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LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Conversations, negotiations, and giving credit where credit is due

LibParlor Contributor, Melissa Bowles-Terry provides some best practices for collaborating with colleagues during the writing process.

Melissa Bowles-Terry is the Head of Educational Initiatives at UNLV Libraries, where she leads the library instruction program and works closely with instructional development initiatives across campus. Melissa was previously Instruction and Assessment Coordinator at University of Wyoming Libraries. She is a member of the faculty for ACRL’s Immersion, a national training program for librarians who teach and assess student learning. Her research areas include assessment of student learning and information literacy instruction.

Writing together

Librarianship tends to be highly collaborative, both in our day-to-day work and in our scholarly output. One of my mentors told me that the great thing about being part of a “we” organization is that you can take credit for everything that happens in your library — but at the same time you can’t completely take credit for anything. This can be a major strength for many of us who work together to contribute to the literature, but there are important things to consider when you’re getting started as a researcher and building collaborations with new colleagues. I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned — and if you have tips for building collaborations of trust and mutual benefit, please share, because I still have a lot to learn!

I did a quick count and found that only about a quarter of the publications and presentations on my CV were authored solely by me. In my decade of experience presenting and publishing in our field, I have had a range of collaborative experiences. I have written various articles with co-authors both local and remote, I wrote a book with a co-author while we were in different states and different time zones (Classroom Assessment Techniques for Librarians by Melissa Bowles-Terry & Cassandra Kvenild, ACRL 2015), and for the past four years I’ve been leading a research project with the Greater Western Library Alliance to correlate library instruction interactions with student success across twelve different universities with 20 different contributors and a dozen authors. All of these experiences have taught me a few important things about conversations you need to have with your co-authors, things you should negotiate from the get-go, and the importance of making sure everyone gets credit for their contributions to the work.

Who owns a project?

“If you are new to your organization and you see something amazing happening that hasn’t been documented in the library literature, consider whether you might be the person to share it with the wider world.”

Much of our literature is based on work done in our libraries— case studies and examples of library projects. When thinking about how to share this work we have to ask: Who owns the project? This can be negotiable, and needs to be worked out when some members of the team wish to report out on the results of the project and others are not as interested. Sometimes interesting and important work that we do in libraries doesn’t get reported out more broadly because the person “in charge” of the project has no incentive to present or publish, and people who worked on the project don’t feel comfortable asking the person in charge if they can share the results. If you are new to your organization and you see something amazing happening that hasn’t been documented in the library literature, consider whether you might be the person to share it with the wider world. When I arrived at UNLV Libraries, there was already an amazing faculty development initiative underway, and a lot of folks in libraries were aware of the program thanks to word-of-mouth and presentations that UNLV librarians had given, but there was no written description of the project to be found. I got some of my colleagues together to write a chapter about our Library Faculty Institutes for Creative Instructional Design: Practical Applications for Librarians, and now we have an easy place to refer colleagues who want to know more about our practices in this area.  


When you’re doing research and scholarship as part of a collaborative group, it’s important to be upfront and explicit about roles of various members of the group. From determining who is first author on articles to deciding who will present at conferences, these can be difficult conversations to have, particularly when you’re new to the work. There are various structural and personal causes that make these conversations difficult. If you’re the new person and junior in the organization, it may feel presumptuous to suggest that you’d like to write something about it. There was a great article in College & Research Libraries recently, “Collaborative Authorship as Peer Mentorship” that points out the benefits of collaborative authorship not just to folks who are new to our field, but everyone else in the field as well.

Conversations to have with your collaborators at the very beginning:

  • Do they want to share the results of the project?
  • What if it doesn’t go particularly well?
  • Are they already IRB certified? Are they willing to do the training and submit the project for IRB review?

Conversations to have later in the process:

  • What is their writing style?
  • Can you agree on a timeline?
  • How will you divide writing/preparation responsibilities?
  • Are they interested in traveling and presenting or staying local?
  • Who will speak for the project?
  • How will authors/contributors be listed?

Things I’ve learned

  • If you work collaboratively with someone in the library or in the classroom, that doesn’t mean you’ll work well as co-authors. Don’t let a writing project ruin your working relationship. Have a conversation about what you can learn from the process of writing together, and if necessary break up as co-authors to preserve your day-to-day working relationship.
  • Take credit for your work. Don’t be shy. If you were the originator of the idea, if you did the majority of the work, you should advocate for recognition as first author. And on the flipside, give credit to others for their work. If someone else came up with the original idea or did the majority of the work, they should get credit for that.
  • Sometimes, the easiest thing is to list names in alphabetical order (says the person whose last name starts with “B”).
  • Once you find a collaborator whose style matches your own, it’s a really valuable and wonderful relationship. Hang onto that person. Cherish them.

Resources on difficult conversations

Some things you might want to read:

The authors of this book — Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler — define “crucial conversations” as conversations where there are opposing opinions, strong emotions, and high stakes. We could argue about how high the stakes are in academic publishing (it depends on the context!), but you may find yourself in a crucial conversation with colleagues at many points along the path to publication or presentation. The big idea here is to start with heart, make it safe to talk and share, and explore others’ paths.

You’ve probably heard about “Emotional Intelligence,” which is an idea that was popularized by one of the authors of this book, Daniel Goleman. Primal Leadership, co-authored by Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, suggests that the primal job of leadership is emotional and that making team members feel inspired and empowered is the first job of a leader. If you find yourself in a leadership position on a project that may lead to publication and presentation, this book may be helpful in offering some ideas for facilitating trust and empowerment.

I only recently encountered this book, thanks to some participants at the ACRL Immersion program that I helped to facilitate this summer, but it is already proving really helpful to me in various conversations in my life. A few principles from adrienne maree brown, the author of this book, that especially resonate:

  • There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
  • Never a failure, always a lesson.
  • Move at the speed of trust.
  • What you pay attention to grows.

Featured image by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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