where working with other grad students can lead to issues as well. The largest one comes about with issues of professional advancement. Because grad students (especially advanced grad students who are looking at the market in the relatively near future) both have a great deal at stake for authoring papers. This means that there is no clear division of who would benefit more or less from the project. “The most important thing is to talk overtly in advance about [this]” (h/t OW, I thought it required emphasizing again).

    This conversation can be much more tricky with grad student colleagues (and, I imagine junior faculty – though at this point I can only dream of being one and therefore have no direct experience). There isn’t the opportunity for a teaching moment and, more likely than not, you are working with a friend when engaging in the project. It can be painful to talk about, but it is much better to do it–and do it early–than it is to just assume.

    One of the ways that I have worked with my colleague is that we have conceived of this as a larger project in which we are hoping to produce several papers. We actually wrote a grant for this project together which helped us talk out some of the issues OW discussed in the process of writing the grant and in the grant application we actually proposed several analyses, each roughly corresponding to a paper. This is not always a possibility (things like dissertations get in the way — but there is nothing to stop collaboration once both of you defend), but it has been a great way for us to conceive of our writing and (I think) end up with a more equitable solution.


  5. From my experience, sharing authorship equally can lead to writing delays because there is no first author to take control of the process when the need arises. This is something to consider when embarking on a project, especially with a fellow graduate student.


  6. I’m actually working on something with someone in my grad cohort. We want to make it clear that we’ve equally shared in the work. So, how do we go about denoting this in the authorship order? Alphabetical? How do people who read papers on, say, a hiring committee, view that? Do they just assume the first author did the most work? Even if it’s alphabetical?


  7. Fields differ. In sociology, if it is NOT alphabetical, the first author is assumed to be a lead author. If it is alphabetical, it is not clear what to assume. Footnotes that say the authors are equal co-authors are pretty common and are usually believed. A team doing a series of articles often rotates order of authorship.


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