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Career Advice

The pros and cons of collaborative writing in the humanities

Should you co-author a scholarly article?

BY AIMÉE MORRISON, ERIN WUNKER AND HEATHER ZWICKER | NOV 07 2011

If you’re a graduate student in the humanities, you can find many good reasons to co-publish an article with your thesis supervisor. It may be that your working relationship is becoming more sophisticated and it’s getting hard to separate your contributions from his or hers, so publishing together makes sense. Or perhaps you see that a collaborative project could be bigger than the sum of its parts: your inkling plus your supervisor’s notion might equal one compelling idea.

But, in the humanities co-authoring is not the norm, and so you will have to understand the reasons for and against co-publishing an article. For pragmatic reasons, working with your professor can model the process of writing in the humanities: it can help you learn what a “submittable” paper is, one that is ready to submit to a journal or a conference. Also, it’s preferable to co-publish in a real academic journal than to be the sole author for an undergraduate or graduate journal. It indicates seriousness of purpose rather than just ambition, and the professor you collaborate with can write a letter about your contribution, which is a very nice touch in a dossier. Finally, co-authorship prompts mutual self-reflection about writing, and the conversations you have en route to the finished product are priceless.

But, unlike in the sciences, we in the humanities have no culture of first author, second author, and the like. Our major granting agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, recognizes only “principal investigator” and “collaborator,” not true co-authors. Because real co-authoring is unusual, as well as hard to assess, there is still a widespread, if erroneous, sense that to co-publish is to do half the work, rather than a sense that both or all parties do all the work.

When the time comes for year-end bean-counting, a co-authored article counts as half a bean. On the job market, some reviewers may question how much work you did. Was this your supervisor lending her good name in a bad job market? How many of the ideas were yours? Did you conduct original research or did you merely tidy up the article before it was submitted to the press?

On a personal level, you need to know that co-publishing with a professor will change your relationship to your supervisor, whether he or she is your collaborator or not. Be prepared, too, for your relationship with other grad students to change – mostly in good ways, but you might find yourself the object of your peers’ envy or resentment.

All of this is changing as humanities scholars co-publish more frequently, but it is changing slowly. We worry about such a massive transformation being driven by junior scholars’ career aspirations.

You don’t want to go on the job market with all your publications co-authored. But you certainly want to put your best foot forward, so don’t shy away from the intellectual and career enrichments co-authoring can provide. Here are five things you might think about before going into the project:

  1. Make your co-publications really count. Don’t co-author reviews or other short academic pieces. Make sure that the articles you produce with your professor are peer-reviewed and published in the best journals possible.
  2. Have a serious discussion with your co-author about your working process and expectations. Establish clear goals and spell out as precisely as possible what it would mean to reach those goals. When you say “draft the second section by the first of April,” are you assuming a “draft” is point form or full paragraphs? And is “the first of April” actually April 1, or any time before April 15? Even clear expectations may not always be met. Talk about that, too: how will you handle disappointments?
  3. Be clear about how this project connects to your thesis. Can you adapt the ideas? Can you incorporate whole sections into your sole-authored dissertation? Make sure your collaborator and your supervisory committee all understand the relationship between closely related, but distinct, projects.
  4. Discuss how you want your contribution to the work recognized. The egalitarian ethos of the humanities (for example, the alphabetical order of authors’ names, as we ourselves have used in this article) may not be your friend, particularly if you did the majority of the work. Bring up the issue of order of authors’ names. And, ask your collaborator at the start whether he or she is willing to write a letter describing your contribution.
  5. As a very rough rule of thumb, consider one co-written piece is acceptable for every three published articles.

Aimée Morrison, Erin Wunker and Heather Zwicker are the founders and editors of the
Hook and Eye
blog.

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