How to Co-Author a Research Paper
- Student Tips
We’ve talked about the “publish or perish” phenomenon before and we’re talking about it again—because it’s real. Publishing is to academia what practice is to medicine. You can’t—and shouldn’t—avoid it. Done the right way, with the right mindset, it will be one of your biggest assets as a researcher.
If you want to make it in academia, there are a variety of ways to get there. Most of them include academic publishing in some way or another. One way to get an early start? Co-author a paper. It’s easier than it sounds—as long as you do it right.
We’re here to tell you how.
1. Find a Great Opportunity
Step 1: let your faculty mentor know you’re interested. Don’t have a faculty mentor? Get one. Faculty sometimes get requests for papers and want PhD candidates to work on them. There’s your opportunity. Tell them what interests you and why you want the opportunity. Cast an even wider net of possibility and research calls for papers in your field. Then, pitch your idea to your mentor. You might just get assigned the task (see #2).
2. Assign Authorship
Here’s the thing: when you work on an academic paper with other people, you don’t get to decide where your name goes unless you’re the lead author. Don’t automatically defer to seniority for the lead author. So: advocate for yourself without pushing.
You are a co-author who should have authorship assigned if you have made a notable contribution to the research, proposal, data, or any other part of the scientific process.
3. Draft a Written Agreement
Think of it as an academic pre-nuptial agreement. If you and other co-authors agree, list your names alphabetically. Think about who owns the data and the kind of work with which you want your name associated. Make sure that you stipulate that you want to be listed as an author, where you want your name, and what you want credited to you—not anyone else. Why? It’s your research. Your career. Your work. Own it. Don’t let others own it for you.
4. Discuss the Workload
What parts will you author? How much editing will you do? Who keeps notes? Who’s in charge of what section? While not complicated questions, they’re essential. It’s critical that you determine the answers to these questions before you start the process so that you know exactly what your responsibilities are, whom you can hold accountable for others, and how your shared work has a common vision.
Talk about hypothetical scenarios. When I’m done with my research piece, should I start writing? How long is my section? To whom should I submit my data, or am I managing my own? The more hypothetical scenarios you discuss in the beginning, the more streamlined your writing and publication processes.
5. Explore Different Techniques
Consider the “layering” technique, in which one person writes an entire first draft and sends it out to others for revision and editing. Downfall? Too many cooks in the kitchen.
“Jigsaw” is another great option, where each person has their section to write and submit to a leader, who sorts it all out. For this to work, your jigsaw leader needs to have a strong vision, and the willingness to return unsatisfactory work for revision.
One last possibility? The “Lego” approach. Sections are assigned to teams, not individuals. The writing can happen quickly, but you may run into conflicting ideas. This method requires group consensus.
Have fun—and be careful. Did you hear the one about the cat who co-authored a rather influential physics paper? The author used “we” throughout the duration of the research and writing. Instead of changing to “I,” as was appropriate, the author listed his cat as a co-author.
Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.