Ask us anything: absentee collaborators and prioritizing writing tasks

How do you deal with absentee collaborators/coauthors? (from Adam Stuckert, @PoisonEcology)

Brian: well every paper I write these days seems to have a physically remote co-author. I’m not sure if you’re asking about how to make this work? but I think I recall from the original comment/tweet that you’re asking more about people who are not being timely? The short answer is if matters enough to me I do the work and move on without them. If it doesn’t I stop investing time. This is of course much harder when you’re still a graduate student and the non-responsive person is e.g. a committee member. I ultimately though think you have to (and I do so advise my students stuck in this position) do the move-on without them. People lose their right to complain after a certain time window.

Jeremy: I’ve only once run into this issue in the context of a collaboration that was sufficiently formal and far along where it was a problem. So I’m not a great source of advice here.

In the context of working groups, I recommend doing everything on Brian’s checklist for successful working groups.

I’ve had several “exploratory” collaborations, as I call them. Where you toss around ideas with someone, and maybe even get so far as doing an easy, first-pass data analysis or something. But then you stop hearing from the other person. At which point I’ve always just moved on.

How do you allocate time to grant-writing vs. ms writing as a pre-tenure faculty member? (from Randa Jabbour, @randajab) Relatedly: When you have multiple mss to write, involving different sets of collaborators, how do you prioritize them? (from Margaret Kosmala)

Brian: this is of course the million dollar question. I tell students that the most important skill they need to learn to succeed as an academic is time management which is partly about efficiency but a lot about prioritizing correctly. For Randa’s question, I am sure I am being naive, but ultimately I think grants exist to make research resulting in papers possible. In short, papers are the legitimate end, grants are just a means. Now university administrators may have a different view. Of course in the real world, you have to have some success on both fronts. But in the end I put a higher priority on papers myself and I think most tenure committees do too. For Margaret’s question, I tend to prioritize mss that a) are the best science, and b) have collaborators who are prompt themselves. One of course has to be a little sensitive to political reality and not ignoring mss with collaborators much more senior than you. But in truth, collaborators much more senior than you are likely to have so many papers in the fire they’re not going to be particularly concerned or worried if you take longer.

Jeremy: Meg has a good post on this.

Day to day, I used to prioritize whatever I happened to feel like working on that day. That’s less viable now that I have more grad students and collaborators counting on me. I tend to prioritize what I think is the best stuff, and the stuff that’s already close to submission-ready. But really, I don’t usually have that many difficult choices to make. I don’t have so many students or collaborators that I have some huge list of projects all demanding some attention from me. I think if you find yourself in that situation, you need to ask if you’re overextending yourself.

I’m in Canada, where I can write one grant every 5 years to keep my lab going, so prioritizing papers vs. grants isn’t a choice I’m faced with.

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