In many science and engineering disciplines, it is customary for scholars to collaborate and for students to learn about research and publication by joining their advisers on projects. In other areas,  it is a more recent phenomenon and in many programs is likely more the exception than the norm. Collaboration with a more experienced scholar has much to offer those recently embarking on the academic career track even outside the physical and biological sciences, but since many may not understand why they should seek out such opportunities or may not be convinced by its merits, I thought I would address these questions head-on. In addition to deepening one’s understanding of the project’s topic, co-authorship is a fabulous way to learn about the quirks of academic publishing and develop the skills a scholar relies on throughout the academic career.
It is important to distinguish between joining a project at the data-collection phase versus the analysis and write-up phase of a study. Both types of collaborations have great merit and can offer a tremendous amount of important experience to a junior scholar. My focus in this piece is on joining projects beyond the data collection portion of the work. While it can be incredibly important to gain experience about the initial stages of a project, skills gained during such phases of a study are different from the ones honed once material is ready to be analyzed and written up. In an ideal world, a junior academic will be able to participate in both types of experiences as both offer many important lessons. The point of this piece is to highlight the merits of joining a project with more than a role in data collection in mind, i.e., by participating as a collaborator in the analysis and writing phase of the study.
My first peer-reviewed academic publication as a graduate student came out of a collaboration I joined soon after I entered my graduate program. A faculty member in my department kindly invited me to join him and a graduate student already working on a project. Although neither the topic nor the methods being used were exactly what I expected to be pursuing in my studies, I was excited about the opportunity to learn hands-on about journal publishing so soon after entering the program. Note again, neither the topic nor the methods were a perfect match for my interests. I emphasize this because over the years I have noticed that students often shy away from joining projects that are not fully in line with their initial interests. This can lead to missed opportunities in learning about the process of research, journal article authorship and publishing.
Despite the slight non-alignment in my interests and those of the project I had been invited to join, as a first-year graduate student what seemed more important was to learn about how a research project goes from analysis to write-up and eventually publication. I also appreciated the opportunity to learn about how one works as part of a team of authors. To this day, I am grateful for this chance I had to work with these scholars, because this experience was invaluable in teaching me the steps of putting together an academic article (a big shout-out to Miguel Angel Centeno and Hugh Louch!). I then went on to publish several sole-authored papers, but have continued to collaborate with others over the years, first with scholars senior to me, then peers, and eventually, as I transitioned into being a faculty member, scholars junior to me.
These collaborative projects all have the potential to offer something extra over sole-authored publications leading to outcomes that are often only possible, because people with different interests, skill sets and backgrounds decide to pool their resources. But rather than focusing on the substantive merits of such joint work, I want to elaborate on the merits of such opportunities from a professionalization perspective.
The fact is that academic publishing has numerous peculiarities that are easiest to pick up in the process of working on a paper with someone who has already cracked the code. Entire courses exist on how to write a publishable academic paper, not only to help students focus on questions appropriate for an article, but also to convey logistical nuances. Courses focused on substantive matters rarely have room to cover what paper structure works best for a journal article, what needs to be covered in each section, what is the best way to frame an argument and what is the most strategic approach to the literature review. (Indeed, some of this may be about strategy rather than simply content, something I will cover in a future column.) Additionally, there are great differences in how one writes up findings for a class paper and how this is done most optimally for a publishable piece. There are also more or less ideal ways of presenting the limitations of a project and wrapping up the paper. While these are skills that one could, in theory, pick up by reading enough published articles, hands-on experiences seem to convey the intricacies better.
With any writing project, an important way to get feedback on what one has produced is to have someone else read a draft and comment on it. The beauty of collaborative work is that this feedback mechanism is automatically built into the writing process. Every time a draft goes from one co-author to the other, the writing gets scrutinized for clarity and logic, offering many more opportunities for improving the material than is usually the case with a sole-authored piece.
In addition to helping with such logistics, an important merit of co-authorship is that it can often offer much more than individual scholars would be able to produce on their own. Working together allows the team to draw on different sets of expertise, the participants can learn skills from each other, and when done right, the different team members can also serve as motivators for each other. For the junior person on the team in particular, a co-authored paper can mean a quicker path to a publication than may be likely otherwise. As noted above, academic publishing has enough quirks that it is hard to think of a better way to become skilled at it than to partner up with someone who already has a track record having mastered at least some of its tricks.
Of course, not all collaborations are fruitful, so it is worth keeping some things in mind before joining such a project. First, how successful have the collaborators been with publishing in the past? If no one on the team has much experience in this domain then such an undertaking may not be ideal, which is why I recommend that students collaborate with professors or more advanced students first before starting joint projects with their peers. Second, it is important to clarify up front when joining a collaboration that the intended outcome is indeed a jointly authored publication. Conventions about this vary by discipline, but contributing to the actual writing of what will be published is the most obvious way of being included on the author list.
To avoid misunderstandings, it is worth establishing this explicitly. If no one has come out and unambiguously made such a statement (i.e., "We are writing a co-authored paper") then collaborators should not be shy to ask about it. Confirming that one’s role is more than the type of assistance that will get a mention in the acknowledgments is important to do up front. Of course, it is important to realize that you are then taking on substantial responsibilities about being a serious member of the writing team. Another matter I will take up in a different column will be to offer specific advice for making sure that such collaborative projects maintain momentum, which is a significant hurdle they sometimes face.
In addition to getting a published paper out of such a venture, students can benefit in other ways, too. Doing a good job on a co-authored publication is a great way for a future recommendation letter writer to have helpful material to draw on while singing the merits of the candidate. A responsible mentor will be sure to note the contributions of the collaborator, giving credit where it is due. In letters I have written for former students who worked with me on joint papers, I have made it a point to emphasize which components of a paper were original contributions by the student and have been sure to acknowledge collaborators’ extent of involvement in the analysis and writing process. Note, however, that this can go both ways, of course. Doing a poor job on a collaborative project will make it harder for the recommender to find positive aspects of the experience to include in a letter.
Although a sole-authored piece conveys one’s contributions to an article most clearly, a co-authored paper with someone more experienced is often more likely to lead to publication in a timely manner. It is also a relatively painless way to learn the quirks of academic journal publishing. Accordingly, I highly recommend that students seek out such opportunities in the early years of their graduate training.