I take requests.
— Jennifer Evans (@JenniferVEvans) March 2, 2011
In some disciplines co-authoring is the norm. And there are all kinds of arcane cultural practices about who gets to be a co-author, and how much input they’ve had in the final version.
However, if you are in the humanities or some social science disciplines, co-authorship is much less common and may even be frowned upon. Some humanities researchers have been heard to doubt the existence of co-authorship, “Two people cannot hold the pen.”* In this context, writing with others can feel odd. It is also often unclear how co-authored publications will be evaluated.
One of the advantages of co-authoring is that you might get a lot more written and published. Working with others provides support, soft deadlines, feedback as you go along, someone to work through ideas with, etc. It’s just harder to get stuck and easier to get unstuck when collaborating. If the point is to communicate your ideas to others, more publishing means more communication.
You also can write about more things. You think your findings would have important implications for a debate you haven’t been involved in but you aren’t confident about that literature. Working with someone who is more involved in that debate brings in wider knowledge and enables a paper neither of you could have written alone.
My paper with Ailsa McKay was of this type. She knows a lot about Citizens Income. I know a lot about family and gender. The paper started life as a conference paper, developed in separate chunks and sent back and forth by e-mail. It was substantially revised in the bar of our hotel over a pot of tea before presenting, and then edited for publication later.
It is also a great way to mentor students and junior colleagues. Working together to bring a paper up to publishable standard helps them through the transition. Writing a PhD and writing for academic journals is not the same thing. This is important career development work. Co-authoring gives you the credit for the substantial editorial input, even on papers where the content is primarily from the students.
You may also be able to give your student an opportunity to publish in a venue that would not otherwise be open to them, and a connection to a group of scholars that might invite the student in future (or at least now pay attention to their work). At a certain point in your career you will have more requests to write things than you can possibly take on. They’ve asked you because of your reputation. They know you know about this issue and can produce a contribution of the quality needed. Your name in an edited collection might entice people to read it. You can’t just hand that off to a student or less well known author but you can ask if they would accept a co-authored piece with a student or post-doc you supervise. And let’s face it, your student is not your clone. She brings knowledge and research insights to this collaboration that you don’t have.
You can also co-author with a student to ensure that the insights in your student’s work get communicated to a wider scholarly audience. The student may not be interested in publishing their work. If they are not planning an academic career, academic publishing is not a priority for them. Many students will give you permission (and you need it) to publish from their work and they deserve to be listed as authors (possibly first author) for the substantial work they did even if you write the final version.
My own publication with Amy Wallis was of this type. She wasn’t even my student but a few academics in her program had said that her master’s dissertation was publishable. She asked me if I could help her publish it. I did a lot of the work of revising it and submitting it but the bulk of the content is hers. She is first author in recognition of the fact that it is her research. I am co-author in recognition of the substantial editing.
How it reads in the evaluation process
If co-authoring is not common in your discipline, it’s hard to tell how it will be seen. The larger number of publications is likely to be viewed positively, but you are often being compared to others and ranked which means arguments might then be made about how much a co-authored publication is worth in relation to single authored publications. You can’t predict these things.
If you always co-author with the same person, there may be doubts about the quality of your work as it is impossible to tell whether you write bad quality work and can only get it up to publishable quality with this other person’s help or what else might be going on. If that person is your spouse and you are a woman, the chances are the assumption will be that you are the weaker partner.**
The solution is to collaborate with different people and/or to have some single authored publications. If you publish strongly with lots of different people, it is pretty clear that you are not a weak partner. Similarly if you publish on your own, there is evidence of the quality of your work independent of your collaborators.
There is a positive side to co-authoring and evaluation. If you collaborate and like to collaborate, chances are you might want to apply for a collaborative research grant. Most of your peers know that getting academics to work together is akin to herding cats and they like to see some evidence you can do that before they give you lots of cash. Co-authored publications are used as an indicator of the ability to collaborate successfully.***
*This does not mean that humanities scholars do not collaborate, just that it appears differently in their publications. Read the acknowledgements. They are important.
**I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy. And yes, I have seen more than one instance of this. Don’t assume that people don’t know who you live with/have sex with/are married to. Nor that they won’t say so out loud, or even in writing. It shouldn’t matter. Like I said, in post-patriarchy.
*** This can be problematic for many humanities scholars who collaborate well but don’t co-author much.
The post was edited July 13, 2015.