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.