The Trouble With Collaboration

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Note: this blog post was originally published on Vitae.

A few weeks ago, I terminated an eight-year-old collaboration with someone who had once been my professor. I was the lead author on the paper, having done all of the writing and analyses. My one-time professor was second author – he’d promised that with his edits and his name on the paper, we would get it in a top journal. Unfortunately, I finished a draft four years ago, and I’ve been waiting … and waiting … and waiting for his input ever since.

Thanks to the power imbalance between us – I was a grad student when we started collaborating – getting my co-author to move faster or removing his name entirely proved impossible. I sent polite emails, asking about his progress on the paper. I sent firm emails, noting matter-of-factly that we needed to move forward. Sometimes he responded, usually saying he’d get to the paper soon and offering an excuse for missing previous deadlines; other times, he didn’t respond at all.

I had little control over the paper’s progress, and a growing sense of anxiety about the situation. Since the paper pooled multiple waves of a national survey, every two years, I had to redo the analyses from scratch and rerun models for hundreds of variables. The initial draft included data through 2008, then 2010, and then 2012. I kept hoping that the advent of a new data release might spur my co-author to work more quickly, but I abandoned that hope when the 2014 data came out and he still hadn’t edited the paper. That was the last straw.

I sought advice from concerned friends, family, and colleagues who urged me to proceed cautiously, lest there be some reprisal from my ex-professor. Call him on the phone and talk to him, said some. Wait for him to come to his senses and withdraw his name from the paper, advised others. Have him set a new deadline so that if he misses it, he’ll feel guilty and remove himself as co-author, said another. Just let the paper go, said yet another.

After I graduated and started my current faculty position, I told my co-author that I planned to proceed without him. But though I was lead author and no longer a student, he refused to be kicked off the paper.

A few months ago, I sent him an eight-page handwritten letter (one page for every year that the paper had languished) conveying my exasperation about being stuck in paper purgatory. I realized that once the latest wave of data became available, I would be forced to redo the analyses once again, and either continue to let my co-author string me along or kill the paper for good. I reluctantly chose the latter to free myself from his control.

If I wanted to maintain a positive relationship with my co-author — and I did — and not risk him using his powers and more senior status against me, I realized that I would have to let the paper die.

I also learned that I wasn’t the only one trapped in co-authorship limbo. Some friends privately revealed to me that they, too, had papers collecting dust because a (current or former) professor promised to work on it and never did. Like me, these friends feel powerless to do anything about it. Some have decided to let their papers rest in peace for the sake of their relationship with their professor. Others are still waiting anxiously for their “colleague” to make the collaboration a priority.

The common thread in our stories seems to be that, when well-intentioned but busy professors take on too many projects, they may end up sitting on some of them, sometimes for years and sometimes to the detriment of students. (And, of course, some of those professors are not so well-intentioned.)

If I had known how taxing this collaboration would turn out to be, I would have told my naïve, first-year graduate-student self to run when that professor offered to co-author the paper with me. In hindsight, it probably would’ve been easier to write and publish it by myself. Instead, all I have to show for my time is a dead paper, several ideas for follow-up papers that will never see the light of day, and a strained relationship with my ex-professor. Was it worth it? Hell no. But I learned a thing or two about collaboration.

Beware of power imbalances. I’ll admit that sometimes joining forces can be good. In fact, my first peer-reviewed publication was a co-authored paper with one of my undergrad advisers in which she was the lead author and I was second author. My supporting role was clear and I was happy to sit in the passenger seat as she steered us through a rather tough peer-review process. And joining forces is a necessity if you’re part of a team of scientists in a lab.

But co-authorships between early-career academics and senior scholars can be fraught, unless there’s oversight by a third party – the department, the university, or a professional organization. Otherwise, there is little protection for junior scholars from abuse and exploitation. And depending on your field, it may be more prudent to focus on establishing a solid track record as an independent scholar, lest your job search or tenure bid fall flat for lack of solo publications. In my case, my stalled collaboration effectively steered me away from the very research subject that I came to grad school to study. As I waited, and waited, and waited, I had to turn to new topics so I would have something published before I went on the job market.

Communication is key. Talk and transparency are crucial to a healthy collaboration. At the outset, agree on firm deadlines and discuss the division of labor. Determine who will be lead author. Decide at what point co-authors should step down if they aren’t meeting deadlines or pulling their weight. Co-authors should be clear about changes in their availability to work on the project and resist letting the hunger for another publication on their CV blind them to how their lax performance might be affecting their colleagues.

Papers often require more work than initially anticipated, so it’s probably wise to arrange for regular check-ins to assess how the work is going and whether adjustments need to be made. Otherwise unspoken resentments can build and threaten the entire project.

Before you dive in, consider why you want to collaborate. What do you stand to gain from a co-authorship? And, what do you stand to lose? You and your potential co-authors should have a frank discussion about what each of you has to offer. Ideally, your collaborator will have strengths and expertise that complement your own. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to split the workload, but don’t underestimate the additional back-and-forth and stress that comes with working with others.

Likewise, if all you’re after is the cachet that comes from having a big-name co-author, you might want to reconsider that plan – unless Prof. Famous is offering invaluable feedback, too. Your strategy could easily backfire if others assume that Prof. Famous is the true brains behind the paper. Besides, isn’t the peer-review process supposed to be blind?

Do you and your co-authors have similar values, interests, and goals? A collaboration defined by poor communication, exploitation, and neglect might not be all that disruptive to academics who approach publishing with a cutthroat, competitive attitude. But for people (like me) who work more effectively in a civil, collegial environment, it is important to know that our collaborators are not looking to offend or harm us in the process.

Sometimes it takes longer than we expect to publish a paper. Reviews can be harsh. Schedules change. Ideas get scooped. A collaboration with a strong foundation – and trusting, open relationships – can better withstand those bumps on the road to publication.

Talk with your colleague’s colleagues. Has your potential co-author worked with others before? How did those collaborations turn out? Is this person known for staying on track or missing deadlines? Organized or scattered? Egalitarian or abusive?

Unfortunately, as I learned, even if your potential co-author has a strong track record, there’s no guarantee that your partnership will go perfectly. If you discover that a potential collaborator has a bad track record, you’d be wise to walk away. Keep in mind, too, that it might be risky to work with a professor who has never published with graduate students before. Of course it’s also risky for professors to take on inexperienced students as co-authors. So weigh those risks accordingly.

A few questions come to mind that I am not in a position to answer on my own: How should academe protect junior scholars from negative experiences with senior co-authors? If senior scholars fail to hold up their end of a partnership, why does the burden for resolving the problem seem to fall on the junior scholars?

One thing’s for sure, I am taking a break from co-authorships. Like a spurned lover, I have decided to publish solo for the indefinite future, but at least until another good co-author comes along. If students ask to publish with me, I will politely decline and offer, instead, to provide them feedback and support in their quest to publish their own research, on their own timeline, and on their own terms.