Thinking strategically: what can co-authorship bring to your academic career?

This is a guest contribution.

While in lab-based disciplines co-authorship is the norm, there are “individual(istic)” disciplines where it is sometimes still frowned upon. In general, co-authorship is not bad per se, and there is nothing negative in being the 4th or even the 99th author, especially if we are talking about a highly cited paper. But co-authorship does say something about you. If you are always the 1st author, it might look like you have the prima donna syndrome. By contrast, if you are always the 5th author in a publication, at some point someone might ask why you are not leading any studies. 

Co-authorship is tricky to manage and interpret. Some universities now ask you, in case of co-authorship, to specify what parts of the paper you have written or contributed. Some committees will ask your co-authors to sign a statement declaring how much of an effort (30%, 50%?) they have put into a paper with you as a co-author, to be clear what was your contribution to a study.

Over the years, I have been developing a set of “scopus diaries workshops” to guide early-career researchers through strategic career choices in fundraising, writing, networking. However, when the talks move to writing, and publishing, I see the fear in some participants’ eyes (usually from the humanities) when I suggest that they could co-write, or co-edit, with colleagues. It seems like they are afraid of sharing the merits, or “purity”, of their ideas, and think that single authorship should be the norm. On the other extreme, there is a wide amount of disciplines acknowledging that multi-authorship is a reality in academia. There are unwritten but established rules to decide on the order of authors, and negotiations to decide who should be inserted where, in a given paper.

As a baseline, one could consider the definition of an independent scholar by the European Research Council (ERC). To be eligible for an ERC grant, you need to have at least one paper not jointly written with your supervisor. I have heard of some committees minimizing the merits of applicants for a paper if they are listed as the 4th (or further) co-author. I would also avoid flagging too many papers for which you are listed as the 4th or the 5th author unless you can prove that the order of authors was alphabetical.

Regulating co-authorship

I have two principles that I use, with some flexibility, to determine the order of authors of a paper. One is that the person in charge of the paper – who coordinated the work, identified the journal, took the lead in addressing the comments – should be the first author. The other is that even if I am inserted as second or later co-author in many influential papers, I should still publish a paper of which I am the first author at least once a year. In my view, the first author is the one who somehow takes the lead in a research group and going as first author demonstrates some kind of initiative, leadership skills, and the capacity to remain active (or pro-active, since you bring together authors, manage them and actively look for solutions to issues that arise during the submission process).

For many people that I have met, and who come from disciplines where you claim your credits alone, co-authorship sounds exotic, at best. To some extent I agree. If you are an anthropologist who has spent 12 months in the field and want to share your findings, and reflections, you have no room for a second, let alone a third author. But you could first publish a paper based on your novel data and then try and compare them with those by other scholars for a comparative paper. When, how and whether to engage with co-authorship is ultimately your choice. But in an academic sector where citations and h-indexes are crucial for one’s survival, co-authorship is strategically vital to most, if not all of us.

As a scholar, you will have to compete with other scholars from cognate disciplines. If many of them take advantage of co-authorship to enhance their profile, then the problem is yours. You might get penalized for a fellowship or a promotion, or your department might be put under pressure because it has had not “enough impact”, once impact is measured by the number of citations faculty have.

If you are in science and are used to multi-authored papers, perhaps you already know all this. But for the social sciences and humanities this is an open market and deserves some reflection. Think about co-authoring with 15 more colleagues and its advantages. At the very basic level, each time one of your co-authors cite themselves, you earn a citation that does not count as self-citation. By contrast, if you cite yourself 15 times, it might look as you are the sole person reading yourself. For some grant applications, you are asked to provide the number of citations you attracted but exclude self-citations, which could bring the number down drastically if only a few others cite you. In addition, the more you have co-authors, the more it is likely that some of them might be more known than you and will attract citations and readership to a paper you co-authored.

The world is changing, and is bigger than we think

I still remember my shock when I realized that in the School of Geosciences, where I was working previously, colleagues from medical geography could gather as many as 10-15 co-authors and attract hundreds of citations very quickly. And they would still be competing with other (single-authored, undercited) social scientists.

I also remember a friend working in biology complaining about his low number of citations. When I went to check, he had many more than most of the people I knew, at the same career stage, in social sciences. So, if you want more citations it may be useful to ally with colleagues from other (more cited) disciplines. Although citation is a XXI century fetish, it is still one of the indicators used to measure science impact and excellence.

There are other ways to boost and make your research visible, as well as other strategic reasons to engage in co-authorship, however. Co-authorship can be considered evidence that you have, and can cultivate, a network. It is a good exercise to test your collaborative abilities (and your patience) and a way to improve your analytical or writing skills. It is also a way to give more value to your paper or expand beyond your discipline. You could pair up with someone who knows well some theoretical debates and can help framing your paper or compare data with someone who has different results from similar experiments or fieldwork.

More strategically, inviting someone more senior or known into your paper increases your visibility, likelihood to be read and profile, since you will then be associated with that person. And, in a world where people share a passion for writing, co-authorship may also lead to friendship or to long-term collaborations that eventually benefit everyone.

Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser dealing with development and capacity building in Europe and Asia. He is also interested in Science Excellence, Open Science and alternatives indicators to measure science performance and is the author of “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him, and learn about next workshops, on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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