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Co-authorship guidelines to successfully co-author a scientific paper

Collaborating on research and co-authoring a scientific journal paper is a common practice in academia. For early career scholars, co-authorship can be a great stepping stone. Five concrete co-authorship guidelines can prevent conflicts and frustrations while co-authoring academic papers.


Why co-authorship can be challenging for early career researchers

The internet (and academic twitter) is full of these stories: young scholars are not being credited for their work. Young scholars slaving away for someone else’s academic recognition. Young scholars have severe conflicts with co-authors which triggers various mental health issues.

Co-authorship involves close collaboration, in an otherwise busy and competitive environment. Different working styles, different priorities and power relationships between authors provide a breeding ground for frustrations and conflicts.

Unexpected challenges can arise in co-authorship. And there are some things that one cannot anticipate.

However, there are a few tips and tricks to prevent conflicts. The following five guidelines are particularly important for early career researchers to ensure that they are not getting the short end of the stick during co-authorship.

Guideline 1: Agree on the order of authors in a co-authored publication

Before embarking on a co-authored paper, sit together with your co-author/s to discuss the order of names in the final paper.

More established scholars might tell you that it does not matter who is the first and second author. But it does matter!

When competing for academic jobs, a strong emphasis will be on your publications. And on whether you are the first author (e.g. leading the paper) or not.

It might be an uncomfortable question to ask who is going to be the first and second author (or third and fourth), especially as the most junior person in a team. But there is a relatively comfortable way out:

Approach your co-author/s and say that you have a lot of things going on, but that you are committed to your collaborative paper. However, therefore you would like to know who is taking the lead in the paper and who is going to be the first author.

This information will help you to plan your time properly in the coming months.

Guideline 2: Share expectations and divide tasks during co-authorship

In addition to discussing the author’s order, you should discuss expectations early on.

Co-authorship can take many different forms. Not discussing it before the whole process starts can be the source of many frustrations.

Some co-authors “split” a paper into concrete tasks. For example, one person (usually the leading author) is setting up the framework and writes the theoretical part. The other then fills in the empirical analysis.

Some co-authors work together on every single part. Thus, they communicate much more often and work in a more integrated way. If that is the case, how do you edit each others’ work? Is it okay to rewrite sections? Do you use track changes? Or if you disagree with a section, do you set up a meeting to discuss it first?

All these questions should be discussed openly. Again, these questions are not stupid to ask. Especially as an early career scholar. You can stress that you want to do your best in this project, and therefore would like clarity when it comes to expectations and task divisions.

Guideline 3: Set up a realistic timeline for co-authored publications

A timeline, and proper time planning, are necessary for co-authored papers.

Many academics have various things going on. Some will have heavy teaching periods that will limit their research time in specific months. Talk about it.

Furthermore, be realistic. Co-authored papers take time and are usually not written in a week. Try to find a timeline that suits all authors. And leave in some ‘buffers’, especially if you have to meet submission deadlines.

Buffers and flexibility are key in paper writing. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Maybe the experiment failed. Maybe not enough interviewees could be reached. Maybe you are just tired and your brain is struggling with writing.

It is normal, it happens. What you need is real-time planning, taking these potential obstacles into account.

Guideline 4: Avoid conflicts with co-authors with regular check-ins

Writing papers, similar to much academic work, is a dynamic process. Very often, it does not go completely as planned. Things might change, and you should regularly check in with your co-authors.

Check-ins should focus on content and collaboration.

First, content updates are important. Imagine that the person writing the literature review finds a groundbreaking article and changes the analytical framework. The person writing the empirical analysis has to implement changes as well.

The second is collaboration. Check-in with your co-author/s once in a while to ask if they are still happy with the division of tasks. Are they okay with the time they spend on the paper? Do they feel that everyone is contributing their fair share to the paper? Do you need to alter the author’s order?

Guideline 5: Be aware of the co-authorship ‘publishing etiquette’

Finally, whatever you do, follow the publishing etiquette. E.g. the basic rules and behaviour that should be central in all forms of collaborative publishing:

  • Do not make fundamental changes to the paper without your co-authors’ consent!
  • Do not change the author order without discussing it with your co-authors first!
  • Do not single-handedly decide on a journal for submission!
  • Do not submit a co-authored article without the consent of your co-authors!

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