Thursday, May 19, 2011

Coauthor Kerfuffle

I seem to be developing a trend in my coauthor experiences. (3/5) Small N, but early in my career, so I should do something about it now rather than let it get worse.

My coauthors are lousy communicators!

Two out of three of these are significantly senior to me, and the nearest lives 2.5 K miles away. I feel like I am pulling teeth to get through feed back on drafts, Skype meetings to talk through sticking points, advice on areas where I have gotten stuck on a project. Progress seems to only happen when I manage to fly over to the other person's city, or after I've badgered for a very long time.

Full disclosure, I am partially at fault here: I'm bad at badgering. After badgering for a while, I tend to give up and say things like "We can talk about this the next break you have from classes," which is stupid, I know.

So my question is, am I unlucky in my draw of coauthors? I tend to look for a project that is interesting/I have something to say about and go for it, rather than looking at who it is I will be working with. Should I be paying more attention to who I'll be working with? Is this experience with distant co-authors normal?

And most importantly, is there a well hidden secret to dealing with people like this that both gets the work done in a timely manner, and doesn't offend the senior collaborator?

I haven't gotten satisfactory answers from my colleagues, but that could be because everyone knows the people involved, and therefore don't want to say anything. So I'm asking the blogosphere. Help?


  1. I think it's fairly common to deal with this kind of problem, at least from my experiences and hearing/reading about others. I think there are things you can do to help it along - be proactive and persistent, and yes, try to find out how responsive the collaborators are before getting in bed with them, so to speak.

    But I've sometimes noticed that a lack of communication from certain coauthors has to do with the quality of the manuscript. If they don't feel like it's ready, for whatever reason, they'll be distant. Once it gets to a stage that they feel is more "worth their time", they'll jump on board. Kind of reaping the benefits of others work, IMO, but their time is limited too.

    So I'd take a look at where the work is and see if there's something you can do to push it forward without the coauthors. (ie, have colleagues read it and see if they think it needs work on writing, controls, etc...). If that doesn't work, just get ready to badger incessantly. ;|

  2. Hmm, that's a good point. At least it explains some of the weird interactions at earlier stages of one paper. :-/

  3. I think this is more common for senior researchers: they don't need to have many papers and they are not as motivated by the writing.

    I tend to work with junior people who need papers as much as I do.

    Also, I think you get more credit when your coauthors are more junior. If your coauthors are much more senior then many people will assume they came up with all the ideas and you were just the scribe.

  4. Let me second what Dr. O (thetightropeblog) said above. Often, I am distant and take long to return a manuscript if the manuscript is in really bad shape (or what I consider to be a bad shape) and looks like it requires extensive multiday revisions. I will start gnawing at it, get pissed and/or run out of available time, and then drop it and do something else. I think you as a junior researcher (but not a complete novice in writing I presume, since you are a postdoc and applying for TT) should try to go through multiple edits on your own or with responsive coauthors and then ask for feedback when it's in a more presentable stage.

    And yes -- badger, badger, badger. I am a faculty and have some really unresponsive faculty collaborators. Just keep at it. Giving people a deadline to respond is also a good tactics -- please send comments by this date, if you don't I will submit as is. Something like that.