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01/25/2021

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b

One of my research areas is authorship and co-authorship in science. I have published 7 or so co-authored papers. Each has its own story.
The first one involved a philosopher whose research overlaps extensively with my own. We were friends working together on a topic we were both interested in. The second one involved a scientist who I have never met in person ... and still haven't. I knew things he didn't know, and he had a skill set I clearly lack. He was experienced with collaboration from his work as a scientist. We had read each others' work, so we were interested in what the other was doing. The next one involved an expert in scientometrics who approached me with an interesting topic, of which I know something. Again, he had skills I lack. I have since published one more piece with him and another colleague of his. Again, I have never met him in person. Recently, I published three papers with a person who is working on a project with me, supported by a grant. They are a philosopher by training, so there is no special skill or knowledge they have that I do not.
All of them have been rewarding, but all have also been challenging.
You need to be flexible, and you need to be really straightforward with people. There is lots of room for misunderstandings. You also have to make the project a priority.
I would recommend only doing it if there is something you want to research but you are incapable of doing it yourself. Three of projects I worked on involved some serious computer programming, and I was relying on my co-authors to do that. In that respect, one must really trust the people you are working with. If things mess up, you are in it together.

postduck

Here's a potential problem area I've encountered a few times as a co-author: getting precious about prose. Sometimes, sentences that the other author writes just don't look right or sound right to me - not because they're wrong, but for the simple reason that they didn't come from me. Adopting someone else's style can sometimes feel like wearing another person's (clean!) underwear: there's nothing wrong with it exactly, but it's still really weird and uncomfortable. On the other hand, having another author constantly changing your prose can be a bit insulting, and lead to minor scuffles and hurt feelings.
The solution I've arrived at is to just remind myself that I need to chill out about other people's prose (when I'm the fussy one), and to be largely accepting of other people's stylistic sensibilities (when my co-author is the fussy one). Of course, this isn't to say that substantive issues should be discussed - just that you shouldn't waste too much time worrying about style.
I imagine as you develop a long-term co-authoring relationship, these problems dissipate, as you start to align on style. But in the meantime, it's good to be self-consciously relaxed about it.

Ted Shear

I've coauthored roughly 6 papers at this point and I've found, echoing some of the comments above, that each coauthor relationship is a bit different. Amongst other things, this translates into differences in expectations for working style.

For instance, for some of these we would sit down and write together during marathon sessions to knock out a draft. For others, we would take turn writing sections with intermittent meetings to discuss our progress. In others, one person would do a bulk of the initial writing, while the other would give feedback on progress and take on the editing.

I've found each of these relationships to be rewarding and productive in their own ways. It's been valuable to see the processes that others take in producing papers and has offered amazing chances to learn from the strengths of my coauthors. But, more than anything, I've found that coauthoring is way more fun and much faster than solo-authoring.

Evan

When it comes to prose, I always stand by the clarity of communication: whoever writes the clearest should write. I am prideful about my prose. In fact, most of my teachers praised me for it. It’s a skill of mine that I take very seriously.

However, I also know when to admit that somebody else’s prose may be more clear and hence better than mine. In such a case, I would want them to be the main drafter instead.

I once read a book written by three authors. One of whom I had great familiarity with in terms of their work and writing style. I was glad that they were the main drafter because the book was so clear, straightforward, and easy to read. Although it was written for experts and advanced students, I think a middle schooler or high schooler can read and still understand most of it. I knew that they were the main drafter from their writing style. I also read some works by the other two authors and instantly knew the book wasn’t of their writing style. And I was glad because their writing style didn’t satisfy me as the other author; theirs were too specialized or technical for a book intended to inform and educate a general population of policymakers from various (third world) countries whose second or third language may be English. This is, of course, coming from a *reader’s* perspective on prose.

Tim

I've coauthored around half a dozen papers. I think the two pieces of general advice that I would have recommended to myself when I started coauthoring are:

1. Be clear about expectations. People have different writing habits, procedures, methods, etc. Be clear as a group about when work is to be done and how it is to be done. (This might be especially important if there is a power asymmetry between authors.)

2. Let it go. To repeat a point already made, other people don't write the same way you do. It can be easy to fight not just over general points, but particular points, paragraphs, or sentences. It is probably best when, things are good enough, to let it go--instead of engaging in an extracted negotiation over phrasing.

Remco Heesen

Numbers-wise I'm similar to the other commenters (six published co-authored papers plus a handful in draft or under review). I mostly agree with the preceding advice. Here are my additions:

1. Always have multiple projects on the go, preferably at least one of which is solo-authored. Sometimes you have to wait for a co-author to do something and despite all the advice about negotiating clear expectations (which I agree with) they might not move as quickly as you would like. If you can turn your attention to something else, this is no big deal, but if you're actively waiting around, it can get annoying very quickly.

2. Just to emphasize Marcus' point about differing styles, contrary to him I love talking to co-authors on Skype or Zoom or in person. It's one of my favorite parts of the job in general and a big part of why co-authoring tends to be more fun for me than going solo. Having said that, I've been involved in email-only collaborations as well and that worked out fine.

lessonlearned

I've coauthored twice. The first time it worked like a charm: everyone pulled exactly the workload they were supposed to, and for any minor disagreements, we could find compromises that everyone was happy with.

The other time was a nightmare. I pulled in an acquaintance thinking he has a technical skill set I lack. But he did zero meaningful work for the paper. Granted, he wrote some lines, but they were ones that would have gotten the whole paper rejected -- a non philosopher, he was supposed to provide technical detail, but instead he provided heavy-handed assertions without premises to back them up. He did none of the background research I had hoped he would do and I needed to do that myself, too. In the end, I couldn't use any of his meager contributions and felt iffy about retaining him as a coauthor on what was essentially a single authored paper. My lesson learned was to make sure I know something about the person's work ethic first before embarking on any joint writing project.

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