The New Poli Sci Collaboration

As field has moved away from single-scholar publication as the norm, new questions are raised -- including, whose name goes first?
February 25, 2010

Political science appears to be moving away from the traditional model of valuing single-author publication as the norm. But in so doing, the discipline faces a set of questions that it has only started to answer – not least of which is the question of whose name goes first.

Those are the conclusions of essays that appear in the new issue of PS. While the authors note that articles in political science journals aren’t close to having the long lists of author names that may be found in the journals of the biological and physical sciences, they do suggest that political science has moved significantly away from many humanities disciplines for which single authorship is the clear norm.

Rose McDermott, professor of political science at Brown University, and Peter K. Hatemi, assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa, argue in a co-authored paper that both numbers and anecdotes show the rise of collaborative research in the field. They analyzed the research articles in American Political Science Review, the flagship publication in the field, and found that in 1970, nearly two-thirds of the papers were by single authors and more than 90 percent were by one or two authors. In 2008, a slight majority of papers were published by more than one author, with more than 20 percent coming from more than two authors. (Notably, the increases in female authors in the journal came entirely in co-authored articles.)

While the recent increases are not radical, the growth in multiple author papers has been consistent and extends to other journals, they write. In the three-year period of 2006-8, the American Political Science Review averaged 1.7 authors per article, while the Journal of Politics and the American Journal of Political Science averaged 1.9 authors. These average figures are 29 percent greater than figures from a three-year period in the 1980s.

McDermott and Hatemi cite previous research by others that has offered a variety of theories for the increase in joint authorship, such as the assistance of technology in identifying potential collaborators and allowing collaborators at different institutions to work together. But they also note factors that they acknowledge are more difficult to quantify. While acknowledging plenty of superior work by single authors, they write that “successful collaboration efforts have greater potential to produce superior scholarship.” Large research teams, they write “often create working groups around research programs of great scope, depth, and breadth, and have access to more extensive opportunities for funding.”

And the funding factor, they note, could motivate many scholars to want to embrace teams – where a variety of expertise areas, and the ability to create or work with large databases can attract sources of financial support in ways that single authors may not.

The impact of these changes needs more attention, the authors write. They note, for example that dual or group authors open the possibility for more interdisciplinary work – both with political scientists who have different research specialties, and with scholars in other disciplines.

Working with scholars outside their specialties is new for most political scientists, and it’s too early to tell if this “trickle becomes a trend.” But the authors note that the trend is real – and not always controlled by political scientists. Geneticists and biologists, for example, have increasingly been inviting political scientists and other social scientists to join research teams.

Generally, the authors’ take on co-authorship is positive, but they also note a range of challenges that may need more attention as the practice grows. Among the potential disadvantages: “shirking by a co-author, monitoring different levels of individual commitment and effort, duplication of effort, difficulty in coordinating tasks and not receiving credit for individual performance.” Further, successful collaboration may require “intellectual compromises” and may reduce individual scholars’ productivity.

The authors suggest that it is important for scholars to consider a range of issues in deciding whether to work collaboratively, including the need to recognize that “some trial and error” may be involved. As co-authorship becomes more common, “disciplinary norms” that favored single co-authorship need to continue evolve, the authors write.

‘The Tyranny of the Alphabet’

One convention that has never truly been established, according to another article in PS, is a clear procedure for the order of authors' names in co-written pieces. Nearly two-thirds of political science journal articles with more than one author follow “the tyranny of the alphabet” and default to alphabetical order, writes David A. Lake, professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. Many of those that don’t use alphabetical order don’t indicate whether that was random or a choice, and only a handful use systems such as saying an article is by one scholar “with” another, or in any way suggest primacy of one scholar over another in terms of contribution.

Lake calls on the American Political Science Association, as publisher of a number of the field’s leading journals, to establish a clear standard based on contributions to the work.

Other disciplines have conventions that (in various ways) identify the lead author of a project and convey a sense of relative importance of contributions, and political science should do likewise, Lake writes. Such an approach is “more informative,” he argues.

In addition, he writes that the lack of such a convention may discourage collaboration (at least for those whose last names come late in the alphabet).

“Under an alphabetical rule, authors may be reluctant to bring additional collaborators onto their project for fear of diminishing the credit received for their own work,” Lake writes. “If someone with expertise for, say, an additional case study could be added to a team and appropriately acknowledged without detracting from the major effort of the first author, such invitations would be more readily extended. In turn, authors with late surnames would be more eager to engage in collaborative work knowing that they will not be relegated to the ‘et al.’ ”

And a key reason to adopt clear conventions, Lake writes, is to protect the interests of those without tenure. “Those most harmed by the lack of any convention are vulnerable junior scholars collaborating with senior scholars: Without a standard or practice that defines their rights as co-authors or any means of signaling their contributions, they are most likely to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous or simply unwitting senior colleagues.”

Lake writes that there is one group, however, that benefits from the status quo: “those who consistently free ride on the efforts of their generous colleagues.”


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