Is co-authorship a cynical strategy?

What if you found a partner you trusted and simply put your name on all of each other’s publications, asked a friend at the Evolution meeting in Snowbird. You would come close to doubling your reputation without doing any extra work. Well, there may be some extra work since you would have to understand your confederate’s work. You might even read and comment on their work, contributing slightly.

Would this help you on the status ladder of science? Is there a status ladder of science? You betcha. Perhaps the most curious and excited are unaware of this, but it is hard not to notice some get prizes, some are president, some speak in symposia (how many are women?), some have books displayed, while others look a little bit like homeless people (there could be overlap). Well, say this confederate strategy of publishing would help. Is it bad? Does anyone do it?

Say you started out with this cynical strategy with an equal scientist. What might happen after time? I would guess that the strategy would evolve into increasing collaboration. You might start out by just reading each other’s papers and putting the undeserving names on. But what if you found a cool new angle that would significantly change the paper, inadvertently actually earning authorship? What if, as you became more and more trusting, you began to actually plan things to do together, taking advantage of your different perspectives? Would the science not actually end up being better?

Well, a critic might say you should collaborate with lots of others, not just one or two, but there is an advantage to specialization. You might each learn more of certain areas and leave the other to your partner. After all, biological mutualisms specialize.

If you know me, you know I have a very close collaboration with my partner, David Queller and we publish most, not all, of our work together. The co-authorship is always earned, not just by a cursory reading, or even a thorough review, but by real contributions that any journal editor would agree warrant authorship.

My kindly questioner brought up two entries in an encyclopedia that we wrote, with one first on one and the other on the other. I thought about those. I wrote the first draft of one and Dave wrote the first draft of the other. In each there were probably areas we left for the other to fill in, according to specialization. We wrote on each other’s papers, traded them a few more times, ultimately forming cohesive quilts of logic. The bottom line is that each paper is much better because two people, not one, worked hard on it. So it fits my ultimate criterion: did it benefit the science? If the answer is yes, then the effort is worth it.

Did we do this to pad our publication lists? No. Neither of us need to do this. This was not a publication that would “count.” And, most importantly, it is not something we would do. So, look for collaborators. Their different perspectives will enrich your work. The best situation is a mix of dedicated collaborators and a number of new collaborators.  I know examples of couples like me and Dave, and collaborators like Adam Kuspa and Gadi Shaulsky. Close partnership is a wonderful thing. I hope you can find one. After all, there is still a lot we need to figure out on this planet.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Managing an academic career, Social interactions, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Is co-authorship a cynical strategy?

  1. I couldn’t agree more! My husband and I collaborate a lot and we both have other collaborators we work with frequently. The great thing about a regular collaborator is that you learn over time how to work as a team, how to weave together each others different abilities to get a stronger product, and you develop a rapport that lets you quickly and honestly point out if something sucks (which saves a lot of time and effort).

  2. Jeremy Fox says:

    Some recent commentary on this issue in economics:

    Briefly, survey data indicate that economics departments don’t fully prorate credit for multi-authored papers, thereby creating an incentive for people to work in larger collaborative groups than they would otherwise. And yes, even an incentive to just add their names to each others papers without actually making much contribution.

    Perhaps one way to address this is formal statements of author contributions. Some journals require these (PNAS is one). And I’ve decided to start routinely including them in my papers, in the Acknowledgments section. Of course, if you and a co-conspirator are prepared to just add your names to each others papers without making any substantial contribution, you’re both presumably prepared to falsify statements of author contribution as well…

  3. Pingback: Friday links: excessive coauthorship, inspiring links about moms in science, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Brian McGill says:

    I very much like the flavor of this post which is that progress in science ought to be front and center and worrying about assignment of credit for advancement is a distant second. And I also agree that collaboration is a great way to advance science. Business has figured this out for decades – nobody does things by themselves any more. This is why they have all the team training etc that Dilbert likes to joke about. But its true. A well-functioning collaboration is an awesome thing. Ideas seem to just spin into the conversation in ways that would take 10 times as long if ever to get to individually.

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