Coauthorship – Like Bad Marriages and Struggling Nonprofits

10 January 2013, 1504 EST

It’s that time of year again: the time when professors team up with their best buddies/colleagues/random-people-who-publish-in-the-same-area and endeavor to write a brilliant ISA/Midwest/APSA paper.  At least, that’s what the spring semester always means for me.  I like working by myself, don’t get me wrong, but I also enjoy working with others. And, I don’t think I’m alone here: coauthored work is quickly becoming the norm in political science.  In general, coauthored work gets in better journals and ends up getting cited more (See: this,  this, or this, for example).  That makes sense, right?  Two (or more) very smart people, working together on their very smart idea.  Like marriage partnerships, a coauthor relationship allows you to join forces for a common goal: at least 1 “offspring,” preferably placed in a top-10 journal.

Also like marriage, however, coauthor relationships are not easy.  Often, I’ve wondered how much easier it would have been to just write the darn paper myself.  I wouldn’t have to continue to fight with Dr. X about where to put the thesis paragraph; I could have avoided Dr. Y’s insistence that we code new data even though there were valid indicators on the same concept.  However, at the end of the day, the fighting and back-and-forth with the coauthor always ended up making the paper better, at least in my experience.  It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it.

In grad school, one of the off-hand comments my advisor said was that marriage was like running a struggling nonprofit: the goal was good but the day-to-day can be difficult.  I think the same logic definitely extends to coauthorship.  The goal is really good (Knowledge! Publication! Tenure!), but the process can be very difficult.  I asked a couple of my friends/coauthors, Victor Asal at SUNY Albany and Johannes Urpelainen at Columbia University, both of whom have more experience with coauthoring than me, if they could offer some advice for successful coauthor relationships. Together with some of my thoughts, here are some of our ideas that might make writing this semester easier:

1. Dropbox, dropbox, dropbox:

Ok, it doesn’t have to be dropbox but you do want to invest in some sort of software that allows for the easy sharing of documents and data.  I’ve worked with a few programs but really love dropbox.  Best couple of dollars ever spent: if you happen to have multiple people working on the same document at the same time, it will automatically save the file as different versions.  Also, a bonus: it lets you know when things have been updated.  Nothing warms my heart more than coming in to the office on a Monday and realizing a diligent coauthor has updated a file over the weekend.  Another great couple of programs: Skype or Google Hangout – chatting with video tends to work better than over the phone.

2.  Choose wisely:

Unlike marriage (I kid, I kid), I go into my coauthored relationships with a level head and some restraint.  You can start the process of discussing ideas with someone without mentioning the possibility of coauthorship; you can read their previous work and look at their CV (and even compare it with the CVs of their previous coauthors).  At the onset, there is probably a more complete information environment with a possible coauthor than with a possible spouse. Once you have an idea, you can then discuss the possibility of coauthorship and the toolkit each of you could bring to the project.   Are you good at empirics but bad on writing a theoretical section? Is your colleague a brilliant formal modeler who never really wants to empirically test thing?  It’s a match made in heaven! You might want to find someone with the opposite skill-set but someone whose work you still like.  Although, as Johannes pointed out, sometimes similar skill-sets also work well together. Importantly, remember: the best coauthors may not overlap with the people you like to drink beer with at conferences.

Victor had a pretty important addendum to this idea: he looks for people that, when they start talking together, come up with ideas that would not have occurred to either of them if they had “not engaged in a creative conversation” before. This process may seem onerous at first but, once established, you could have found a coauthor that you can work with successfully for many, many years.  And, if not, like Kenny Rodgers says, you need to “know when to fold ’em” and file for coauthor-divorce as soon as possible.  Or, wait until after the paper is accepted and then file for coauthor-divorce.  As Johannes comments, “if a coauthor starts to use phrases like ‘once the semester is over, I will run the regressions,’ it’s time to move on.”

3.       Set expectations early:

I’ve run the gamut on coauthors – advisers, grad school colleagues, professor colleagues, and even people I’ve never met in real life.  In the early stages of a coauthor relationship, my experience is that it’s almost 100% necessary to have a firm deadline for a draft of the project.  This is where conferences come in handy: you can submit to ISA in May, have a little bit of a honeymoon period, and still get over your first couple of arguments in time to have a finished project in the spring.  As Johannes commented, this advice only works for small side projects – for more high-risk, high reward stuff, patience may be required: “if you intend to conduct a field experiment in Uganda, planning for the next MPSA is not possible.”  You might want to work on small project first – “if you really hit it off, it’s time to do something more ambitious.”

Regardless, be blunt about what you are expecting the coauthor to do and what you expect to contribute.  Talk about how you want your names listed on any publications when you are setting these expectations, especially if the project is not a 50/50 split.  Where do you envision the project going? If it gets rejected there, how long are you willing to kick the project around?  Is the piece going to be necessary for your tenure file or the tenure file of your coauthor?  I think in an effort to keep the coauthor “honeymoon” going, we often miss these discussions at the onset.  They become increasingly difficult to have as time goes on.  Victor also mentioned that you want to have someone that you feel you could “nag” if necessary and someone that would be comfortable nagging you.

Finally, Johannes offered the following rule (probably to be discussed at the onset): “if one of the authors is no longer contributing, then he/she loses all rights to the work being done so far (unless there is a good reason for delay, such as illness or having a baby).”

4.       Beware – not everything should be coauthored:

As a tenure-track person who had to endure the job market not that long ago, this is a big issue.  I wouldn’t be able to get tenure at most places in the country if all my work was coauthored, especially if all my work was coauthored with my advisor. I probably wouldn’t be able to land a good job either.  Protect yourself and realize (a) what you need to work on yourself, (b) when you need to ask your coauthors to step down from a project that was never really a coauthored piece, and (c) when you need to step down from a project yourself.   Another piece of advice I’ve had: all your work in your tenure file should be around a central chorus that is yours and yours alone; if the work you are thinking about coauthoring doesn’t speak to this chorus, you might want to wait until post-tenure.

 5.       I think there is an N>3 problem:

Sometimes, more than 2 people can work together on a project with excellent results.  I’ve had great success with 3 and even 4 coauthors. In my experience, however, once the number of coauthors moves beyond 2 (so 3 people total), the likelihood of someone freeriding/trying to freeride increases exponentially.  Consider yourself warned and set expectations accordingly.  You might even want to write them out.

Ok, that’s all our thoughts, for what it’s worth.  Johannes had the final comment: “remember to have fun!  Coauthoring can be tedious because there is no legal contract underpinning it, so it is important to maintain good relations with a healthy dose of humor and lots and lots of praise when it is deserved.”

I’m sure the community has more coauthoring advice and I hope you’ll share your ideas in the comments below.  It will definitely help improve my coauthor “marriages” this spring.