What if coauthors disagree about what their ms should say? (UPDATED)

In a recent interview, Richard Lewontin talks about how he and the late Stephen Jay Gould came to write their famous polemic “The Spandrels of San Marco” (ht Small Pond Science). Basically, Lewontin says all the polemical bits were by Gould, and that he only wrote one non-polemical section. And he says Gould went too far in the polemical bits, taking unreasonably extreme positions. A few quotes from Lewontin, to give you the flavor:

Steve and I taught evolution together for years and in a sense we struggled in class constantly because Steve, in my view, was preoccupied with the desire to be considered a very original and great evolutionary theorist. So he would exaggerate and even caricature certain features, which are true but not the way you want to present them…He would fasten on a particular interesting aspect of the evolutionary process and then make it into a kind of rigid, almost vacuous rule…

Most of the Spandrels paper was written by Steve. There is a section in there, which one can easily pick out, where I discuss the various factors and forces of evolution…

This surprises me. Not for the gossip about Gould’s motivations–I’m not much interested in that–but because Lewontin is more or less admitting that he put his name on a paper that he didn’t entirely agree with. Which surprises me because my attitude is very different. I don’t let a paper go out with my name on it unless I agree with every word of it. I figure I’m an author of the whole paper, not just “my” bits of it.

To be clear, my concern here isn’t with the technical soundness of my coauthors’ work (which in some cases I couldn’t actually check even if I wanted to), or with different people writing different bits of an ms. It’s with whether my coauthors and I all agree on the interpretation and implications of our work, and what to do if we don’t.

I’ve been involved in collaborations in which we disagreed about interpretation, sometimes very seriously. But in the end every collaboration with which I’ve been involved has managed to write a paper everyone was happy with.

There are degrees of agreement and disagreement, of course. I’ve had collaborative papers that would’ve been slightly different if I’d been the sole author–there’d have been differences in emphasis, or some points would’ve been phrased differently. Perhaps that’s what’s going on in the case of “Spandrels”. Maybe Lewontin would’ve preferred different phrasing or more (i.e. any!) nuance, but he basically agreed with Gould’s main points so was happy to put his name on the paper.

One way to resolve disagreement among coauthors would be for them to lay out their disagreements in the ms. One occasionally sees papers like this, but only from “adversarial” collaborations between intellectual opponents. There’s no reason in principle why friendly collaborators who only partially disagree couldn’t do the same thing, but I’ve never seen it done. (UPDATE: They say the memory is the first thing to go. Andy Gonzalez comments to remind me that he and Andrew Hendry have a friendly disagreement about the prevalence of local adaptation. They wrote a dialectical paper about it. And see the comments for other examples of adversarial collaborations in which intellectual opponents wrote joint papers clarifying their areas of agreement and disagreement.)

The various meanings of “authorship”, and different standards for authorship, are relevant here (see this old post). If you think of an “author” just as “someone who made a substantial contribution to the work reported in the ms”, then maybe you don’t assume that every author necessarily agrees, or should agree, with everything in the ms. The author list is just a list of people who contributed in various ways to producing various bits of the ms. Not a list of people who agree with everything the ms says.

I’m guessing this is an issue on which folks have very different experiences and views. So here’s a little poll. Do you think coauthors should agree on everything their ms says?

13 thoughts on “What if coauthors disagree about what their ms should say? (UPDATED)

  1. Worth noting that some journals and universities have rules saying that all co-authors must take responsibility for the entire ms. Probably should’ve noted this in the post. Not sure if that would entirely settle the issue here, though, as issues of interpretation and implication aren’t black and white. Plus, in practice I don’t think those rules ever get applied to settle garden-variety disagreements about interpretation among co-authors. Not sure, but I doubt any author ever says to his co-authors “Sorry, you’ll have to pull your name from the ms if you disagree with me on the implications of Fig. 5–it’s university rules”.

  2. Theoretically I am with you, practically it rarely occurs, and on average the probability of everyone agreeing on everything decreases with the number of authors. 3+ authors and the probability of agreeing on everything decreases very fast with every additional co-author; that’s also why I like to be the first author. If everybody were follow your suggestion, the total number of publications would go down real quick and some/most of those scientists publishing 10 up to 30 papers a year would go down to publishing 2 or 3 papers a year at most.
    Publications are currency in the scientific world and I know quite a few “famous” guys who ask to be added as co-authors even if their contribution is “I’d use the logistic model there”. A meaty publication list is something not everyone can turn down, especially when looking for jobs.
    Yesterday I was reading a recent paper in one of those big journal and one author’s contribution was funding the study. As far as I know is against every rule for co-authorship.

    • Whether you should get to be a co-author just because you provided the funding is controversial, even though as you say it’s against the rules at some journals. I’m with you, I don’t think merely providing the funding should earn you co-authorship. But I have friends who disagree with me on this.

      Agree that, in general, co-author standards are becoming looser or more inclusive, because everybody wants to be on as many papers as possible and because nobody has much incentive to keep people off of papers. Perhaps worth noting though that just having your name somewhere in the middle of the author list of a bunch of collaborative papers probably won’t help nearly as much in a job search as many people seem to think, at least not at a research university. Research universities want to see evidence that you are an independent scientist, not someone who just rides the coattails of others. That doesn’t mean you have to work alone, of course. But you do have to somehow establish your independence, and making minor, replaceable contributions to lots of co-authored papers doesn’t really do that. I have an old post touching on this: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/does-the-competitiveness-of-academic-science-devalue-or-inhibit-collaboration/

      We have an old comment thread on authorship standards: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/how-do-you-decide-authorship-order/

      That authorship conventions vary, and change over time, is why I’m in favor of author contribution statements. I include them in the Acknowledgements of my papers now even if the journal doesn’t require them.

      • “Perhaps worth noting though that just having your name somewhere in the middle of the author list of a bunch of collaborative papers probably won’t help nearly as much in a job search as many people seem to think, at least not at a research university.”

        – I might disagree here. While an analysis without data is just an opinion and thus mine is an opinion since I do not have any data: 1) I do not think that more pubs hurt you ever; 2) some of the graybeards (and the equivalent for women) put their name everywhere including the figure captions, so there may be equally (slightly) more impressed by a longer publication list; 3) I have seen quite a few PIs with a sparkle in the eye when they see someone being one of the many co-authors in a big journal paper (at the very list it signals you are decent enough to be put there).
        I believe that if a behavior is popular and it remained so quite a long time, there should be some kind of advantage. Slight, but something.

        Just funding a study is a no-no for co-authorship in my book and I’d be curious to understand why your colleagues disagree. Then, it is also difficult to understand why you want to fund a study and then do not contribute in any substantial way to the study itself. Maybe you are busy or maybe some of above is true.

        As for your thoughts about the value of showing independence when on the job market, I think recruitment in research has one big similarity with recruitment of marine species: mystery.

      • “Anyway, this is clearly off-topic.”

        No worries. We try to strike a balance between letting conversations take their natural meandering course (as in this case), and keeping them from being unproductively derailed by someone straying off topic. Hopefully we get the balance right.

  3. Andrew Hendry and I flat out disagreed on how widespread local adaptation is in nature. So we wrote a paper with two main sections that made our points, knowing that neither of us would agree with the content of those sections. Then we wrote a consensus section that we could both agree on; all very much in the spirit of a dialectical approach. The goal of the paper was not to agree on all the content of the manuscript. I know this is not the norm, but it is one solution for approaching an important disagreement and publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal.

    We had a blast with the Abstract:
    The two authors of this paper have diametrically opposed views of the prevalence and strength of adaptation in nature. Hendry believes that adaptation can be seen almost everywhere and that evidence for it is overwhelming and ubiquitous. Gonzalez believes that adaptation is uncommon and that evidence for it is ambiguous at best. Neither author is certifiable to the knowledge of the other, leaving each to wonder where the other has his head buried. Extensive argument has revealed that each author thinks his own view is amply supported by both theory and empirical evidence. Further reflection has revealed that the differences in opinion may start with the different disciplines in which we work: evolutionary ecology for Hendry and community ecology for Gonzalez. In the present paper, we each present devastating evidence supporting our own position and thus refuting that of the other. We then identify the critical differences that led to such opposing views. We close by combining our two perspectives into a common framework based on the adaptive landscape, and thereby suggest means by which to assess the prevalence and strength of adaptation.

    Here’s the link to map paper:

    • Ah, thank for the reminder about this paper Andy! I’m embarrassed to have forgotten it, I’ll update the post to highlight it.

      Other examples of papers in which co-authors agreed to disagree include Abrams & Ginzburg 2000 (although they now seem to disagree on just what that paper said!), and that recent one in Evolution on niche construction, co-authored by proponents and opponents of the idea and written in a point-counterpoint form.

      I agree that this sort of thing is very useful for clarifying points of agreement and disagreement, and (hopefully) identifying what data and/or modeling would be needed to resolve the disagreement.

  4. To me, the most interesting part of Lewontin’s responses is that he would be the first person to tell you to take what he says with a grain of salt because his “memory” of the events have been modified and manipulated and massaged by his brain as his “autobiography” has marinated and matured over the past 35 years. Lewontin’s essay in the NYRB on sexual practices research is a must read – his point is that data collected from interviews is flawed because we (our brain?) manipulate our own memories and much of our autobiography is culturally determined
    The exchange that ensued is even more of a must read, as the original authors didn’t seem to get Lewontin’s point

    That said, it is clear from all of Lewontin’s other writings that he was not nearly the radical as Gould. But he often made two points that I have grown increasingly fond of over the years: 1) many things that we think of as adaptive probably aren’t, or maybe they are but in a way that is not the way we think they are, and 2) there are many things in science that we will never, ever be able to know and un-rigorous methods that give us the illusion of knowledge is worse then simply acknowledging that yes, we don’t know and are unlikely ever to know.

  5. I think the issue of disagreement over points in a paper becomes even bigger when there are power imbalances among the authors. I have friend who had a really difficult time writing a paper as a grad student and then postdoc because a collaborator disagreed with an interpretation of data. This collaborator was very stubborn about it, and my friend’s advisor just wanted to get the paper out, so didn’t choose sides. My friend felt very strongly about his interpretation since he had done the vast majority of the work (and presumably had spent a lot more time in the data and thinking about what it meant than the collaborator). I don’t actually know how it all turned out, but the experience was a very unpleasant and lengthy one for my friend.

    • Good point.

      On the other hand, it’s perhaps worth noting that in circumstances different than the one you describe, a power imbalance can be helpful for resolving an otherwise-intractable disagreement. In one collaborative project I know of, the person who’d initiated the project and invited in the other folks made clear up front that it was ultimately his paper. So that if any irresolvable disagreements arose about the paper content, this person could just say “We’re doing it my way, if you don’t like it you can withdraw from the paper.” As long as everyone agrees up front to working under this model, I think it’s a workable model.

      Of course, it’s very different than the sort of situation you describe, in which there’s a pre-existing power (or sometimes just stubbornness) differential that runs counter to the “who actually did most of the work” differential. This kind of gets back to something Brian talked about a long time ago in another context. How the informality and collegiality of much of academia–we all like to pretend we’re all colleagues on an equal footing–can run into problems when conflicts arise and expose power differentials that we ordinarily pretend aren’t there.

  6. Pingback: Ecologists disagree on whether co-authors should agree | Dynamic Ecology

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