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05/03/2014

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Moti Mizrahi

Hi Mark,

Great post! I’d like to ask you about something that Zachary Ernst says, namely, that his “department considers single-authored work to be more significant than co-authored work.” In your experience, how common do you think this is? Do you have any ideas about why philosophy departments endorse such a policy of giving more weight to single-authored work than co-authored work?

Elisa Freschi

Hi Mark and thanks for opening the comments!
I agree with you. For me, writing with others has been so much rewarding (I learnt a lot ... also about myself and had much fun) that this overweights its possible disadvantages. I enjoy the chance of working on X with another philosopher (the approaches never overlap) and appreciate the possibility of working on Y with someone coming from a different background (in my most recent attempt: a linguist).

As for Mozi's question, I once discussed it with a senior scholar in my field who is an internationally reknown authority. He said that what is a real disadvantage is the fact of having *only* co-authored papers (people might think that you are not able to write autonomously), whereas some co-authored papers are no problem, especially if one writes with different co-authors (which is, by the way, part of the problem with Z. Ernst and his wife Sara Rachel Chant).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Mark: great post! I entirely agree. Philosophy would benefit from more co-authorship. Sometimes I find myself with what I think is a really good idea, but I don't think I have the expertise to execute it properly. I imagine others have similar experiences. I suspect the reason there isn't more of it is precisely what you mention: namely, not being given as much credit for co-authored as for single-authored papers. In today's super-competitive environment, people face a lot of pressure to publish whatever will get them the most kudos from search committees, tenure committees, etc. I think the downgrading is really unfortunate, but I also don't quite know what can be done to prevent it. In any case, I'm curious about your practice of listing authors' names in alphabetical order. In most other disciplines, the first author position is usually reserved for the person who came up with the paper idea and/or contributed the most to the paper's realization. One thing you can always do is put a footnote on the first page to indicate whether the authors were equally responsible for the final paper, or whether one author was more instrumental than the others. This strikes me as only fair to all involved.

Elisa Freschi

Marcus and Mark: What I do (following the standard practice in Italy) is that I add a fn at the beginning which runs typically as follows:
"This article is the result of multiple exchanges between its two authors and its results are ---unless clearly stated--- shared by both. Nonetheless, pages 1--30 should be attributed to EF and pp. 31--60 to GH".
In this way it is also easier to explain to old-fashioned evaluators that one actually did something.

Mark

I am personally not too familiar with the inner workings of department committees. I do know of cases where academic A and academic B (outside philosophy) agree to list each other as coauthors on all their papers. If I have heard of this happening, perhaps others have too and are weary that a co-written paper does not reflect actual work. Departments might be conservative in their assumptions, thinking that any coauthor contributed, say, at least 1% of the work, but there is no evidence that they contributed more, so in the absence of evidence for more, withhold judgment (or tenure).

Although it probably does, this kind of thinking should not apply at all to interdisciplinary works where the default assumption might (should?) be that, say, the philosopher contributed the philosophical ideas and the other person worked through the scientific examples and details (or whatever).

It is possible that your average member of a committee is simply not able to evaluate most interdisciplinary papers, so they conservatively imagine the worth to be the minimum. To give a random example, I could not even pretend to fairly evaluate a paper in ancient Chinese philosophy. It is way out of my field of expertise. If I was on a committee and saw a paper that looked like an interdisciplinary work of ancient Chinese philosophy and economics (also way out of my league) I would certainly not be able to judge the originality, difficulty, or soundness of such a paper. I think such a paper may cause many committee members to dismiss the paper or ignore it as "outside traditional philosophy" and not assign it much merit.

All of this is unfortunate.

Mark

As far as name ordering: my ancestors bequeathed me a last name that in English is at the very end of the alphabet. So I am used to going last in the US. While philosophy doesn't have a culture of "first author politics" and I probably would not make "first author" on some of my papers if my coauthors and I ordered our names by the amount of work contributed, last is fine with me; and with a last name that starts with "Z" I think everyone assumes the ordering is alphabetical. So I am lucky that way. (Author sequence is rife with confusion (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1769438/) in some fields like political science (http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/PSJan08Biggs.pdf) though in the humanities, best I can tell, alphabetical is the norm).

Stating who did how much work is more typical in the sciences. I was not aware that there are standard conventions for the humanities in Europe. Sometimes book chapters in a coauthored book come with statements about who wrote which chapters. Sometimes also, the amount of work done is difficult to quantify. I'd feel odd putting in a footnote that honestly described the respective contributions of the paper: Eg "Author A contributed the main idea that came out in discussion with Author B, who contributed the clever asides, but only did 28% of the writing, all of which was re-edited by author B . . ." regardless if I was author A or B.

(Incidentally, I am currently sketching out a philosophical paper on abecedaricism: the systematic favoring of people whose names are earlier in the alphabet. Email me if you want to collaborate, especially if your name comes after mine alphabetically.)

Wesley Buckwalter

I'd like to chime in to thank Mark for this great post. I also feel that coauthorship has played an important role in my development as a philosopher, and that I've learned a tremendous amount from working closely with some extremely talented philosophers.

As many people mentioned, it's worth questioning the unwritten but seemingly common assumption that philosophy needs to be an individual activity done in isolation from other people or disciplines, together with the way philosophers often think about credit or philosophical worth in light of this pretty antiquated assumption. I sometimes also wonder what philosophical mentorship and training would look like today in philosophy if, as in many fields, one's advisor was listed as an author on every piece of work their trainees produce.

Marcus Arvan

Mark & Wesley: I wonder if you two could give the rest of us an idea of how to best go about co-authored papers. What's the process usually like? And what pitfalls, if any, have you encountered?

Mark

Marcus: Each case is different, but it starts with personal relationships.

With philosophy, people have to be prepared to communicate with each other a lot, to work out a problem, get on the same page, understand the literature in the same way, and make sure they are both satisfied with the finished product. Both people (or all of them) have to be comfortable sharing their ideas and be prepared to take the other person's suggestions and criticisms seriously and tactfully offer as much of their own as possible. In my experience, that is where the challenges and the fun lie.

Writing up and submitting the paper usually falls into place by itself. Whoever has a better grasp on a part or all of the paper will do the writing and the other person will get a crack at editing it and filling in the parts they understand better. It will then go back an forth a lot until both people are ready for it to get sent out.

An advantage to this is that you do not get to be lazy. There is someone who has a vested interest in the paper and in you getting your part right. So you can't take short-cuts, even in your drafts. (Its embarrassing if you do.)

You also get to give each other feedback and fill in details in a way that someone who has less invested in the paper may not bother. You also encourage each other through the inevitable publication rejections and and delays.

Co-writing also makes it easier to go through the literature. One person can tell the other what is worth reading and what is not, what adds to your thesis and what is tangential. You can also get literature from other languages even if only one of you knows it.

I can't really think of major pitfalls. Conferences can be tricky. I once co-presented at a conference (http://biasproject.org/programme-4) and it was great. The program even generously funded both of our trips to England. I once presented a joint paper in Amsterdam (http://www.illc.uva.nl/peipl/Program) without my coauthor and was a lot less confident presenting the scientific portion than I am comfortable with. I learned a good lesson about preparation from that conference.

David Morrow

I wholeheartedly support Mark's post! I've coauthored a number of papers (and a textbook) with a number of different people—mostly philosophers, but some climate science & policy people. It's been a great experience.

At least one senior member of my department, whom I'll just call Prof. X, who clearly thinks that coauthored papers are "worth less" than single-authored papers. I'm not sure that Prof. X has any well-thought-out reasons for this, but the basic idea seems to be that coauthoring a paper must take half as much work as writing a paper on your own, so it should count for less. (This is absolutely not true, but there's no arguing with Prof. X on some things.)

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