Note from Jeremy : this is a guest post by Abe Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack. Richard was Abe’s PhD advisor, and they continue to collaborate on many projects.
We have written 45 articles together over the past 15 years. We know each other well and trust each other a lot.
But we (and probably most of you) have had experiences working and coauthoring papers with people we don’t know well—sometimes people we don’t know at all before a project begins. Most of the time the result is great! There are a lot of awesome scientists out there. And even when coauthors don’t click, it usually works out just fine—not everyone is going to be best friends, but most ecologists can get along well.
Occasionally, however, we have worked with bad coauthors: people who make doing research and writing papers way more complicated, difficult, and unpleasant than it needs to be. We have witnessed others work with bad coauthors, too. As editor-in-chief of a journal, one of us (Richard) has had to step in and mediate failed coauthor relationships too many times.
What makes a “bad coauthor?”
Lots of things can contribute: personality conflicts, poor work habits, poor communication, and lack of trustworthiness are a few of the biggies.
Many of the worst cases of bad coauthors we’ve observed involve unbalanced power dynamics, like those between grad students, postdocs, or technicians and their supervisors, or between early-career faculty and senior professors. Professors and senior scientists sometimes manipulate authorships to their advantage, take credit for their student’s work, unfairly control funding, or block students from submitting papers. One of us (Abe) experienced the latter in a situation with a senior scientist (not his advisor). The paper remains unpublished—incredibly frustrating, but luckily it didn’t hurt his career. Other students, postdocs and technicians are not so lucky; blocked publications or lost credit for work can strongly influence early career trajectories.
Personality conflicts are another common cause of breakdowns among coauthors. We like to think of ourselves as nice people, but no one gets along with everyone. Communication among coauthors can break down, sometimes due to mistrust, ego, or envy, making it tough to write a coherent paper. Sometimes one bad co-author creates such a toxic atmosphere that other team members jump ship (Abe left a project for this reason). If a bad co-author wants to, they can really screw things up for the rest of the team by withholding their part of the project or a key data set, refusing to give permission for a paper to be submitted for publication, or simply refusing to communicate at all.
In some cases, a coauthor, especially someone working for the government, might block a paper because its conclusions or recommendations are inconsistent with their institutional policies. This is a bit sensitive for us now that one of us (Abe) works for a federal agency; although scientific integrity policies have helped to reduce these problems in recent years.
Other times, bad coauthors might be late with their work, unresponsive to communications, sloppy with their data analysis or writing, or just belligerent. For example, one of us (Richard) has had coauthors yell at him and his students for no good reason, or for mistaken reasons.
Unfortunately, bad coauthors can make what should be an exciting, enjoyable, and productive research experience into a tense personal conflict.
How can you prevent coauthor conflict?
The best predictor of good collaborations is trust—research tells us so. So when possible, work with people you trust!
In addition, start your collaboration by setting up agreements and structures that support open, honest, and respectful communication throughout your project. There are some great examples of collaboration agreements, authorship guidelines, and other helpful tools out there (see some of the citations at the end of this post). Find ones you like and use them. They may seem unnecessary, and might lead to some awkward conversations, but a little work clarifying roles, expectations, and good practices at the beginning of projects can save a lot of grief later. You can also reference collaborator agreements in the management plans for grant proposals—savvy reviewers will trust the team more.
Recently, one of us (Richard) was shocked to realize that a coauthor had plagiarized a section of a draft of a group paper; he had copied it verbatim from another published paper, but assumed this was acceptable because he cited the source. Fortunately, the members had established good communications early in the project through face-to-face meetings and group emails, so they defused and remedied the situation through candid and respectful discussions via email and Skype.
Want to work in super collaborations?
Parker and Kingori (2016) identified some best practices for global health research collaborations. Their key points are appropriate for ecology, evolution, and conservation, too. Here is a partial, somewhat paraphrased list of characteristics of successful collaborations:
- Interesting science (everyone loves good science!)
- Effective leadership, often involving a leader able to share credit with others
- Commitment to good scientific practice
- Respect for the needs and interests of all partners
- Regular opportunities for discussion and disagreement
- Trust and confidence in each other
- Fairness in recognizing individual contributions
In many cases, situations involving “bad” coauthors result from miscommunication and unclear expectations for what the above characteristics should look like in practice. For instance, teams can usually agree to have respect for one another’s needs and interests. But what happens if a personal or professional issue gets in the way of one co-author meeting an agreed upon deadline? Respecting the needs of that coauthor may require flexibility on behalf of the others; however, delaying a deadline for one coauthor may interfere with the needs and interests of others on the team.
What do you do when you find yourself working with a bad coauthor?
It stinks to work with bad coauthors. No two ways about it. There is no one best solution. A good first step is to try talking honestly, respectfully, and directly with the problem co-author about the issue. If you have set up clear collaborative agreements, revisiting them can make conflicts easier to settle. The goal of your conversation might be to gently inform your coauthor that the collaboration is strained (even the most intelligent scientists often struggle to read each other’s minds!), identify which of your goals may be at odds, and to identify possible solutions together. It’s not easy, but it’s great when it works—better than most of the alternatives.
If talking directly to the co-author doesn’t work, you might try asking someone in a position of authority to mediate—a department head, supervisor, or someone in a similar position, or a respected, disinterested third party. Or you could ask a neutral member of the team to act as a go-between for people that are having trouble communicating.
Sometimes the best option is just to suck it up and work with the bad coauthor to publish a given paper, but not carry out any further work together. In a worst-case situation, you may have to abandon a project.
Make sure you are a good coauthor.
If you find yourself constantly working with bad coauthors, check to make sure the common denominator isn’t you! We improve as coauthors by reflecting on our own performances and asking for feedback from our collaborators.
Good coauthors tend to be magnets for other good coauthors, and can help keep otherwise bad coauthors on their best behavior. We’re not perfect ourselves, but we’re always trying to improve. And at least we are good co-authors with each other.
Selected References and Readings
Albert, T., and E. Wager. 2003. How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. In: The COPE Report 2003. pp. 32-34. Committee on Publication Ethics.
Bennett, L.M., and H. Gadlin. 2012. Collaboration and team science: from theory to practice. Journal of Investigative Medicine 60: 768-775.
Bennett, L.M., H. Gladin, and S. Levine-Finley. 2010. Collaboration and team science: a field guide. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Brand, A., L. Allen, M. Altman, M. Hlava, and J. Scott. 2015. Beyond authorship: attribution, contribution, collaboration, and credit. Learned Publishing 28: 151-155.
COPE Council. 2014. What constitutes authorship? COPE discussion document. Committee on Publication Ethics.
Dance, A. 2012. Authorship: who’s on first? Nature 489: 591-593.
Parker, M, and P. Kingori. 2016. Good and bad research collaborations: researchers’ views on science and ethics in global health research. PLoS ONE 11: e0163579. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0163579
Primack, R., J. A. Cigliano, and E.C.M. Parsons 2014. Coauthors gone bad; how to avoid publishing conflict and a proposed agreement for co-author teams. Biological Conservation 176: 277-280.
Weltzin J.F., R.T. Belote, L.T. Williams, J.K. Keller, and E.C. Engel. 2006. Authorship in ecology: attribution, accountability, and responsibility. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4: 435-441.