global politics, relationally

The Hard Way #8: Co-Authoring


This isn’t really a lesson I learned “the hard way” – in fact, in a lot of ways, it is a lesson I learned “the easy way” – but I figured I’d keep the post series title alive. And I did learn some lessons of co-authoring “the hard way” – though, thankfully, very few. I am a big fan of co-authoring – I think, often, the sum of perspectives and skills is better than the parts. Add to that the fact that co-authoring is becoming more and more accepted in the discipline, and what could go wrong?

ertainly, I mean that tongue-in-cheek, and plenty could go wrong. But I think that the adventure is worth it. I have co-authored and co-edited with colleagues, mentors, students, and former students, and the overwhelming majority of these co-authoring relationships have been amazing. I call them relationships for a number of reasons: first, many of them have spanned a number of years and a number of projects; second, a lot of relating is actually necessary to producing quality product in co-authorship with someone else; third, it is important to think of co-authoring as a relationship to know that one is getting into a long-term professional involvement with even co-authors with whom one writes once; and, finally, I think that, for me, many of those relationships have easily been more than a sum of their parts. I could gush about how lucky I have been in the co-author (and co-editor) department for a whole post – but that isn’t great advice.

Instead, the rest of this post is going to talk about picking co-authors, some of the potential pitfalls of co-authorship, and some of the ways that I think good co-authoring relationships can be very helpful to a career in political science/International Relations.

Pick co-authors well. In my view, there are three elements of this: similar working styles, ability to communicate, and relative power symmetry within the relationship.

  1. Working styles. I don’t actually mean that you have to have the same substantive interests, as long as you are both interested in the project. I mean that you have to work similarly. If one co-author waits until every word is perfect to write, and another writes stream-of-consciousness, this might be difficult to navigate. If one c0-author only writes on semester breaks and another writes during semesters, this might be tough. If (and I had this situation once) one co-author (me) cannot write without “track changes” and another actually thinks “track changes” is voodoo, it might be frustrating for both. A sense of what the co-authoring process would look like is important to outline at the outset. You don’t have to be the same, but compatibility matters.
  2. Speaking of compatibility, communication is important. There will come a time in every co-authorship relationship where each co-author will need to be critical of another’s work, whether that is marking up a draft of the manuscript, critiquing the methodology, or suggesting a different direction. The ability to have a conversation about each other’s criticisms, or about a rejection, or other work-difficult stuff, without getting feelings hurt or damaging the relationship irreparably, is important. If you are someone that needs to talk about every little detail, its probably not great to work with someone who deals with adversity by withdrawing. While you don’t need to know co-authors intimately, a sense of the ability to communicate will come out in project planning. If its poor, don’t ignore the warning signs, jump ship.
  3. Relative power symmetry matters. This doesn’t mean that you have to work with people who are similarly situated professionally. It means the best co-authorship relationships have the co-authors equally invested in the relationship. The source of their investment can be different: different people bring different things (including but not limited to methods, research interests, research experience, data, ideas, reputation, collaboration, writing experience, policy experience, etc.) to co-authorship relationships. What matters is that each co-author want to do the project with the other one(s) and value the other one(s) contribution to it. If one co-author sees their contribution as a favor to the others, the communication and working style breakdowns are more likely, and the final product is likely to suffer.

Pick co-authored projects well.  The best projects for co-authorship are the ones that meld expertise, meld field research data, meld methodological and theoretical contributions, or meld specialization. In other words, they are projects to which each co-author has something unique to contribute, whether that uniqueness is a particular perspective on the topic, a research background, or a skill set. In other words, co-authored projects should be ones that need co-authors who have different things to bring (one brings a dataset, the other brings a theory to test; one brings field research, the other brings quantitative data; one brings a theory to model, the other brings the ability to construct and explain the model; one brings political economy expertise, another the security expertise). This means the sum is sure to be more than its parts, and makes it more likely that co-authors will continue to value each other throughout the project.

Pitfalls of co-authorship

  1. It is important to know if (and how) co-authored pieces will be valued by those whose judgment you are interested in (e.g., REF, tenure letters, department colleagues). Some evaluators think a co-authored publication is a “whole” one; others count it as three-quarters or a half or something silly like that. Some evaluators discount co-authored pieces with former advisors, while others discount interdisciplinary ones, etc This is not a normative judgment on my part – it is a suggestion that it is better to know than be surprised by others’ normative judgments.
  2. It is important to know if (and to what degree) you and co-authors have similar professional incentives about publication outlets, particularly on the spectrum of speed-of-publication vs. ‘quality’ of outlet.
  3. It is important to know that inference will be taken from the order of co-authors on a piece, whether or not you and your co-authors intend for it to mean anything.
  4. It is important to know that sometimes co-authoring relationships don’t work. Rather than continuing to throw effort down the proverbial “money pit” of a dysfunctional co-authored project, being able to walk away is important.
  5. That said, it is important to be committed to your co-authorship project, assuming some minimum degree of functionality. You wouldn’t want to be let down, so it is not a good idea to let someone down.
  6. Especially if your piece is successful, you and your co-authors will be professionally associated, at least sometimes. That means its not a great idea to have co-authored with someone who ends up being very professionally polarizing, erratic, or problematic. You can’t always know that in advance, but thinking about it is a good idea.
  7. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t promise a co-author expertise you don’t have just to get them to agree to it, or over promise your ability to produce work. Setting realistic goals and realistic timelines is good for both/all of you.
  8. Realize some unexpected things could go wrong. If your coauthor has a death in the family, for example, the piece could be delayed. To me, that’s fine, but its something that is important to realize at the outset when you plan output looking for a particular sort of CV that you want to have at a particular time. In other words, don’t put all your professional eggs in one basket.
  9. Don’t adopt a co-author for “your” project. If you have the idea, the elements, the vision, and an incredible emotional attachment to the idea, write it yourself. A co-author won’t be happy being pigeonholed into something they have little say in shaping. Likewise, don’t become someone else’s co-author for a project they clearly “own.” You won’t enjoy it.

Benefits of co-authorship. To me, there are too many to enumerate. I learn from and learn with co-authors. Meshing perspectives becomes more than a sum of individual parts. It makes this job not feel so isolating. It combines your smartest ideas and theirs into a better product. It is a built-in accountability system. It expresses and helps you find your voice. And co-authoring and co-editing has been the basis for, and grown, so many friendships in the discipline. While I think that you need to go into co-authoring with open eyes, having great collaborators is a lesson I’ve learned (mostly) “the easy way” and been incredibly lucky along the way. I highly recommend some of your work be collaborative.

Author: Laura Sjoberg

Laura Sjoberg (Ph.D., University of Southern California, 2004; J.D., Boston College, 2007) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her main research interests focus on gender in international security: feminist war theorizing, women's violence in global politics, gendered significations of militarism, and queer theorizing of security. She recently published Gendering Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013) and is just finishing work on a book called Rape Among Women (New York University Press).