Discuss authorship assignments to avoid fallout with collaborators, says Andy Tay
When I started my first year of graduate school, I was referred to a post-doc in my lab by some fellow students. Eager to start my research, I expressed interest in the project without thinking through the reasons behind my colleagues’ reluctance to join the post-doc.
Although the relationship started professionally, and I did acquire useful research skills, it soon became evident that the post-doc was taking clear advantage of my status as a junior lab member. Workload was unfairly distributed and the post-doc returned to the project only after I had completed most of the work.
Worse of all, the post-doc demanded co-first authorship despite significantly less contribution to the experimental design, data acquisition and manuscript writing. In the end, through mediation with my professor, the work was published with co-first authorship, but with the agreement that I would never have to work with the post-doc again.
Perhaps you’ve heard something similar yourself. While collaborations often enhance research, it can be tricky to navigate authorship, especially when collaborators have varying work ethics and expectations on contributions.
Based on my own experience, here’s five steps that I wish I had known earlier.
Select collaborators carefully
To avoid being entrenched in a nasty working relationship, carefully choose your collaborators. If you’re a new member to a lab, ask around politely to get an idea of your potential collaborators. If that’s too awkward, consider having a chat with the professor and let them recommend someone to you. Your professor should be aware of the styles of each lab member.
If you are working with someone outside of the lab, the same principle may be applied. Use your networks to get more information about the potential collaborator from your friends, colleagues or professors. With the prevalence of social media such as LinkedIn or Twitter, it’s possible that the two of you may share even a few mutual colleagues.
Set clear rules on contributions and authorships
It may seem premature to discuss contributions and authorship because research may not always turn out to be successful. However, this initiative can help prevent problems that may eventually arise, especially when the research becomes extremely successful such as in the case of CRISPR technology or magnetogenetics.
Discuss with your collaborators how they would like to split the work, and have everything written down in black and white. Note that equal authorship doesn’t mean equal contribution in all aspects of the work – collaboration is all about leveraging each other’s strength. If you’re a better writer, for example, while the collaborator is better at performing experiments, the two of you can have different responsibilities as long as there is a mutual understanding that the workload is fairly distributed.
Save all your conversations
Unfortunately, even after all your effort to identify the ideal collaborator, things may not work out the way you hoped they would. Priorities may change over time and new commitments can arise. At this stage, remind your collaborators about the agreement on contribution and authorship, and politely offer to do more of the work in exchange for more recognition.
The relationship should remain cordial if they see things from your point of view, but be prepared that it may turn ugly if the collaborator does not. This is often more of a problem with junior scientists who can be coerced into giving in due to the lab’s hierarchy.
Seek advice from a figure of authority
When politics come into play, the best source of advice is still the professor who is the head of the lab (and may even be the one who recommended you the collaborator). Let your professor know about the issue and prepare a detailed record of email exchanges, agreements, and work scheduled and completed. The document should provide contributions by both parties to different aspects of the project to convince your readers why you deserved more recognition.
Personally, when I met with this problem, my professor advised me to avoid contact with the post-doc and have him mediate instead. Although I do not know exactly what they spoke about, he was resourceful enough to remove this distraction, allowing me to now focus properly on my research.
Feeling disheartened about collaboration? Don’t be! While there are horror stories of collaborations, there are also great examples of excellent partnerships. Embrace the idea that collaboration is now part and parcel of modern science where researchers with different backgrounds are expected to work together to make major discoveries. Instead of being discouraged from seeking collaborations, remember that you can navigate around the authorship hurdle by choosing collaborators who share the same work ethic like yourself. You should also actively monitor your work progress and to seek advice on working life from your professor.
Before you initiate the next collaboration, just take a minute to review the 5 steps!
His research focuses on the evolution of magnetotactic bacteria and biophysics of neurons. In his free time, Andy enjoys using the gym and writing.