Saturday, 25 February 2017

How to Co-author Effectively


Agree everything in advance and capture in a pre-nuptial agreement

Regardless of whether you are working with close friends or people you hardly know, find the time and bravado to broach the difficult issues in advance.

The most socially neutral thing to suggest is that you and your co-authors are listed on the masthead alphabetically. This however, is more attractive if you’re an Atkins than a Zabinsky. Be wary of anyone bearing the double-barrelled surname Aardvark-Zabinsky; they’ve probably had some difficult co-authoring experiences and arrived in your life via the branch of local government that deals with changing your name by deed-poll.  However, it isn’t just about author order. Think about who owns the data, what happens if you want to write a follow up paper without the original team (perhaps because you’ve vowed never to work with them again), who is the “returning officer” for the paper in terms of research assessment exercises, etc. Like any relationship, these things might seem unnecessary and unlikely in the first flush of a new writing partnership. Ask some senior colleagues and you’ll find that most experienced academics could shame the late Zsa Zsa Gabor with their trail of broken authoring relationships.

Have a clear division of labour

Agree up front who will do what in the co-authoring team such that everyone is aware that they have something substantive to do.

The transition from initial idea to published artefact usually involves a significant amount of time and effort pursuing a variety of tasks.  These range from scanning the literature to gathering data and from negotiating with editors to making the diagrams look presentable.  For your co-authoring experience to feel collaborative it helps that these tasks are identified and shared amongst the members of your authoring team.  As a basic premise, authoring traditionally means the writing of words. In academia authoring might not involve actual words but could involve gathering data, coding, analysing, developing conceptual models, reviewing, editing or any number of other things. Make a list. Be clear on who is doing which bits. If you’ve had difficult experiences in earlier co-authoring teams you might feel the need for a Gantt chart or even some pledges.

Know how your co-authors work

Discuss the process that your new co-authors go through as they craft a publishable artefact. That way you’ll know what to expect.

How people actually write is important. We are not referring to questionable use punctuation or appalling grammar but rather to the actual creative process of writing. Some co-authors may want regular contact and the opportunity for informal chats over endless cups of tea, huddled round a computer screen or staring at a whiteboard.  For them, these might be the vital social interactions which underpin the creative process. For others it might simply seem a waste of time. Neither view is right but knowing whether to schedule another chat or wait until someone shares a draft of something worth sharing is important. It is easy to see how an irretrievable breakdown can occur if you have very different creative processes and haven’t taken the time to set expectations. Attitude to deadlines is another area of friction. Are you by nature an observer of deadlines or do you regard them as the opening salvo in a negotiating process where only a fool would fold that easily? Again, it is important to know both your own norms and those of your co-authors especially if you want to write together again.

Develop the hide of a Rhinoceros

Opportunities for academics to take offence are legion.  If you want a co-authoring relationship to work you’re going to have to get over the idea that all criticism is personal.

Some of us craft every line and syllable with the care of a poet. If you are the type of author who cares deeply and profoundly over every carefully crafted turn of phrase there is a very real chance that you will find co-authoring relationships traumatic. Especially where you are working with new people.  Nevertheless, it is important to hear feedback when it is offered. Don’t fret over your much loved alliteration or pithy tone. Remember that there should be some difference from the tone of your solo authored work; that is the intention after all. And remember that your co-authors are probably playing the field.  Monogamy in co-authoring relationships is not unheard of, but rampant polygamy is much more the norm.  Some relationships turn out to be for life. Some will start for a reason then only last a season.  Try to learn how to improve your own writing and carry those lessons forward regardless.

Pull your weight

If you are pulling your own weight in your shared endeavours then you will be better able to chastise your co-authors should the need arise.

There should be no such thing as a free publication. The number of co-authors varies by field meaning that there are no hard and fast rules.  Papers with over 1000 authors occur in the sciences and even one case with 5000 authors. If you find yourself in one of those co-authoring teams you really only need one or two words each, but proof reading by committee might be a challenge. These extremes tend to be the exception rather than the norm.  In the social sciences singled authored papers remain commonplace, with two to five being seen as entirely normal.  Even with solo authoring there can be trust issues and that escalates in a non-linear way the more authors you add.  If you’ve already divided up the tasks involved it helps but doesn’t completely mitigate the propensity to feel like you’re doing more than your fair share. Be willing to have awkward conversations but only if you are completely confident that you’ve done all the things you promised to do.

Remember that editing is a form of writing

Writing the first draft and editing the final one are both forms of writing. Recognise that editing is a critical skill which more than justifies the status of co-author if done well.

Some authors are good at first drafts. Others are better at polishing the final draft. In between are those whose gift is a form of structural engineering that sees whole chunks of text move around as arguments take shape and a workable narrative arc is refined. Be clear where and when you are adding value to the paper. It is questionable whether spotting the occasional typo or stray apostrophe counts as co-authoring. If your name is listed with the authors rather than in the acknowledgements you should be able to point to the specific things that you’ve added (or deleted). Early discussions about any “thou shalt not delete” sections, ideas or quotes obviously helps diffuse tension in the editing process.  That said, a healthy co-authoring team has the emotional bandwidth to handle reducing an entire section to a few punchy sentences even if the blame is laid squarely with the reviewers for appearances sake.  Those few remaining words might be the hook on which the entire paper hangs.  Co-authoring is therefore as much about ideas as words.

Remember  your status

All co-authors are equal, but some are more equal than others. Knowing where you are in the hierarchy can help smooth the social process.

Sometimes it is hard to escape the Orwellian sense in which co-authoring hierarchies subtly reassert themselves.  On the surface, you are part of the same team pulling in the same direction but there is more than likely some implicit hierarchy.  There may be an author in chief who simply shouts some encouragement periodically in person or by Skype. There are probably some worker bees who feel that they are doing most of the heavy lifting. Each may regard the other as ballast; but in principle at least, each could be adding something valuable.  If you are a PhD student or an early career researcher you might feel slightly peeved by those you consider to be acting as frictional drag. In those circumstances, the question you should be asking is would the paper survive without others and the answer is often no.  If you want to learn the craft of publishing, working with a more experienced author makes sense. You may simply have to accept that you learn valuable authoring lessons (and some life lessons) in any asymmetrical writing relationship.  Who knows, if it works you might one day be seen as the ballast by the next generation of researchers.

Exploit your networks

Who to work with? Think about the people you know, colleagues, supervisors, examiners are a very good place to start, who would like to work with?

Senior academics get asked to co-author a lot and not always because of their magnetic personality and fantastic mentoring skills.  At the end of every seminar or conference paper they are surrounded by a small huddle of people offering chances to collaborate on something which draws directly on their big ideas. Consequently such established stars tend to have a well-honed routine for avoiding such career development opportunities.  Think about it from their perspective. They probably have a bulging pipeline of new projects, some established co-authoring relationships of their own, some PhD students to whom they feel a moral obligation. What is it about your proposed collaboration that would deliver something of value to them? There could be access to a new and interesting data set or the chance to learn about a new theoretical domain or context.  What can you bring to the table beyond the evident need to get yourself published? A good starting point is to remember that co-authoring is not just about the writing, ideally find people that you like as human beings and with whom you can get on well. Charm, enthusiasm and the low-maintenance sense in which you look to be both polite and competent helps a great deal.

(re)evaluate the experience

Take the time to assess the pros and cons of each co-authoring arrangement and act on the conclusions.

There are a number of criteria that you can use to evaluate a co-authoring experience. Is it helping you publish to a standard that you could not yet attain alone? If the answer is yes then you are probably still learning things and developing as an author. If publications aren’t appearing at all, at the rate you hoped or in the right standard of outlet then maybe it isn’t working. Are you enjoying it? Of course, it could be hell but rewarding; equally, it could be fun but frustrating. Ideally you’re looking to combine something which is socially rewarding, developmental and delivering better results than you could achieve as a solo author. Why bother if you don’t enjoy at least some aspects of the co-authoring relationship? Are you being honest? If you are having offline discussions about who is claiming what from the paper (e.g. who claims the paper for REF or claims to have taken the lead for the purposes of a promotion case, etc.). If so this is usually an indicator that all is not well. And just because things used to work well is no guarantee that they will continue to do so indefinitely. Evaluating what you’re getting out of it in the here and now is important. Co-authoring, just like other forms of relationship, takes on-going maintenance.

Break up gracefully

Not all co-authoring relationships last so, if you have decided to go your separate ways, try to consciously uncouple in a way which doesn’t do lasting damage.

Some high-profile co-authors are also married to each other. You can imagine that this further exacerbates the potential for an acrimonious break up when things go wrong. Even if you’re not married there remains a need to find a way of exiting gracefully as you never know when your paths will cross again. Well intentioned co-authoring teams can head inexorably toward an irretrievable breakdown for any or all of the same reasons as marriages: psychological immaturity; incompatibility; relationship entered into under false pretences; or even, nonconsummation – i.e. that the paper never did get written.  Whatever the reason, a good prenuptial agreement helps (see point 1 above). In the absence of such an agreement you’ll need to negotiate the distribution of your goods and chattels as you make clear that you want out.  This can be problematic and it might help to rope in a.n.other as an honest broker.  The longer and more successful the co-authoring relationship has been, the harder it will be to uncouple. Where you are agreeing not to go beyond a first publication the process can be easier. Your joint papers will, however, loiter on your CV as a permanent reminder of the rich collaboration you once had/the biggest mistake you ever made (delete as appropriate).


This advice also appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement

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