Co-authorship is a curious phenomenon. When it goes right, it goes very right: the final product is by far superior to what you could have produced on your own. But when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong: you end up with something much worse than what you might have written one your own. But how can you tell the good ones from the bad ones?
I’ve been mostly lucky in my co-authorships and can say with conviction that my current co-authors are superb, value-adding researchers. I started late in the co-authorship game. My first nine peer reviewed papers were all single authored. Perhaps that’s the rugged American individualism into which I was socialized as a young boy shining through. I always hated groupwork at university. I didn’t trust anyone else to do the work properly, so I did it all myself. But when you move into academia, you’re surrounding by a bunch of smart people, much smarter than I am. Co-authorship with such folks is truly a pleasure. I’ve learned so much by working with other scholars, even—perhaps especially—ones that are junior to myself.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. I co-authored a book chapter once and ended up doing 99.99% of the work. Without exaggeration, my co-author’s contribution was one footnote that was a whopping one sentence long. I didn’t object because I was an early career researcher at the time and would not have had the opportunity to contribute to the edited collection without an invitation.
When you have the opportunity to co-author with someone unknown to you, I would advise that you look through his/her list of publications. If you know any of this individual’s co-authors, feel free to give them a ring and ask, confidentially, how it went. For my part, I’d be honest with a friend or even an acquaintance. If you get a negative, or even a lukewarm, response, that’s a huge red flag.
Do not fall for the temptation to solicit a “big name” co-author who adds his/her name to your paper without doing any work. This happens all the time in academia, and I mean all the time. Yes, “big names” will increase the citations of your papers. Like it or not, people will cite the work of senior scholars simply because they are well known. I understand that citations are an important performance metric these days for early career researchers, but please don’t go down that road. Everyone on a paper must make a contribution in some way.
You may also want to reflect on what it means to be a good co-author yourself, so you don’t end up becoming that co-author from hell. A good co-author is prompt and responsive; a bad one sits on his/her sections for months, maybe even years. A good co-author works directly on the paper; a bad co-author leaves a bunch of bubble comments expecting someone else to do all the hard work. A good co-author is open to criticism and revision; a bad co-author reacts defensively when critiqued and won’t allow any changes to his/her sections.
“A good co-author works directly on the paper; a bad co-author leaves a bunch of bubble comments expecting someone else to do all the hard work.”
Don’t let me scare you away from co-authorship. As I said, when it goes right, it goes really right. Sometimes I look at a co-authored paper and admit to myself that there’s no way I could have produced such a fine piece of research on my own. But beware the co-author from hell and, more importantly, never become the co-author from hell.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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