Going it Alone: The Problem with Graduate Education in Disciplines that Value Solo Authorship

Working with students to get their publications ready for submission can take hours. I have recently been working with a superstar student from the Sociology department here at OSU. This student is bright, eager, motivated, and deliberate. We are working on a paper together, and the student is first author. We had our first formal meeting about research ideas in May 2012. By my count in my Outlook calendar, about 55 meetings later, in December 2013, we submitted a paper with the student as first author, me as second author, and my colleague as third author to the Journal of Marriage and Family [note I had a maternity leave during that year if that seems like a long time]. The longest meeting we had was scheduled for 2 hours.  I did a little work on the paper outside of our meetings, but primarily, most of my work on the paper was done side by side with the student.

photo credit: raganmd via photopin cc

photo credit: raganmd via photopin cc

The paper has received a revise and resubmit, and the student immediately started working on the revision (this student is awesome, right?).  By my count, we have met 12 times about the revision (the letter is almost done) and we still have to finalize the revised manuscript, which hopefully can be accomplished in maybe three or four more meetings (positive thinking!).  I estimate that we have had about 16 hours of meeting so far about the revision.

I review this to make the point that it takes a lot of work to get a manuscript from idea to completion. I have spent many hours with this student reviewing results, coding in Stata, creating datasets, examining output, and finally, co-writing. The co-writing probably takes the longest. Good academic writing takes much time to learn. The co-writing the student and I have done, including reading every section of the paper out loud and jointly rewriting and clarifying, has hopefully been very helpful for the student. I certainly believe the students’ writing has improved since we started working together, and the student is very appreciative of my time.

But, would I have done this if I were in a Sociology department, or some other discipline that values solo authorship?

First, let me say, I absolutely would not have spent so much time working with this student if I was not a coauthor on this paper. I am not this students’ advisor, and I don’t really get credit for this students’ accomplishments, where with my own students’ accomplishments, I get some credit. But, even if this was my own students’ paper, I still would not have spent as much time if I had not received coauthorship.  My hypothesis is that graduate students in disciplines that value solo authorship would be more productive if that climate changed.

First, let’s say that advisors did spend as many hours as I did helping their student with a solo-authored publication. The faculty member would be spending time they could be spending on their own scholarship on the students’ scholarship that will probably not appear on their CV [I have not seen student publications listed in a CV unless they are coauthored by the advisor]. This effort could be documented in the dossier, but do departments value a graduate student advisee’s solo-authored publication for a faculty member’s promotion or annual raises? I am pretty sure the cost-benefit analysis of the time spent working with the student on their solo-authored paper would come back much heavier on the cost, particularly for junior faculty.

Second, let’s say that these programs are more select – they only admit students that are already great writers, and the students can pretty quickly pick up on how to evaluate quantitative and qualitative data (i.e. the students do not need much advice on their manuscripts). I know of no students who would fall into that category. And, even if there are several students who would fall into that category, does that mean students who do not should be left behind, or not be invested in, just because they do not have the skills needed to succeed with minimal feedback? I do not think that is fair. And, further, what is likely happening is that these papers are getting submitted to journals, and then reviewers are acting in an advising role, rejecting the paper but trying to advise the student on how to get the paper to be publishable. I just did a review for one of the top-three Sociology journals of a paper that was solo-authored (the author used “I”) and it needed so much work in terms of writing, and data analysis, that I felt bad for the author. I am almost sure that the author was a graduate student – one that could really have benefitted from an advisor coauthor.

Third, let’s say that these programs train students not only in the content needed for academic success, but also in the skills. These programs could have entire courses devoted to writing. Perhaps this is the case? I am unsure because I was not trained in a discipline-specific program. If that is the case, then that makes me feel better for the students in these programs. But, I believe most Ph.D. programs have extensive training in research methods and statistics, or the students have access to this training at their campus, but very few social science Ph.D. programs have semester-long writing courses.

Finally, you could make the argument – what difference does it make? Would it make a difference if faculty in discipline-specific programs were given co-authorship for papers that they gave significant help to a student with? I can only speak from my own experiences, but my first Ph.D. student and 5th year graduate student Letitia Kotila has 8 publications including 3 as first author, has 4 papers under review including 3 as first author, and is working on her dissertation, which will include 2 solo-authored papers. Believe me when I say that at this point, she barely needs me, and her solo-authored papers will not need help from me. I, and my colleague and her coadvisor Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, have been training her along the way, working with her on her writing, on analyses, and on writing revision letters.  At this point, she is independent, and ready to publish the solo-authored papers that some disciplines value. She was not ready to publish solo-authored papers in her first three years of graduate school.

Why do some disciplines expect grad students to be ready for solo-authored publications early in their careers? Are they actually ready? What would be different if these disciplines moved to a system that equally valued coauthored as well as solo-authored publications? Is a climate focused on solo-authored work less generative? Let me know your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “Going it Alone: The Problem with Graduate Education in Disciplines that Value Solo Authorship

  1. My grad degrees are in Sociology and I didn’t publish alone ever. I graduated with first (but not sole) authored publications and got a tenure-track job. At that job, most Sociology grad students “publish” alone, which means they don’t publish anything. I believe that it’s virtually impossible to learn to do so without a coauthor–even though we have a writing seminar for second years and a dissertation seminar for ABDs. Students just spin their wheels, get frustrated, and “decide” that they don’t “want” academic jobs. I co-write with my advisees, our stuff has gotten published, and I hope their subsequent success on the academic job market prompts some shifts in thinking among my colleagues. (Although it’s also true that mine is a heavily qualitative department, and I’m not really sure how you’d go about coauthoring an ethnography, for instance.)

  2. I agree that students benefit tremendously from intensive collaboration with faculty and that faculty should be coauthors when their contributions warrant it. There is also an ethical issue here: however well-intentioned, giving students solo credit for collaborative work gives an inaccurate impression of their level of independence. But I’m not sure I agree that solo authored student pubs are a norm in Sociology. It’s an empirical question of course but my own experience is that coauthored pubs from MA theses and other early collaborative work initiated by the student are common. My general rule is that if I provide any significant amount of writing or tangible input in the design and structure of the analysis that goes well beyond what I would provide to a student on a seminar paper or as a consultant on a project, that probably warrants coauthorship. I think you are correct, though, that students are expected to have some solo authored work by the time they are on the job market but the hope is that they will be independent enough so that their dissertation work can be legitimately solo authored. The three paper dissertation is helpful here so that perhaps students can get one of them out early. If later papers require more intensive collaboration perhaps to aim for a better journal or to recognize the overall level of faculty involvement in the entire project, then faculty coauthorship may be warranted.

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