As a Ph.D. student, I was excited when a friend proposed we collaborate on a project. I asked my supervisor for permission and he happily agreed, but advised that we should define our expected contributions and credit before starting. I didn’t heed his words. I wasn’t going to negotiate with a fast friend; I fully trusted my collaborator to give me fair credit, and I did not want to come across as entitled. Everything went fine. We completed and published the work as co-authors. Years passed, and I forgot my supervisor’s advice.
For early career researchers, being asked to co-author a research output by an accomplished colleague can be incredibly exciting and humbling. In practice, such co-authorship can be an essential early step in a publishing career. But it can also be a painful experience that can be thwart with perils and traps. It can turn what should be a pleasant, educative and affirming experience in to something vile, toxic and soul-destroying. This piece offers some useful tips to avoid the nasty bear traps that confront co-authors.
Just a few months after leaving, I was browsing the literature and found a new article published by a student I had co-supervised. I was shocked and disappointed to see that I was not listed as an author or even acknowledged. I brought it up to the other supervisor, who was a close friend at the time. He told me they had just overlooked my contribution, but I doubted that. Plenty of other authors on the paper seemed to have contributed less to the work. We couldn’t come to a happy resolution. We never collaborated again, and our relationship was ruined. Years passed, and I nearly forgot this difficult experience, which I saw as an unfortunate onetime dispute.
I make sure to have a proactive discussion to clarify each team member’s role.
My career continued to progress through a number of countries and institutions, and at one point I was part of a team of investigators sharing funding and students. We agreed that any publication from our team would include the name of every team member. In hindsight I recognize this is not the best practice for ethical research and publishing, as some authors would get credit for minimal contributions, but we were not professionally mature enough to realize this.