Combination acts

Collaboration should not be a dirty word in the arts, says Stephen Mumford

February 16, 2012

Why isn't co-authorship more prevalent in the arts? At a recent promotions committee meeting, I was struck by the extent to which sole-authored publication remains the norm - even though there can be genuine intellectual benefits when collaboration succeeds. Typically, authors can write something better together than they could have produced alone. Even if the benefit is only marginal, isn't that justification enough?

Ploughing a lone furrow can make a researcher's life tough. A single-authored book is an enormous commitment. Even if it delivers a 4* return in the research excellence framework, the author can still struggle to write three other items of equal quality. Perhaps it's time to consider whether our approach in the arts, humanities and social sciences is self-defeating.

The case for more collaborative work can be made. Indeed, most of us do it already, to some degree. We tend to discuss our ideas with colleagues and seek trusted opinions. We present talks at conferences and seminars, and use the feedback to develop ideas before publication. We solicit comments on drafts. Colleagues share a research environment that, if it is effective, contributes to the quality of all output. Yet when the work appears, the standard model is still sole ownership. A colleague could have given a lot of input, discussing ideas or providing comments on early drafts, yet their accepted reward is only to appear in the list of acknowledgements. This seems a paltry return on what can be a considerable amount of effort, an effort that is obviously a degree of collaboration. Perhaps one tries to mitigate the paltry reward by extracting a reciprocal amount of uncredited assistance in return.

Are we too precious about the issue of authorship in the arts? The scholar who produces the draft takes all the credit, even though it is clear that there are many other tasks in academic publishing, not all of them performed by that single named author. Couldn't we be more generous in the credit we give? If a major idea or approach came from another person, why not list that person as co-author and let them be equally generous in their turn where it applies?

Perhaps this sounds like a pipe dream, yet when we look at the model of academic publishing in the sciences, we see that something like it already exists.

In the sciences, virtually every research paper is co-authored, sometimes by 10 academics or more. Collaborative research projects are the norm. When those results are published, the whole team gets the credit and rightly so. It does not matter too much who wrote out the results for publication: that might not have been the biggest job.

Could we adopt the same mindset in the arts? Could we conceive of the writing being less important than the paper's big idea, which could well have arisen through discussion? There seems no reason why not.

It is not as if there are systemic and institutional disincentives to co-authorship. The opposite is true. Indeed, arts scholars could be putting themselves at a considerable disadvantage to the sciences when it comes to the REF.

An academic in the arts who can publish two papers a year and a book every five years will be a success. In the sciences, publication is on a different scale: a successful researcher can have 150 publications before they turn 40. They will never struggle to find four items for the REF. Of course, they will most likely all be co-authored pieces, but the significant point is that the REF rules, except in special cases, impose no penalty on genuinely co-authored work; they explicitly state that it is welcomed. In most cases, there is no disadvantage in submitting a co-authored item to the exercise (although there is some complication when co-authors submit in the same return); it is not as if it counts as half an output or less.

I do not think that all is rosy in the world of science publishing. The multi-author system is open to abuse and junior authors in particular need safeguards. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a senior colleague might exert pressure to unjustly be included in the list of authors. As David Shaw recently discussed in these pages ("Unethical framework", 26 January), abuse is always possible. But a system of oversight could counteract that, and the REF guidance states that co-authored returns could be audited. Perhaps academics could be called in the middle of the night and asked to explain the main thesis of their co-authored paper...

If done in good faith, four like-minded authors in the arts who agreed on a project of work could co-author four papers together and have the REF return of each sorted. If they are from different institutions, this would certainly be a more efficient way of meeting the framework's requirements. It might be viewed as a cynical exercise, but perhaps viewing it that way would be a sign that we haven't yet changed our mindset. If genuinely collaborative work became the norm, it wouldn't be viewed with suspicion.

What surely counts is academic excellence: the furtherance of human knowledge. Why shouldn't that be a collaborative and conversational process? Whatever methods produce the best results should be encouraged. Some need to throw off the shackles of individualism and acknowledge that we are already involved in that process. We simply need to spread the credit.

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