It’s not hard to find a horror story or two about the PhD researcher who wrote something with their supervisor only to find when it was published that they weren’t given credit for the work. The supervisor put their name first, they made false claims about how much of the research was theirs. The worst case scenario is of course that the doctoral work was just taken and published under the supervisor’s name.
Co-writing is common in lab teams. Most science researchers working in research groups expect that they will co-write with others. Indeed, it also seems to be mainly lab teams that produce the horror stories of plagiarism and not giving due credit. Well, there is just much more co-writing going on, and some of it is pretty high-stakes, we mustn’t assume any in-built disciplinary evil. Co-writing is less common in the humanities and social sciences. It is, however, becoming more usual – not only because of the PhD by publication, but also because supervisors are taking up co-writing as part of their supervision practice.
I’m sure that the horror stories are true and I’m sure that there are some unscrupulous people out there. But the majority of supervisors aren’t out to rip off the doctoral researchers they work with. So, if we don’t take corruption and unethical behaviour as the starting point, then what IS the answer to the question of whether doctoral researchers should co-write with their supervisors?
The usual reasons against co-writing – I found these by doing the inevitable bit of google searching – were:
(1) the doctoral researcher is the expert in the research not the supervisor and they should therefore just write by themselves
(2) the supervisor is getting a free publication on the doctoral researcher’s back
(3) hiring committees look askance at articles co written with supervisors and discount them.
There’s actually not a lot of knowledge about the last point. When I found mention of this, I googled around a bit more to see if there was any discussion about hiring committees and I did find a tiny bit. One suggestion was that if the hiring committee saw a co-written article, then they assumed that this was because the supervisor thought highly enough of the doctoral researcher and their work to want to write with them. Another comment was that if there was ONLY one co-written article then this could be seen as an indicator of poor productivity. I don’t know the answer to this, and it’d be interesting to do a bit of systematic re-searching to find out.
BUT, what if we reverse the question. Why should supervisors co-write with the researchers they work with?
The answer now seems to be either that supervisors are in it for a free publication – that’s the mean and nasty version – or that they co-write in order to help doctoral researchers learn the genre of the journal article and to help them get the work out there as soon as possible. If the latter helping is more generally true than the former self-interest, then we can see that while the doctoral researcher does absolutely contribute their research expertise, the supervisor also contributes by way of knowledge about academic writing.
So to go back to the original question then, why co –write with supervisors?
My answer is that doctoral researchers might want to co-write with their supervisors in order to learn the publication game. There’s also some safety in writing with a more experienced writing partner. The doctoral researcher ought to be able to rely on their supervisor to avoid the most obvious writing ‘mistakes – no focus, lack of signposting, too much literature, not enough methods, no conclusion, too much jargon. They also might learn how to get the right authoritative stance.
Of course there is always the vexed question of author order, but that’s a topic for another post.
For now, what do you think about co-writing? If a doctoral researcher, do you write with your supervisor? Would you? Or would you avoid it like the plague? If a supervisor, do you do this, why and how?