What to consider before co-authoring

Writing Accountability PartnerCo-authorship can be an extremely valuable experience for academic authors, but it can also pose unique challenges. When selecting a co-author it is important to consider several factors—including his or her area of expertise, writing ability and personality—in order to ensure that the co-author experience is a positive and successful one. It is also important to assess a potential co-author’s level of commitment to ensure that all parties are truly vested in the project.

Susan Singer

Susan Singer

Once a co-author has been selected, it is essential to clearly establish co-authoring roles at the beginning of the partnership. Susan Singer, a biology professor at Carleton College who once collaborated with over 90 co-authors on an article that appeared in Nature, finds it useful to decide upfront who will focus on the research and who will focus on the writing. Andrew Pomerantz, a professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and co-author of numerous book chapters and journal articles, suggests that if the work is to be divided into sections, co-authors will need to decide which author will produce which sections of the paper.

Andrew Pomerantz

Andrew Pomerantz

When assigning co-authoring roles, there is really no set system to follow as long as the system used works well for all parties. Phillip Wankat, professor of engineering at Purdue University, and author of The Effective, Efficient Professor: Teaching, Scholarship, and Service, once engaged in a highly successful long-term collaboration in which he wrote the entire rough draft of each paper and his co-author did all the revising and polishing. “We found a way of collaborating that worked well for us,” Wankat said. “The thing is to find what works for you, and if you’re each doing what you do best, you’ll end up with a good article.”

Each author’s role will also vary depending on who is the lead author, a decision that is essential to make early on in the project. “If you are the lead author, it is important to take the lead, but to always be tactful and respectful when doing so,” said Pomerantz. “If you are not the lead author, it is important to recognize that the lead author is the leader, and that ultimately you many have to defer to him or her.”

Phillip Wankat

Phillip Wankat

When working with colleagues from other departments, disciplines, or universities, Pomerantz suggests entering into those partnerships with an open mind, since each may work in a different academic culture: “Openly talking with all co-authors about how the process usually works for them—writing, revising, submitting, etc.—can clarify these issues for everyone from the start.”

Discussing publication venues early in the project when doing interdisciplinary work is also very beneficial, suggests Singer, since a journal that is highly regarded in one author’s field may not have as much clout in another author’s field. This may be especially important if one or more collaborators are working towards tenure.

“There needs to be some discussion about the venue of publication and the value of that venue for the participants,” Singer said. “Think about what can be gained for everybody in addition to getting the body of work out there.”

In addition, it is helpful to have a sense of humor, to put egos aside, and to truly listen to each coauthors’ point of view, said Singer: “When you’re very passionate about what you’re doing, it can be difficult to truly listen to others. But the value of a co-authored piece of work is that it’s going to be stronger, more creative, and more impactful because you’ve brought together all these different perspectives. You miss that opportunity if you don’t truly listen and ask clarifying questions.”

All three authors agree that a successful co-authoring relationship between a faculty member and a graduate or undergraduate student requires a slightly different approach, since the faculty member will serve as a mentor as well as a collaborator.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to enculturate students into academia, and into the publishing process in particular,” said Pomerantz. “There are so many components of academic writing that may be new to the students—developing an idea and contextualizing it within the existing literature; selecting a prospective journal; writing and editing with that journal and its audience in mind; responding to reviewer and editor comments; revising and resubmitting; dealing with rejections—but these are exactly the things they need to learn if they want to pursue academic writing further.”

Finally, co-authorship can bring unexpected benefits to writing projects. “There are times when academic work can feel solitary, or even lonely,” said Pomerantz. “Co-authorship is a wonderful way to battle these feelings, and to form meaningful, enjoyable partnerships.”

About Dionne Soares Palmer

Freelance writer specializing in college textbook supplements and other educational materials for adult learners.