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To Co-Author, or Not to Co-Author?

ucscgraphI noticed recently that I now have more than 100 co-authored works on my publications list. It occurs to me that this rather high number might raise questions or even eyebrows: Is it evidence that I am a pathetically dependent hanger-on, joining other people’s research projects because I can’t come up with my own? Or a domineering research-group leader stamping my name on every paper that the group produces? Or merely a gregarious person who enjoys intellectual interaction?

These are reasonable questions. Similar ones might be voiced about you if your vita showed so many publications that are (it might seem) partly written by other people. If you are only just beginning to embark on an academic career, this might repay a little bit of reflection. So let me offer, if I may, a few relevant pieces of advice

First and foremost, never believe that having a co-author makes publishing easier. It can make it harder. Disagreements and style clashes must be resolved; idiosyncrasies and egos managed; distinct sets of preferences and prejudices satisfied. Even a single co-author seems to square the difficulty of getting the work finished. (My pessimistic conjecture is that the worst-case difficulty of completing an academic work increases in proportion to Dn, where D is the degree of difficulty it would have had anyway and n is the number of authors.)

So don’t agree to a joint paper out of duty, especially if you have valuable insights or results for which the other authors don’t deserve credit. Nobody should pressure you to collaborate. (Yes, I know that many lab directors in the physical and biological sciences add their name to the byline of every paper, even those to which that have contributed nothing but lab space and a grant number. That doesn’t mean it’s right.)

I would advise, furthermore, that before you agree to co-author a paper you should be sure not only that the other party or parties will actively contribute, but also that the collaboration is likely to be an enjoyable experience. Academe doesn’t exactly guarantee a life of luxury; it damn sure better give you a satisfying and enjoyable way to earn a modest living.

Once you decide to embark on a joint paper, take yourself seriously: Make all decisions about it as if it were destined to become truly important. That means negotiating explicitly about the things that could matter:

  • What will be the order of names on the title page? Will alphabetical order do, or is one author the main researcher and the other just an associate?
  • How are the intellectual-property rights assigned? Do all the co-authors have the right to recycle the paper’s content to be included or adapted in other works, or to present the work at conferences?
  • What procedures will be followed if the project is dropped? If you give up on your bit, can I wrap up the paper my way and publish it under my name, or must the research remain forever in limbo?

If you’re concerned about getting employment, or tenure, or promotion, you need to worry about what some yet-to-be-determined dean will think of you after eyeballing your CV. A dean from some discipline like philosophy or history, where joint work is rather rare, just might form a wrong impression. So it might be a good idea to ensure that your sole publications outnumber your joint ones and could independently establish your ability to do good work flying solo.

But don’t let any of these ruminations put you off. I wouldn’t dream of recommending against doing joint papers (or even joint books, though the stakes are much higher there). I have derived enormous enjoyment from co-publishing with about 45 fellow linguists, ranging from senior colleagues who mentored me to graduate students I was mentoring. In many cases I suggested the projects, but without my co-authors I would never have been able to carry them through to a similar level of quality.

One other point, an encouraging one: At least some non-lab-science departments show no prejudice against joint research publications. In the early 2000s, when I was a professor in the department of linguistics of the University of California at Santa Cruz, I discovered that the graph representing which faculty members in the department had co-authored with which others had the remarkable property of being connected: You could reach any UCSC linguist from any other via a path of co-authorship links. The tenurability of the Santa Cruz linguists, most of whom are full professors of long standing, was not blighted by their enthusiasm for joint research publication. The same unusual collaborativity still holds, after four new hires, as you can see from this diagram.

[Update: In one of the strange ironies of life, just as this post was being scheduled for publication yesterday, the news broke about a paper in Physical Review Letters entitled "Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger." It has 1,004 authors. Co-authorship on steroids! —GKP]

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