All of us at one point or another have either considered or have been involved in a co-authored project. With the way academia is evolving, co-authorship is not only encouraged but it is fast becoming the norm especially in Political Science. But we hardly see discussions on how it works and the challenges that one faces while working on a project with others.
And this is what I want to talk about in this post; experiences and lessons of working on co-authored projects. Below I discuss the four major lessons and approaches that I have picked up while working with my co-authors. My intention is to share my experiences in an effort to start a discussion as learning to work with co-authors is beneficial especially to grad students who are just starting out in the field.
Work with People You Get Along With
This advice sounds straightforward enough but a large number of people never end up following this. First, let me clear up what I mean with the phrase – “get along with”. If you do not like someone or have a friendship with the next person at a human level, please do not work with them. This stands true for your professors, fellow grad students or any other academic. Co-authorship is a stressful process as it demands two or more people come together and put in to the work to create a good product. There is a balance that needs to be maintained in order for that product to be created. In academia that product could be the paper or the book you are all working on. With people you actually like at the personal level, you have the rapport to speak your mind and have open discussions because sometimes you need to be blunt about issues such as division of work and admitting mistakes in models or data. That has to be done in a manner where the next person or persons do not feel that they are being blamed or accused.
That relationship at the person level, helps you have those honest discussions without actually breaking the team or adding an air of hostility. I am not saying be best buddies with your co-authors but at least know them enough to know how to have honest conversations with them. For instance, one of the papers I am hoping to present at the upcoming MPSA is a co-authored paper with a close friend and colleague. The discussion on whose name should go first lasted about 15 seconds because I knew she had experiences in the past where people practically brought a project to a halt because of arguments over this. Even something so basic becomes a big deal if you do not have the rapport with the next person.
Start on a Brand New Project
When you are going to work on a co-authored project with someone, please start a brand new project. It can be an iteration of the work you have done in the past but it cannot be literally the work you have done in the past added to someone else’s past work. What I mean to say is, do not try to lump two similar projects together to create a new piece of work. That does not work out well because then there are arguments over who takes credit for what. Instead, build a new project with a new research question where you can each bring enough to the table to qualify as a competent co-author. For example, recently I have been doing field work in Turkey. I have been studying the bureaucracy and how it responded after the failed coup attempt. My colleague and friend has done work on Turkey but from the perspective of party structures and populist parties. Instead of just lumping our work together or tagging on to each other’s work, we decided to work on a whole new question that we could tackle from multiple angles. This way we do not have to fight over who gets more credit or who is going to write what portion. We can take a stab at writing different portions of it while having active discussions on them. And this leads in to the next point I wish to make. Have regular meetings.
Take Out Time, Have Regular Meetings
Even if you work together or hang out regularly, when you are working as co-authors it is a great idea to find specific time to meet. This professionalizes the whole process and it actually helps you to focus on the task at hand. All of us are busy with a number of different projects at most times, so it makes sense to dedicate time to work on a project that you are doing with someone else. Most importantly it signals how serious you are about the work and you respect the next person’s time. Plus, when you dedicate time to work and brainstorm on a project together, you normally end up coming with great new ideas and approaches that you can discuss on the spot and build upon instead of working on them separately. The key here is to remember that this is not two individuals working on the same thing, you are a team that is working together to create something.
I am currently working with a professor of mine on a paper that is out of our comfort zones. The reason we chose to do that was because we wanted to build on something new by bringing together our expertise and understanding. So once a week, we block off a 3-hour slot to just sit and work on our paper. Because there is a rolling deadline every week, it is easier to establish milestones and then follow up on them.
Have Clear Milestones and Deadlines
One of the biggest issues with producing any kind of work is having a timeline and sticking to it. But in co-authored projects timelines become a critical issue and determine either the success or failure of a partnership. Having regular meetings helps you establish dedicated time to work on the project together but it also allows you to set up milestones and establish deadlines based on those milestones. Dividing up work in a manner where those deadlines can be met helps all those involved be on the same page. Additionally, it also sets up a work division where everyone feels they are doing their part of the lifting. This also cuts down on false credit claims and arguments over doing or not doing the required work. Point being, deadlines and milestones need to be established early on as they are fundamental to getting the project off the ground and then eventually finishing it off.
As I mentioned in the beginning, these are some of the lessons and experiences I have understood while working on co-authorships. I strongly believe that doing work in such a setting is a great idea and helps us all work on different things simultaneously but it requires a certain kind of discipline. The ideas I discuss above help establish that discipline and simplify the process that can sometimes be very tricky.
About the author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate, a Graduate Research Assistant and Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures.