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What’s in a name: authorship conventions in an interdisciplinary organisation

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Deciding authorship of academic publications is often tricky, and recently I received some advice that made me consider this issue from a new angle. Not long ago I had an extremely useful career review meeting, to help me navigate my role as a senior but part-time researcher in the Social, economic and geographical science (SEGS) group. Having been back from maternity leave for a couple of years, I felt it was a good time to review my balance of activities, in order to improve the quality and output of my research.

One piece of advice rocked me back on my heels – I was advised to try to publish more single author papers to increase my visibility. The rationale seemed to be that single authored papers illustrate seniority and in-depth knowledge of the subject, whereas multi-authored papers suggest that you are part of a wider team and therefore possibly not the overall expert. I was shocked, as I considered these ideas as rather old-fashioned given the focus on inter- or trans-disciplinary working that necessarily involves pooling ideas and skills.

Sometimes shocks are useful. I was forced to confront why I felt so unsettled by this suggestion. Was there a nagging sense of not being able to do it alone anymore, as I have worked as a project manager or research leader for so long? Certainly, losing confidence is common after a career break (see various blogs on this topic e.g.  Huffington Post) so this was certainly part of my discomfort. However, it was more fundamental - it threatened to turn the implicit values I had placed on aspects of my work upside down. My research interests and my personal philosophies emphasise collaboration, valuing different perspectives, respecting a wide range of knowledge claims and capacities. Single authorship has no room for these.

I have published single author papers at the very start of my career due to the generosity of my supervisor, Roger Wilkinson, who encouraged me to ‘go it alone’.  However, once I started post-doctoral posts working with researchers from natural and social sciences, it was very clear that knowledge production was a team game and authorship should reflect this. Many guides to authorship exist, and the common view is that an author must have made an intellectual contribution to the paper and be willing to be held publicly responsible for its content. Whilst I would be happy to be accountable for the content, I find it hard to imagine many situations where I would be the only person who had made an intellectual contribution to the work.  Project management and building capacity is time consuming; team working can be difficult; knowledge co-production demands particular skills and often emotional commitment; and it seemed to me that the quid pro quo was that these contributions were recognised through shared authorship. Indeed, I have recently started to include non-academic contributors as authors to respect their analytical insights in the research process.

This is not only about normative values. It also became clear that in the academic political economy - gaining and retaining employment in the competitive academic sector; and once employed; winning contracts to sustain yourself and your research group; authorship matters.  Whether applying for, or being evaluated, employers and funders look at output quantity and quality. So now I am a supervisor, I haven’t replicated my supervisor’s behaviour, but instead am a supporting author on all my students’ publications.  Thus, authorship is not just an issue of ethics and respect, but becomes political issue with material consequences. Some academics have refused to play this game, choosing to publish as a collective (see mrs kinpaisley) but debates over authorship are becoming more frequent, resulting in numerous articles on the topic (e.g. in Nature). I won’t here go into the thorny issue of how to list multiple authors and the difficulties encountered when there is clash between the authorship traditions of different disciplines or groups. Suffice to say, at the start of a project it is important to set out the ground rules regarding authorship of outputs and to be honest about conflicting expectations early on. See this blog for some useful guidelines.

The panel did not, of course, suggest that I only pursue single author papers and it recognised the need for multi-authored contributions in many cases. However, the discussion forced me to look at my choices with fresh eyes.  I am engaged in drafting a single authored book chapter reviewing and reflecting on a topic, and I am enjoying the opportunity to express my individual thoughts rather than mediate and consolidate a range of ideas. I still feel uncomfortable that single authored papers are seen as more valuable, as frankly, I think they are often much easier and quicker to write. And I worry that if they become valued currency in the academic marketplace, it may become more difficult for clever people in supporting roles to establish an academic career.  There are ethical and material considerations that it is important to reflect upon when choosing and deciding authorship of any academic output.

Photos taken by Kirsty Blackstock.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



I can echo many of the observations in this blog. Although I never counted my single author publications, or gave the matter much thought, I do feel particularly proud of them. To me, they show that I was able to come up with a coherent idea and salient point, and navigate the often difficult peer-review process on my own. My single author papers were produced from dissertation and fellowship research were it was clear that I was the expert and sole author.
I think that authorship reflects the research undertaken, and in our field single-author papers are likely to be conceptual or methodological rather than empirical. I don't believe in overly emphasising the value of single author papers - a lot of effort could be better spent in particular if your work (and ethos) is team-based. It is more about opportunities arising, such as being invited to review a particular topic in a special issue contribution, or pulling together insights from across various projects. Then, single author papers are indeed fun, even if not necessarily easier to write (and getting them published).

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Printed from /blog/segs/authorship-conventions on 28/02/24 03:13:06 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.