Coauthor S.O.S.

At MWS, we often work with coauthors to develop writing plans, streamline and correlate the editing process, and prepare papers for publication. We love watching the creative possibilities that the coauthor relationship can foster, but we know from experience that the conditions for such possibilities must be thoughtfully planned. Read on to find out how to make your next coauthored project an efficiently executed success. …
Studies show that collaborative scholarship is on the rise in many fields.[1]  And most researchers are well aware of the myriad benefits that can result from coauthorship.[2]
But what can keep scholars from enjoying collaborative research—or engaging in it at all—are the very real logistical and intellectual challenges posed by the coauthor relationship. As editors and writing consultants, we know that careful, advanced planning and open, formalized communication offer the cure to almost any coauthoring ailment. Here are the most important things to consider:

1. Make sure long-term plans are clear from the start. Each coauthor’s interests may be driven by something very different—an impending review, interest in a particular journal, longstanding research goals, etc. Whether you intend to work together on a series of paper, coauthor one main paper while individuals take on sub-papers, or something else, sketching out long-term plans at the onset of your collaboration will ensure that the goals of everyone on your team are met.

2. Relatedly, make sure the details of authorship and intellectual property are crystal clear. While some fields may dictate specific authorship criteria, others are far looser.[3] And as Fine and Kurdek (1993) note, these decisions can be complicated by issues of seniority and interpersonal clashes. An open and ongoing dialogue about contributions and responsibilities can engender clarity, particularly because the specifics of authorship credit may very likely need to evolve along with the project.

3. Keep a written record of all discussions and agreements. Headaches stemming from misunderstandings and miscommunication can be avoided with clear recordkeeping. This includes not only agreements about authorship, but also deadlines, publication goals, and all other decisions that affect the project.

4. Make use of technology. Tools like Endnote and RefWorks, Word’s “track changes” function, and the cloud’s many data sharing possibilities make the logistics of collaborative work far less challenging than ever before. Find the right tools for your project, and get all your coauthors on board with using them.

5. Clarify the division of labor for the actual writing of the paper. This may depend on various coauthors’ interest in and facility with writing, the agreed-upon terms of authorship, or other factors. Clarifying responsibilities for other process-related issues, which may not seem important at the outset but which can be very time-consuming (such as compiling individually authored sections or handling the actual journal submission), ensures far more efficient work.

6. Use an editors’ trick of the trade and create a style sheet for all of your coauthors to follow. This upfront time investment will ultimately—and exponentially—simplify the process of collating individually authored sections. Once the paper’s content is complete, consider designating the most experienced writer as the paper’s ultimate editor—or, better yet, hire an expert who can suss out inconsistencies and correlate usage, style, organization, and more.

[1] For example, Ginsberg and Miles (2011) and Greene (2007) document these trends in legal and scientific research, respectively.
[2 ]We’re thinking not only about the intellectual benefits and possible advancements to scholarship, but also the way that coauthoring allows individual researchers to gain experience in new areas and take on projects for which they might not otherwise have time. Some even consider coauthorship to be a solution to declining journal acceptance rates).
[3] See, for example, the useful survey of the authorship guidelines of prominent scientific organizations included in a study by Osborne and Holland (2009).


Fine, M. & Kurdek, L. (1993). Reflections on determining authorship credit and authorship order on faculty-student collaborations. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1141-1147.

Ginsberg, T. & Miles, T. (2011). Empiricism and the rising incidence of coauthorship in law. University of Illinois Law Review, 2011, 1785-1826.

Greene, M. (2007). The demise of the lone author. Nature, 450 (7173), 1165-1165.

Osborne, J. & Holland, A. (2009). What is authorship, and what should it be? A survey of prominent guidelines for determining authorship in scientific publications. Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation, 14(15), 1-19.