Co-authorships in academia

Few academic institutions put anything concrete in writing when it comes to promotion and tenure review so it seems an informal discussion on a blog about the topic will be as informative as most other opportunities to consider the issues.

I have been pondering the pros and cons of co-authoring articles during one’s junior faculty years. How does a co-authorship count toward promotion and tenure? Obviously the answer is going to depend on a myriad of factors, but a discussion may still be interesting and illuminating. I realize that in some fields co-authorship is more the norm than the exception. In most lab sciences one rarely sees a sole-authored publication. But in the social sciences – the home discipline of several CT authors – it is less common. Since there are tenured faculty around here who have likely participated in promotion and tenure reviews, I would be curious to hear about their experiences. Of course, others are just as welcomed to contribute their thoughts.:)

What types of publications are possible regarding authorship?

Sole authorship. These publications have one author. These papers are the most straight-forward in terms of whose work they reflect and are highly desirable, it seems.

Co-authorship with senior faculty. These papers are co-authored with senior scholars. Junior faculty are often advised not to have a CV solely consisting of papers written in collaboration with senior scholars. It is important for a junior scholar to show clearly his or her distinct contributions to a field and by co-authoring with senior scholars, some will be inclined to dismiss the work as that of the senior researcher. This is not necessarily the case, but it may happen and so a junior scholar will likely want to diversify.

Co-authorship with peers (other junior scholars). These pieces are co-authored with peers of a similar tenure rank. If both authors are known for the particular topic of the paper (or it is an area new to both of them) then the contributions will likely be considered equally. Neither author will be given more credit than the other for the publication so assuming equal contributions to the project, credit will be assigned reflective of actual work contributed.

Co-authorship with students. On these publications, the junior scholar becomes the senior author due to his or her seniority as compared to the student co-author(s). None of the authors may be well known so credit is likely assigned equally. It is unlikely that the junior scholar will be given less than half the credit for the work (or more generally speaking, in the case of n co-authors, less than 1/n credit of the work).

I was “raised” in the tradition that if students participate in a research project actively and contribute to the writing of the paper then they receive co-authorship. I was also “raised” in the tradition that if a graduate student did most of the work on his or her own paper then the faculty member advising the paper does not put his or her name on the publication as a co-author. It is the graduate student’s work, the faculty member played an advisory role. This is clearly very different not only across disciplines but even across departments or simply individual scholars. I mention this to clarify that in the preceding paragraph I am not referring to projects of graduate students.

So how should a junior scholar proceed? Pursuing only sole-authored publications is not always viable because some projects greatly benefit from – or are only possible with – multiple contributors (e.g. projects where the different members of the project bring very different skills to the table). It is also easier to pursue different interests if collaborating with others partly because there is some division of labor, and depending on the co-author, there is regular prodding to advance the project.

If given the choice of writing a sole-authored piece (one that the junior scholar could pull off on their own given enough time) or bringing a graduate student on as a co-author (making the project more likely to reach a publishable state thanks to the division of labor), which is the better approach? Is it better to wait to finish a piece (given another dozen pieces in the works with varying levels of priority) and have it be sole-authored, or is it better (or just as well) to bring on a collaborator who will help get the piece out quicker?

That’s just one possible question. There are lots of others, feel free to raise your own. I am involved in projects of all types described above so I have some experience with all variations. They all seem to have their pros and cons.

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