Co-authorship is typically defined as the practice of multiple writers sharing authorship of a paper.
In practice, however, co-authorship can be more complicated:
- people can be listed as co-authors (coauthors) even when they didn’t participate in co-authorship. For instance, sometimes graduate students or assistant professors will list a senior professor as a co-author on grant proposals in order to increase the likelihood of funding. Or graduate students funded under a grant who are told what to do may be listed as second, third, or later authors even when they did the lion’s share of the work. Or the senior partner of a law firm may be listed on a legal brief even if she wasn’t engaged in the research and writing of the brief.
- people can only write a part of a paper and never bother to read the text in its entirety. For instance, in school settings, sometimes students who are assigned a major team project may divide the project into sections.
Thus, a more accurate definition of co-authorship is
- the practice of multiple writers sharing authorship of a paper.
- when multiple people agree to share authorship of a paper regardless of who wrote the final draft of the text.
Guide to Co-authorship
To facilitate productive partnerships on writing projects, whether you are choosing a single co-author or working in a larger group, you may find it helpful to take a honest look at your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing where you struggle can help you identify partners who have strengths in those areas. For instance, if you routinely procrastinate and suffer consequences accordingly, you may benefit from finding co-authors who have stronger self-regulation competencies. Obviously, as much as possible, you want to stack your team with smart, motivated, articulate people.
Ideally collaborations are productive and the whole is indeed greater than the parts. But sometimes co-authors fail to complete agreed upon tasks.
Collaboration can be challenging from multiple perspectives. Beyond the inherent difficulties of writing, co-authors/coauthors may bring unequal talents, different and even contrary writing processes, different attitudes about a topic, and different levels of commitment for specific tasks. At times people misuse their power: they take credit for their peers’ or employees’ work product. Personality conflicts can derail a project. They may fail because the task was too difficult for them. They may be lazy or unmotivated. Even worse, they may be jealous. Or perhaps the fault lies in you. Perhaps there’s something you can do differently to move the co-authorship along.
When it comes to co-authoring a document, we may disagree about how and when to Collaborate. Even after reading the same texts, we may disagree about the author’s message. We might have a different idea about what the status is of a scholarly conversation on a particular topic.
We may have disparate mindsets. Plus, composing is complex. People can have very contrary (and yet equally productive for that person) ways of writing. Thus, it’s important for you to be open to other ways of doing things. You cannot expect people to write as you would. We all have idiosyncratic practices that we’ve honed over time.
During the initial stages of a group project, it helps to sit down and define roles and expectations. Then, as the project progresses, it helps to revisit those roles and plans and revise as necessary. Frequent, face-to-face meetings can go a long ways to establishing rapport and trust among team members. Collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Project can help keep group communications distinct from daily chatter, which fosters focus.
If you are the leader on a team project, you can nurture effective teamwork by requiring regular progress reports. Even if you’re not the leader, you can nurture productive team relationship by defining your workload, accomplishments, efforts, and goals.
Ideally when there are obstacles you can regroup with the coauthor(s) and reschedule completion of the tasks. Being kind and supportive of colleagues is vital to success.
Ultimately, no matter what happens in between, we are born alone and we die alone. Ultimately, you can only be responsible for yourself.
Sometimes things go south. In the worst case scenario, you may do all of the work of the team to the best of your ability. When that happens, try to make the most of it: learn from the experience so you can hopefully avoid it in the future.
Co-authorship is a new topic at Writing Commons. Hence, it is underdeveloped, and we are looking for authors to help us develop resources to help writers in academic and workplace settings be productive co-authors. Please see Contribute for details in how you can work with us to reach an international audience of students and teachers.