Career advice: how to co-author a research paper

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

February 23, 2017
Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood
Source: Rex
Care and attention: successful co-authoring requires ongoing maintenance

Make 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.

But 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 and who is the “returning officer” for the paper in terms of research assessment exercises.

Like any relationship, these things might seem unnecessary and unlikely in the first flush of a new writing partnership. Ask some senior colleagues, however, 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

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 among the members of your authoring team. Be clear on who is doing which bits.

Develop the hide of a rhinoceros

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 when 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.

Pull your weight

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, so 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).

All co-authors are equal, but some are more equal than others

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, each could be adding something valuable.

(Re)evaluate the experience

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 that 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?

Evaluating what you’re getting out of it in the here and now is important. Co-authoring, just like other forms of relationship, requires ongoing 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 that doesn’t do lasting damage.

Well-intentioned co-authoring teams can head inexorably towards an irretrievable breakdown for any or all of the same reasons as marriages: psychological immaturity; incompatibility; relationship entered into under false pretences; or even non-consummation – that is, the paper never did get written. Whatever the reason, a good prenuptial agreement helps (see 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 the longer and more successful the co-authoring relationship has been, the harder it will be to uncouple.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and thePhDblog.com blogs.

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Reader's comments (25)

Interesting article. Do you think the nature of co-authorship in the social sciences has changed / is changing as pressure to publish and metrics/measurement become increasingly part of the environment?
I think it is shifting and shifting rapidly... there is an ever increasing use of metrics. I am debating if this is right or wrong, it is a simple fact. You can do things to help yourself, make sure your profile is correct on Scopus, use platforms like Research Gate to get your work seen in another medium, also use twitter and Instagram to promote it in other ways... best way to get citations its to get your work read.
Do you have any advice to new researcher on choosing who to coauthor with?
Yes, people you want to write with and people you would benefit from working with!
A.Maclaren ... the world is changing. Some branches of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences less quickly than others but metrics are coming and REF/RAE has been here long enough for the current generation of academics to know that being the "returning officer" for a book, chapter, report or journal article is something that matters. I don't think that the social sciences have experienced nearly so much by way of byline banditry as the natural sciences and engineering but it does happen. There's a great article in this month's THES on the subject which can be found here ... https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/new-formula-aims-stop-unfair-credit-research
Choosing who to co-author with is like meeting new friends. You may not have the opportunity or access to co-author with a superstar. Amongst the remaining people who you COULD co-author with, I'd recommend applying two rules. First, do you like them? If you don't you'll find it tedious. So rule#1 is work with people you like. Second, will you learn something? This is harder because it forces you to work with people better than you either in general or at some specific thing. Rule #2 is work with people who are better than you. As you progress through the academic ranks, rule #1 might outweigh rule #2 if you don't need the publications that much. But from the perspective of someone early career, figuring out which specific tool/skill/data you can bring to the table helps make you the one person that your more experienced co-author breaks rule #1 for.
Bang on!!! This article really resonates with my persona experience as a junior academic. Question: How does the status (experience, ranking of prior work, etc.) of each co author impact the relationship? If I am a junior, does my role change? Thank you!!!
Dear Prof Wise our comments about pulling your weight are relevant here. A more junior author probably has to accept that they don't have the pulling power of a senior colleague. In practical terms, senior co-authors tend to bring expertise, experience and war stories. In particular, if they've published in a journal before they have a great advantage in terms of knowing how to navigate awkward reviews, etc. As you become the senior co-author it therefore becomes part of the job to mentor and educate i.e. explaining what you're doing rather than just doing it. Good luck with your own authoring.
I agree with Robert... but the one exception would be a PhD student and their thesis... I would always let them go 1st.
Thanks for the article. One problem that pops up more than it should when co-authoring is remembering who wrote what. Do you have any advice for managing this? Also, what would you do if you found that your writing had been published elsewhere without credit? Thanks again.
Dear Ace North ... modern word processing software is better at remembering who wrote what and it is relatively straightforward to compare versions of the same document. Hence, if you're suspicious you can save and keep your versions and compare them to later versions. This would allow you to assess how many words belonged to each author as well as checking whether bits that you wrote and are particularly fond of made the cut. However, the real goal of co-authoring shouldn't, in my view, be a jigsaw of non-overlapping paragraphs which can be attributed to each author. Rather, the intention is to co-create something that reflects the talents, ideas and work of everyone involved. Your second question is more straightforward. If something has been reproduced without permission you, or your university on your behalf, can pursue the matter. Publications usually require the author to sign over the copyright and this means that the publisher should be on your side too. Good luck with your co-authoring
An interesting observation would be what does it matter who wrote what, surely if everyone who was an author played their role... and the paper got published.
I certainly agree with the requirement of a Rhinoceros hide! I was wondering if you have any advice regarding co-authorship across institutions? Is it better to maintain links within one, or across several? Particularly, are their implications of either strategy for REF? Thank you.
Perhaps the Stern review will right one of the policy wrongs. There are clear benefits to co-authoring across institutional boundaries in terms of profile, relationships and networks. However, as a self-interested academic, there is one key benefit in the UK i.e. that both authors can claim the REF output for their respective institutions. IF that assumption applied within your own institution then perhaps the incentive to collaborate with people in the same corridor would rise. As for the personal benefits, think about the relative merits of the individual and the institution when making your calculations about co-authors. If you can get beyond that cold, calculating mind set, it is worth remembering the other pieces of advice above ... it should be rewarding, you should like your co-authors and you should be learning. If not, why bother!
I would echo what Robert said, the most import thing is to enjoy yourself. The most fun part of our job is, of course, teaching and supervising, writing can be tough and demanding, so do your best to make it fun. Write with people who you get on with and work well with!
I think the most important thing here, on reflection, is to write with people you want to write with... and then only write with people you enjoy writing with!
Interesting article, especially about pulling your own weight. I have struggled with some co-authors in the past who tend not to pull their own weight, any advice on how to approach this without causing too much fuss?
If you haven't got a pre-nup and a clear plan in place you'll always end up causing a fuss. If you have both in place, you'll cause a fuss but your co-author will probably see it coming and at least you'll have some agreed reference point to which you can refer. I'd default to the position that you personally can cope best with ... somewhere on the spectrum from "life lesson learnt" to "saying what you're actually feeling and seeing where that gets you."
This is a very common problem, and it goes back to our suggestion about a pre-nup! However, if you have not got one of those, why don't you get the whole team together for a coffee and a general chat about tasks and what needs to be done... Speak to the others in advance so that whoever it is does get landed with some work and the group agrees some deadlines... remember all that annoying group work you had as an undergrad, well its time to use those skills again. If all else fails you simply don't work with them again... does that help?
Food for thought - thank you - I would like to ask about co-authoring during my PhD research - trying to get published asap seems to be the given advice but should this only be done with a supervisor or would supervisors be happy/comfortable with attempts to co-author with other academics?
Dear pax_vobiscum ... I suspect most supervisors would advise against co-authoring beyond your supervisory team before completing your thesis. In some circumstances they may have encouraged or facilitated this but in most cases, they'll expect you to focus on writing your thesis, possibly publishing from that thesis and not being distracted by other opportunities. At heart, their reputation is on the line in terms of your completion so that should be yours and their focus.
Pax - now, whilst I agree with Rob, you might find that things differ from discipline to discipline and supervisor to supervisor, so you if you find yourself nearing the end and wanting to publish and nothing is happening, its normally a good idea to have a chat with them.
This is a good read. What would your advice be when two people with different writing styles are collaborating on a paper?
Dear Josh I've experienced this many times ... the key is to agree who has final editorial rights. Once a final draft is complete, someone needs to pass through the document attending to the different authorial tones and producing something that feels coherent. This requires some give and take but is essential if it is to avoid reading like two (or more) separate pieces of work that have been loosely stitched together Good luck with your coauthoring
Josh... picking up on what Robert is saying, it really is important to agree on one final editor who does a proper final edit, lest it end up being a camel. Good luck, and I would like to tell you it gets easier over time, however...

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