Short guideline on multi-authored papers.

After being on the two sides of the story (first author and one more of dozens of co-authors) I already made a few errors someone may find useful to know, specially since multi-author papers (more than 10-15 authors from different institutes) are becoming normal (and I am not judging if this is good or bad*, is just happening).

1. Talk about co-authorship early on, but with conditions. This things should be talked at the beginning of the collaboration, because there is nothing more awkward than someone thinking that he/she is coauthoring a paper, while the lead author thinks that he/she is a data provider. However, do not grant co-authorship before even starting the project. Make clear that someone will be a co-author if his/her contribution is [fill in here your expectations] (e.g. the data provided ends up being critical for the paper, you are engaged on ms writing, etc…). By clear I meant very clear.

2. Establish feed-back points. This one is very tricky, because first authors (or the core team leading the paper) do not want 50 people commenting in every decision, but they don’t want coauthors to end up not contributing much. On the other hand, some coauthors want to be more involved than others, but they need to be offered the opportunity to contribute in order to do so. I would recommend to fix at least three points to provide feed-back. First a draft of the questions, hypothesis to be tested and which approach will be used. Second a draft with the main results/ figures. And third a first draft of the paper. Even this seems really a minimum, I made myself the error of not sending almost anything before the complete draft of the paper was ready to some coauthors.

3. Make all correspondence open. Always include all coauthors in the emails with drafts or results to discuss. All coauthors should be able to see other people comments. This is specially important when two coauthors disagree on something. The lead author has the final word, but other coauthors should discuss the disagreement between them (and hopefully agree on something) and in front of all other coauthors.

4. Be clear on what you want. That applies also to both sides. As a first author is very useful to tell people what do you want from them. Instead of letting people comment on whatever they want (they will do that anyway), ask for specific questions. Can some native speaker check my grammar? Can you go trough the mathy part and make sure it is correct? With several coauthors you have the risk that everyone will hope the other will look on the three pages of equations, and no-one ends up doing it. As a co-author is always nice also to state on what do you want to contribute. Even if you think that you will be “near the end of the list”, if you want to be more engaged and have clear ideas on how to redo an analysis, or enhance a figure, say it! (Author order is /should be flexible, so you may end up among firsts authors if you contribute)

Lastly, those are just suggestions, and all of them refer to one basic idea: enhance communication.

*I do think more than 10 authors are rarely useful…


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