Co-Authorships: Lessons Learned From The Dark Side of Publishing

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Photo credit: Sam Churchill

Last week, I went on a bit of a Twitter rant in revealing the backstory of my forthcoming article, “Sexual Orientation Differences in Attitudes about Sexuality, Race, and Gender” (Social Science Research). I am taking Dr. Jessie Daniel’s advice to turn those tweets into this blog post, though I doubt this would make for a peer-reviewed article.  (But, never say never.)

From Master’s Thesis to Journal Article (2007-2017)

Let me begin by retelling the ten-year saga that led to the publication of the aforementioned article. I entered graduate school intending to study the lives of LGBTQ people. I made this research interest, and the broader interest in challenging anti-LGBTQ oppression, quite clear to the graduate schools to which I applied.  However, I wasn’t aware that graduate schools might not be as transparent as me.  I chose to study sociology at Indiana University, which boasted strength in sexualities, including two professors who specialize in the area.  I wasn’t aware that one of those professor would leave almost as soon as I got there, and that the other remained on the periphery of the department (partly because of a reputation for sexual harassment, and partly because sexualities was a marginalized subfield).  I wasn’t aware that my admission into the program came with the intention to mold my marginal, radical interests into something acceptable to mainstream sociology.  I realize, now basically in 2017, that Indiana sociology was a poor fit for me, perhaps explaining the ongoing anxiety and complex trauma from which I suffer.

When it came time to propose a topic for my master’s thesis early in my first-year of grad school, I let my passion do the talking.  I proposed an ethnographic study of racism in the local community — Bloomington, Indiana. (That warrants its own blog post: hearing, “I’m not usually into Black guys”; being asked, “why would you tell anyone you’re Black since no one can tell?”; repeatedly being asked, “what are you?” at the lone gay club; assumed to be a “top” with a huge penis and a tendency for sexual aggression simply because I’m Black; a Black friend being called a nigger when he turned down an ugly white guy’s advances in the gay club’s bathroom; etc.)  I was gently steered away from the subject because of concerns about the amount of time it would take to conduct a qualitative project.  Instead, I was guided to do something that could be quickly and easily done with existing survey data.  So, I settled on comparing heterosexuals’ and sexual minorities’ race and gender attitudes using data from the General Social Survey.

I made acceptable progress on my new thesis topic. But, at one point, I proposed doing an alternative thesis wherein I would compare white heterosexuals’ and white sexual minorities’ race attitudes; my passion and curiosity remained fixated on the problem of racism in queer communities.  Without even reading a draft of that paper into which I had put so much time and energy, my main advisor dismissed it, again citing concerns about data (in this case, sample size).  So, I carried on with the topic that was somewhat related to my passion.  I finished the thesis on time, successfully earning my master’s degree at the close of my second year.

My main advisor offered to collaborate on an expanded version of the thesis project, implicitly using the offer as an incentive to finish the thesis on time.  I recognized his respected status in the field and his commendable research record, so I jumped at the chance.  I had already begun to worry about publishing, so the thought of publishing a piece on sexualities, perhaps in the top journal in sociology, excited me beyond words.

Oh, the paper certainly expanded.  Investigating a few racial attitudes and a few gender attitudes expanded to every item in the General Social Survey — a behemoth of a survey that covers every social and political domain imaginable.  I had 280 outcomes to analyze, yet he instructed me to add a second dataset — the American National Election Survey — which added an additional 60 items.  As typical of our field, I had to predict multiple models: sexual orientation on every sociopolitical outcome, then its effects net of the effects of other identities like race and gender on those attitudes, and then its effect net of possible mechanisms linking sexual orientation to attitudes.  Though these findings seemed interesting and solid on their own, he instructed me to also pay attention to how race, gender, and education affected sociopolitical attitudes.  That means I had to collect coefficients for four variables across three models for 340 outcomes; that is 4,080 coefficients for which to account.  To keep track of it all, I had to record these coefficients in Excel and devise formulas (through a lot of trial and error — with more errors than I care to recall) to identify patterns.  It’s no wonder this paper became the most reliable trigger of my newly developed Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  Messing up one code or formula forced me to do everything over again, and usually left me feeling I would vomit right on the computer keyboard.

I once complained about the amount of work involved to my advisor-turned-coauthor.  Regarding analyses, it seemed his role was simply to give orders.  If he didn’t like the results I produced, he’d send me back to redo them.  Oh, did I mention that we had several supplemental analyses of all of the above?  So, 4,080 coefficients was probably closer to 25,000.  His solution, besides doing more analyses, was to bring on another co-author to help me.  Without any passive aggression in that suggestion, it seems like a well-intentioned suggestion.  But, with it, it sounded as though he was implying I couldn’t handle it.  I predictably responded to his implication, replying “of course, not!”  So, I continued on, only to myself and friends complaining about the amount of work I was doing while he had never even seen the raw data.

I wrote a full draft of the expanded paper at the end of my third year. And, several more revised drafts in my fourth year, updating the paper each time the analyses were changed. And, there were multiple revisions of the seventh iteration of this paper in my last two years of grad school. As the years went on with an evolving but unpublished paper, eventually the only thing that was changing was redoing the analyses over from scratch as new waves of the data were released.  I first had to start over by adding 2010 data, and then again with 2012 data.  It was a pain, made more painful by the fact that the results were not changing.  We almost got scooped a couple of times as scholars in other fields began to take seriously sexual orientation’s effect on individuals’ attitudes and political behaviors.  But, my co-author never wrote a single word on the paper.  Ever.  Some of my emails to pester him about it went ignored; to others, he apologized for being busy and promised to get to the paper next month (which never happened).  I fumed as projects he started well after ours began were published within a year or two.  It was clear I was not a priority for him.

Once I graduated and began my current tenure-track position, my impatience with my co-author (and the anxiety I experienced about this paper) grew to an unforgivable level.  The decision, for me, became letting the paper go for the sake of a continued connection to my former advisor or letting the relationship go and publishing the paper on my own. Which was more important: finally publishing this fucking paper, or having him as a potential letter writer and continued mentor?  In my mind, this was an either/or situation because surely he’d retaliate if I published the paper without him.  I had witnessed other students’ careers impacted by his efforts to blackball them behind the scenes.  I was aware of his power in the department and discipline, and his reputation for using it without consequence.

He and other advisors never supported my decision to take my current position (at a liberal arts college), and, when I saw them at conferences, would find a way to stir up my doubts about taking it.  As the 2014 wave of the General Social Survey became available, I had to make the hard decision.  I refused to redo the analyses from scratch.  So, I emailed him to kick him off of the paper.  I was shocked when he responded that I couldn’t do so; he had contributed too much to the paper (I suppose not in words or analyses, but in ideas [read: instructions to me]) to be denied authorship credit.  But, he promised to work on it.  Another promise broken.  Later, I sent him an eight-page handwritten letter expressing how frustrating and triggering this project had been, and how hurt I was that I felt our relationship was undermined by this ordeal.  Another promise to work on it, another promise broken.

I eventually decided to squash the project, also killing every possible follow-up project.  It felt like the only possible way to free myself from it and his control over it.  He could have it if he dared to touch the data that plagued me for years.  I emailed him on March 2015 notifying him of my decision, thanking him for his work over the years.  He never responded, though I later saw he removed it from his CV, so I knew he got the message.  The unspoken message was that I was effectively cutting ties with him, as well.  I’m now a few years out from grad school, so I’d need letters that are more current than what he could offer.  And, I finally accepted that he never had my best interest at heart, and he never supported the career I defined for myself.  So, what good was his letter anyhow?

After a few months, I felt very dispassionate about what was left of my research.  Cutting off the line of research on sexualities — the very topic that drew me to the academy — felt like cutting off a limb.  I felt I was hurting myself more than anyone else by killing that project.  So, I revived it, starting by returning to my master’s thesis.  Starting over felt hard, but it also felt right.  I am pleased to say that the new paper was accepted at the first journal to which I submitted it.  On my own, of course.  I didn’t have to include comparisons to race, gender, and education, which always felt like throwing women and Black people under the bus in order to elevate sexual minorities.  I begrudgingly acknowledged him and other advisors for their support on the paper.  But, from here on out, this line of research is all me, all my passion, all my ideas.  I’ve already submitted the first follow up paper to a journal, and will be submitting the second one in a few weeks.  And, these papers are very me (i.e., with a heavy emphasis on intersectionality).  I’m back!

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

It’s only in this essay that I have ever articulated a sense that attending my graduate program was perhaps a mistake.  I assured myself that transferring to another program wouldn’t solve my problems, as the shaming, marginalization, and the disregard for my goals would be found in almost every sociology program.  And, dropping out, even with the MA, didn’t hold other viable options.  So, I haven’t dwelled on the decision to go to Indiana, or even stay there for that matter.

But, I have spent some time beating myself up for naively (and perhaps greedily) agreeing to co-author with my former advisor.  I had already given up an ethnographic project on racism in queer communities to, instead, use a quantitative approach to compare heterosexuals and sexual minorities’ attitudes.  I conceded again and again when he became a co-author, adding comparisons to other identities that I felt were problematic.  By the end, I had to kill the entire project to remove myself from his control.

What would I say — now at 31 with just a short time left before filing for tenure — to my 24-year-old self at the cusp of earning my MA degree?

IT’S A TRAP!  And, other lessons I have learned the hard way…

First, don’t publish with anyone who has control over your professional (or personal) fate.  (See my Vitae essay on this.)  In a power-imbalanced relationship, navigating the potential minefields of co-authorships and the publication process can prove disastrous.  I was lead author on the paper, but he called the shots.  I didn’t even have the power to kick him off of the paper despite years of neglecting it; yet, ironically, he was quick to kick off a former student coauthor of one of his major projects when she wasn’t pulling her weight.  I know some believe in this model, especially the “apprentice” model wherein the senior scholar/professor is the lead author.  But, I think it is most beneficial for grad students and junior scholars to publish on their own.  That way, there is no question about what the contributed to a project.  If co-authorships are desired, I recommend limiting them to peers.

A related concern about collaborations is to avoid letting existing relationships tempt you to co-author.  Co-authorships can get messy.  The aforementioned one threatened to cost me a relationship with my advisor, and eventually did when I no longer felt I needed him.  I lost two friends over another paper; sadly, my name is nowhere on it, so, in the end, I had neither a paper nor their friendship.  I’ve gotten into a fight with another co-author and friend over the authorship order once I felt I had done much more for the paper.  I’m currently in a collaboration that proves to be successful for many years; we started out as co-authors and a friendship has developed in the process.  I’m not saying don’t publish with friends, lovers, relatives, professors, senior colleagues, etc.  (Well, yes I am.)  But, if you must, don’t let your existing relationship be the reason you decide to work together.  How we are as co-authors maybe quite different from how we are as friends.

Third, treat potential collaborations like you would a relationship.  If you’re open to a quick, one-time “hook-up,” go for it.  (Though someone often gets less out of it.)  But, if you plan to be deeply involved in a project, and perhaps pursue a long-term collaboration, open communication is crucial to decide upon division of labor, authorship credit, goals for the project(s), working styles, availability, and your politics about publishing.  No matter the level of involvement and potential longevity of the collaboration, I believe it is crucial to be upfront with one another about your expectations for the project(s).  I was burned by being opportunistic about the publication with my former advisor, and I paid the price for being greedy.  I feel strongly that the open communication necessary for a healthy collaboration is nearly impossible when one co-author holds power over the other; but, if the more senior person isn’t inclined to abuse their power (though you sometimes don’t know whether they would until they do for the first time), and is able to separate problems with a co-authorship from evaluating you in other domains, maybe it’s OK to pursue such a partnership.

A related piece of advice is to do your homework before you jump into a collaboration.  If you have ready access to their past or current co-authors, ask how they are as a partner in research.  Maybe even ask your potential co-author how past collaborations have gone; if you see a pattern of conflict, they may be the common denominator.  Look at their CV to see if anything stands out.  For example, are they consistently the lead author?  That could be because it was all from their own data, or maybe they are unwilling to play a secondary role.  Do they ever publish on their own (if that is common in your field)?  Maybe they are coasting on co-authorships to get published.  Of course, you should inquire about any patterns that seem off to you.  If I had done my homework, I might have been suspicious that my advisor almost exclusively collaborates, and with people who are former students and mentees.  (Is this about a commitment to mentorship?  Or, is this because these subordinates are easier to control?)  My critical eye might have noticed that few people of color have worked with him as a co-author, and sexualities was never a topic he studied until after we started working together.  Red flags are red for a reason.

Fifth, consider having a line of work or series of papers that are safe for collaboration, while maintaining some that are just for you.  I made the mistake of putting all of my eggs in one basket, so when the co-authored project was stalled, I had to rush to find another project to pursue.  As that sexualities paper was held up for nearly six years, I became frustrated that my primary interest was not reflected in my publications.  Now, it is, while my work on discrimination has become collaborative; the latter benefits me by reigniting an interest that was starting to wane after years of studying it.  Since co-authorships can get held up in ways that solo-authored work doesn’t, it seems worth considering having both to ensure something is moving to print.

Sixth, consider finding other pathways toward advancement that you may feel is exclusive to collaborations.  Being more specific, if it seems a co-author has something you lack — status, expertise, funding or other resources, networks — you could give yourself the time to gain access to it eventually, thus ensuring that the project is independent.  I readily agreed to collaborate with my former advisor because I felt he could easily get us into one of the top journals in our discipline.  But, I could have done that on my own.  Maybe it would not have happened with the first paper; but, I am confident that I could have eventually built up to a big project worthy of a top-tier journal, first publishing a series of smaller papers.  Of course, I do believe science advances by collaborating with those who have something we lack; I see such complementary relationships as beneficial to research.  I just want to be cautious about the opportunism that leads us to get something out quickly that may not be worth the risk of conflict with co-authors.  If something gets held up because of such conflict, that scientific advancement might have been better off being pushed in a solo-authored project.

Seventh, avoid collaborating with anyone who undermines, rather than advances, your passion and ideas.  Compromise and communication are central to a successful collaboration.  But, you should feel as though your voice and interests are reflected in your work.  With your name listed as an author, you are responsible for an article’s contents, conclusions, and implications.  You had better believe in every word that is written!  And, you should feel good about it.  Publishing for publication sake may not prove useful if some opportunistic lines on your CV do not clearly advance your independent research program.

Eighth, take the long-view with publishing.  Beware of quickly agreeing to collaborate on something because you had a great conversation over drinks with a stranger at a conference, or because a friend got you excited about their paper they can’t seem to get published after four tries, or because someone has data they’re just sitting on (but want to get published).  The peer-review process is long, so you should take some time to think on an invitation to collaborate before jumping to say yes.  How does this paper fit into your research agenda?  Will it take time, energy, and funding away from your other work?  If it gets held up, will you have other papers moving through the pipeline to ensure success toward graduation/hiring/tenure/promotion?  You might even want to make a list of all of your ongoing projects, with some sense of a timeline, to see whether (or not) this new project fits, keeping in mind that it may require more work and take longer than publish than you anticipate (as is the case for any publication).

Ninth, be self-reflective.  Take the time to clearly identify a research program, your short-term and long-term research goals, your working style, your schedule and availability, and your strengths and weaknesses.  No one is perfect, so it’s worth assessing whether you might be a potentially bad co-author.  I know I tend to be impulsive, so a similarly impulsive co-author and I may bite off more than we can chew, while a more cautious co-author can reign me in but will make me feel constrained. Generally, it feels much easier to work alone with this in mind; but, this awareness has made my most recent collaborations all the more smooth, peaceful, and efficient.

Finally, forgive yourself for bad decisions you made in the past.  You can recover from them.  And, it may not be fair to you to blame yourself for making decisions out of naivete or ignorance, or that at least seemed beneficial for you at the time.  Learn from the mistake, impart the wisdom you gain to others, and move forward.  If you have had a bad experience with research, consider sharing it publicly so others can learn to avoid your mistakes, or maybe even feel validated that they are not alone in making that mistake.

Thanks for reading.