Lazy man on grass

23: What to do if my co-authors don’t contribute?

“Alright, let’s write a paper together! What a great idea!” The enthusiasm can be great at the beginning of writing a journal article, but when it comes to the task of actually putting words on paper, you can quickly discover you’re alone. So what do you do if you have one or more passive co-authors who don’t deliver their share of the writing? Let us give you some tips and advice on how to turn a passive author into a real contributor. Don’t forget to download our helpful “checklist of authorship roles” which you can print out and bring to your next author’s meeting!

We recently heard a story like this again on one of our How to publish in peer-reviewed journals” course.

A participant (let’s call him Peter) explained to us over lunch his frustration with writing a paper with some co-authors for his PhD study. Peter, who is in his third year of a doctoral study, collaborates on his project with a postdoc, his supervisor and two external colleagues. All were initially very excited about the research that came out of the project, and it was agreed they should write a paper and get it published in a decent journal as soon as possible. 

Yet, over the next few weeks nothing happened. None of the senior researchers took the initiative or the responsibility to get started. The postdoc was snowed in under a lot of his own publishing projects and Peter did not dare to push the others. But all the while time was ticking along and Peter needed the paper to complete his PhD, it was going to be his first ever paper. 

After a while, Peter decided to consult his supervisor and finally get the paper started. The co-authors had willingly agreed to contribute as well as they could. Enthusiastically, Peter drafted various sections and regularly approached his co-authors for their advice and help with things like finding out how to formulate the paper’s research aim, or picking the best findings for the result section. Unfortunately, Peter’s call for collaboration to his co-authors remained unanswered. Frustrated, he told us, “they literally haven’t done anything for the paper”. 

If you are an inexperienced author like Peter, you may think that this is just the way co-authorship works. Someone does all the work and all other ‘big names’ put their name on the paper anyway. 

Well, after hearing another story like this on our course, we advise the unfortunate author on the various duties and responsibilities researchers have if they want to be a co-author on a paper. There are plenty of guidelines about what makes one an author and co-author on a paper and what not. If you want a good example, you just need to look at the COPE guidelines for authorship and contributorship or the ICMJE’s definition of roles of authors and contributors. Consulting these or other similar resources should leave no doubt that being passive does not entitle you to be a co-author on a paper. 

Not only from an ethical perspective, but also from a purely practical one, authors who do not contribute to the work they are supposed to be co-authoring can be a pain. They load off the work onto other’s shoulders and can drain a lot of motivation from the active author. 

If you have ever been in such a situation, or fear you might end up dealing with passive co-authors, we know exactly how awful this feels. You feel alone, trying to steer the ship into the harbour yourself, realising how much energy this Herculean task entails. It feels unfair that you have to do a large amount – if not all – of the work yourself and others are contributing in name only. Let us be clear, it should not feel this way, and importantly, it doesn’t have to be this way. We want to give you some tips and advice you can have at hand for how to reactivate the less active co-authors around you. 

Man leaning towards blue wall and thinking about something

Tip 1: Agree on roles of authorship 

“What is my task on this paper writing project? What am I supposed to do?” These are the questions that different authors rarely agree on. Why? Because the team of authors has not sat down and clearly defined the potentially different roles of the group of authors. 

To avoid such a poorly orchestrated effort, begin by calling for a meeting with all potential co-authors, where you set out which role each individual author has. Who takes the lead in the paper? Who starts with writing? Ask explicitly what roles your (senior) colleagues will play, and for what kind of requests you can come to them for. Ask what kind of help in the paper writing process you can expect to receive. After the meeting, draft a short note on the agreement with the allocation of roles and circulate it in the group. 

We prepared a handy “checklist of authorship roles” for you that you can use specifically for this purpose. 

Tip 2: Prepare, share and discuss a paper outline

Too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the soup. Unless you are a team of well-coordinated and smooth-operating co-authors (in which case you would not need to worry about this topic and can get back to work), it is not easy to create a collective draft of a paper. Everybody probably has different ideas and priorities and it is difficult to harmonise them in the early stage of paper writing. 

We suggest that you start by sitting down and preparing a first draft, most likely an outline of the paper elements (which question you address, which methods necessary to describe, which results to present and do so on). Once you are fine with this 1-2 pages paper outline, then send it to your co-authors and ask for feedback. 

Tip 3: Define order of authorship

“Who will be first author? Who will be co-authors? In which order?” This, sometimes, is the most difficult decision in the whole writing process. Clarify this before starting to write (and not later)! Everybody needs to know what’s in it for him or her. 

For example, if the paper is based on your own intellectual work for your PhD project, and if you will do most of the writing as well, then it is absolutely fine for you to be the first author! You should then discuss with your (senior) colleagues also the order of the remaining co-authors. In particular, discuss who will be the last author as this – in some fields – is a very popular author position as well. Once agreed, circulate the agreement in your group (see our “checklist of authorship roles”). 

Tip 4: Agree on a joint time plan

Agreeing on authorship roles and a paper outline are essential steps, but in order to get the paper finished, you should agree on a joint time plan. Sit down with your co-authors and estimate how long it will take you to do the different steps of the paper. Also, consider whether you still have to complete some research tasks before being able to write all the paper sections or if you’re done with that. 

Create a realistic plan, that translates to: don’t be too ambitious. If you do not have a great deal of writing experience, things may take a bit longer. Don’t forget to consider holiday or travel periods where someone from the author team might not be available. Set deadlines for drafting the individual major paper sections (introduction, methods, results, discussion), for content editing, for style and language editing and for feedback from co-authors. Circulate the plan in the group and monitor the progress (see our “checklist of authorship roles”). 

Tip 5: Act as a paper manager 

To write a journal paper with co-authors is a project. Projects work best if they are managed. You will then need a manager for your paper as well. Paper writing with co-authors can easily end up as a mess because nobody cares about giving directions. The senior co-authors might be too busy with other projects and sideline the paper, and you as a junior researcher, think you cannot direct them. Yes, you can!

If you are the lead author on the paper and do the majority of the work, we suggest you as the paper manager for the respective manuscript. Act according to your role and facilitate the process that leads to paper creation and submission. Make sure you communicate regularly with your co-authors and keep them informed about problems and progress equally. You will see, they will appreciate your leadership on this project as you take a  responsibility off their shoulders. 

Tip 6: Communicate regularly with co-authors

Often, co-authors have so many other projects and tasks, they might forget this particular project because, to them, it has lower priority. If you want to avoid your paper from getting lost on their desk, keep in contact with them regularly and exchange views on the paper. Talk to them when you realise that the paper isn’t progressing the way it was agreed. Consult with your co-authors, not only when you are in desperate need of help on something. Rather establish a regular flow of exchange on this paper. Then, they will see that you are committed to working on the paper, and when they hear about the progress they are more inclined to contribute their share as well. 

Tip 7: If you need help, make concrete requests

“I am not sure about the paper draft, could you please read it and tell me what you think?” This is a common request of lead authors to co-authors asking for some kind of feedback or response. But this request does not really lead to good feedback. In fact, you are causing more problems for your co-authors by sending such a vague request because they don’t know exactly what your problem is. 

We recommend that when you approach your co-authors with questions to make them as concrete as possible. Point out problems that you have with your share of paper writing and ask your co-authors whether they could advise you how to proceed. The more concrete your requests are, the better the answers you’ll get. This way, you can also make sure that your co-authors will look into the specific problem and think about it. 

Tip 8: Give co-authors clear but do-able tasks

As the paper manager and lead author, you will not only have to do a big share of the work on the paper yourself, but you will also delegate some work to your co-authors because it is their field of expertise. When you want a co-author to perform a specific step that you need in order to progress with the paper, be clear about what you want them to do, and make sure it is an achievable task. Thus, be specific and realistic with your requests. 

Tip 9: Set clear but realistic deadlines 

After you agreed on a joint time plan for the paper, it is important that you monitor the progress and keep track of how things develop. In our courses, participants always stress how much they appreciate people giving them concrete deadlines for when they have to deliver something. Make use of this for the paper writing! Always set a deadline for the individual steps of writing your paper that tells everyone the date something has to be completed. Do not just make the deadline for yourself, rather discuss together and define a deadline that works for everybody. 

It is also important is that you indicate how you will proceed after the deadline. For instance, if you ask co-authors for a last read of the paper before submission, tell them you would love to have their comments at date XYZ, but if you have not heard from them by then, you will proceed with submitting the paper. 

If you are one of those people who has trouble making and keeping deadlines, check out our blog post #8 Deadline disaster: Seven easy steps to avoid. 

Conclusion:

 A co-authored paper can really be a good experience to go through if you have a team of authors all committed to doing their job. It can be less enjoyable if you have the feeling that some of your co-authors don’t do anything to justify having their name on the paper. Our experience shows that these passive authors often face a daily bombardment of work from other projects and give the paper a low priority. 

Thus, if you want to work with a team of active co-authors, you’ll need to manage them, show them that you are interested in their contributions, and need their help. So, there is a lot you can do to get more from your co-authors. Follow our tips and advice above and you will increase interaction with and the benefits of working with co-authors. Check out our “checklist of co-authorship roles” to make sure everyone is making their contribution!. Putting everyone’s roles in writing is discussing their responsibilities is the #1 way to avoid delays and infighting over who’s slacking. Good luck! 

Relevant resources:  

More information: 

Want to receive more information on how to write and publish your next paper? Sign up to our newsletter and be regularly informed about new postings and free resources. 

© 2019 Tress Academic

Photographs by Julian Howard, Sander Smeekes at unsplash.com

#WritingPapers, #Authorship, #Co-authors, #PassiveAuthors, #JournalPapers