Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thoughts about Co-Authorship

It's Sunday, and I've spent the week finishing revisions of a couple of papers.  I'm lead author on one paper and about fifth on a multi-author paper.  Over the years, I've noticed that some co-authors make more of a contribution to writing and revising a paper than others. However, most co-authors (at least in my experience) leave most of the writing up to the lead author and usually make only limited edits to the various versions sent around for everyone's input.

Is this a good or bad thing?

First, I should say that I'm one of those co-authors who contribute to the writing regardless of my author position and at least try to do a thorough edit to catch misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors, and awkward sentence constructions.  If there are issues with the content and interpretation, then I will make additional comments and suggestions for revision.  If the paper's topic is entirely within my field of expertise, I will typically go further and do some rewriting and reorganizing as well as adding relevant literature that may have been overlooked.

My thoughts are that if my name appears on the paper, then I am responsible for its content.  Many scientists, including me, collaborate with other people, some of whom may be virtual strangers (I've never personally met some co-authors).  When you don't have first-hand knowledge of someone, you then must be a bit more cautious in signing off on a manuscript.  If you were one of the project leaders and/or senior scientist in the group, then you likely will share responsibility with the lead author for the integrity of the paper.  Most journals agree with this thinking, although some distinguish between co-authors who are responsible for the entire paper and those who've made a more limited contribution.  In any case, anyone who is not willing to accept responsibility should not be an author.

Consequently, I carefully assess any drafts sent to me and question any shaky aspects. You would think that lead authors would welcome the help, and many do.  Some, however, do not like co-authors to make substantial (or sometimes even modest) revisions.  I'm talking about the common situation in which the lead author writes an initial draft of the entire paper and then sends it out to co-authors for their comments.

Where I've run into difficulty in the past is if there is a disagreement over interpretation of the data, although occasionally it's been due to a difference in "writing style".  A co-author may be a bit too exuberant or expansive in interpretation, and I think we need to be more cautious, due to limitations in the data.  It's a fine line, especially when trying for a more prestigious journal that is interested in more sensational.......I mean exciting, results.  Colleagues who are more cautious like me also say that they have similar difficulties with some co-authors.

There are also those situations in which the lead author is not a very good writer or perhaps has not put sufficient effort into the writing.  The worst-case scenario is when the lead author has done an abysmal job writing the first draft and/or has misinterpreted the data.  Worse, they think the paper is fine as is and want to submit it immediately (they just need your stamp of approval to proceed).  I've found myself in such a situation, and I can say it is not fun.

Do you:

1.  Return the paper immediately with the brief (written) message that they need to rewrite it?
2.  Have a talk with them and explain your concerns in detail?
3.  Revise it yourself and hope they are willing to compromise?
4.  Hope one of the other co-authors will do either #1, 2, or 3?
5.  Let them submit it and hope the journal reviewers/editors point out the flaws?  

There is no really painless way to handle this.  However, as I suggest above, if your name is on the paper, you have the responsibility to ensure the information is accurate and unbiased and that the writing is reasonably good...before it's submitted.  My choices have always been #2 or #3, depending on the circumstances.

As lead author, I take most of the responsibility for writing the first draft and revisions, but am grateful for any input from co-authors.  Most of my co-authors have been willing and responsive, although few have invested the kind of writing effort that I typically provide as co-author.  Exceptions are when co-authors are assigned specific sections to write, for example, in a synthesis paper.  I've had mostly good experiences with such situations, but know others who've had difficulties getting co-authors to pull their weight.  You are then faced with the choice of writing those sections yourself and whether to drop someone from the author list.

In the end, you want to collaborate with people who complement your mode of writing and meet your expectations for co-authorship.  If you've never worked together before, it helps to establish the authorship ground rules before starting a writing project.  

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