Making the Most of Collaborative Projects

Keisha N. Blain, who has experienced both rewarding and frustrating aspects of scholarly collaboration, offers advice.

August 9, 2017

One of the most exciting aspects of being an academic is having the opportunity to collaborate with other scholars, especially when you share similar research interests. It can also be one of the most frustrating aspects. While collaborating with others brings a myriad of benefits, it also has many pitfalls.

For early-career academics, in particular, collaborative projects can be very rewarding. An opportunity to work with a senior scholar in one’s field, for example, can be advantageous for your career. It can raise your visibility, and in ideal cases, these senior scholars can serve as your mentors in the process. Collaborations with other junior scholars can be equally rewarding, especially when you get along well and are equally committed to completing a project within a specific time frame.

But collaborative projects can also derail a junior scholar’s career, especially when you’ve yet to make significant progress on your own monograph. The unfortunate reality is that, in far too many cases, junior scholars bear the brunt of the responsibilities in collaborative projects, while senior scholars receive more recognition in the field. Power dynamics certainly play a role in these interactions, but in many cases, senior scholars are stretched so thin that when they take on a collaborative project, they may or may not be able to commit much time to it -- even when they truly desire to do so.

As a junior scholar, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse group of scholars -- some senior and some junior -- on a variety of projects, including three edited volumes (one published and two in progress), a special journal issue, and several public syllabi. In the process, I have experienced both the rewarding and frustrating aspects of scholarly collaborations. While no one experience is representative of all, I have found the following advice to be especially helpful when collaborating with other scholars, regardless of their academic rank.

Think carefully about an offer to collaborate and consult others for advice. Early in my academic career, I was flattered by the many requests I received to collaborate on projects -- until I realized that, in some cases, people were asking me to collaborate because they knew I would get the work done. That is not a terrible thing, but it can be counterproductive when the person asking to collaborate has no desire to devote the necessary time and energy to the project -- even when they come up with the idea.

Thankfully, I was able to avoid many pitfalls by simply not saying yes too quickly and asking others for advice. As a graduate student, I took every request to my dissertation adviser, who always asked me to articulate how a potential collaboration would be beneficial to my academic career. I had yet to defend my dissertation, so my adviser reminded me that opportunities to collaborate would come later in my career, and I needed to think carefully about how collaborative projects could potentially affect my own work. Heeding that advice saved me from committing too early. And in the one instance when I did agree to collaborate with another scholar, I made it clear that I would not be able to begin working on the project until after I had defended my dissertation.

Spend considerable time discussing expectations. In my experience, things always went smoothly when I was clear about my responsibilities and my collaborators were clear about theirs. During the early stage, it is helpful to have “uncomfortable” conversations about each person’s motivations for embarking on the project.

Perhaps your colleague imagines that the project will be key to their tenure and promotion, which probably means they expect to be recognized as the lead editor. If you have the same goal in mind, you will want to sort this out before you begin collaborating. To avoid disagreement and confusion later in the process, it is important not to shy away from such discussions. In many cases, the person who initiates the project will assume the role of lead editor and should be doing the bulk of the work -- although there are cases where the person who comes up with the idea decides to take a backseat for one reason or another.

Regardless of the arrangement, be clear about who is responsible for which tasks and come up with a timeline for when they should be completed. As things progress, you should also be careful not to take on more responsibilities than you initially agreed to do and be in communication should things change. If you are having difficulties communicating with prospective collaborators early in the process, it is probably best to bow out -- things are unlikely to change along the way.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture. If you are on the tenure track or working toward securing a tenure-track position, you must prioritize your own research above all else. If you are teaching at a research university (or intend to do so), you will need to complete a book and several journal articles or book chapters. Collaborative projects have the potential to bolster your case for tenure (and may even strengthen your application for academic positions), but you should not rely on them. As a result, if you decide to collaborate on another project, you should not allow it to get in the way of your own writing and research.

One way to maintain balance is to decide which day of the week you will devote to the collaborative project -- and stick to the schedule. If you are working on an edited volume or special issue, think carefully about how the tasks align with the work you are doing for your own project. In one instance, I proposed a specific deadline for completing a collaborative project because I knew I would have completed revisions for my book by the time the authors submitted their chapters. Planning ahead will ensure that you are balancing and prioritizing your projects carefully. And of course, the other option is simply saying no to requests to collaborate until your book is in press and you have several articles under review.

Recognize that it always seems easier than it actually is. Edited volumes, for example, can take five to 10 years to complete -- even when you are fully committed to the project. You cannot control all aspects of publishing, including the time it takes for external readers to complete reports, and it is nearly impossible to get writers to meet the deadlines you set for them. As a result, what seems like a fun and exciting project that could advance your academic career can eventually become the bane of your existence. In the process of doing these projects, friends can become enemies and you could find yourself spending more time trying to get authors to meet deadlines and make revisions (or even having to make the revisions for them) than actually advancing your career.

Remember that collaborative projects do not always count. If you are collaborating with a senior scholar, tenure and promotion committee members often assume that the senior scholar did the bulk of the work -- even if that may not be the case. In other situations, credit only goes to the person whose name appears first on the project, which is often an indication that they were the lead editor.

In one instance, a senior colleague told me that despite the popularity of a text that I had co-edited, it would not help me when I went up for review. Regardless of how much time I spent on this project, it mattered little for those who reviewed my files. What mattered most was whether I had made progress on my own monograph, journal articles and book chapters.

Because of these realities, junior scholars need to think carefully about doing collaborative projects. As someone who has had the opportunity to work with many scholars on a range of projects, I think the experience can be a rewarding one. But you have to plan ahead, communicate early and often, and be clear about how the project will help your career -- or not. It’s fine to pursue a collaborative project out of passion and personal conviction, as long as you are aware that your efforts may not be recognized or rewarded by your institution. Walking into a collaborative project with eyes wide-open in the beginning will prevent a lot of disappointment and frustration later on.


Keisha N. Blain is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the co-editor of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Her forthcoming book, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in spring 2018.


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