Three people sitting side by side, the central person on a laptop, and the person on the right writing in a notebook
Advice How-to

The politics of collaborative works: How to choose a co-writer

Erin Wahl and Dr. Kristin Kew provide some advice on how to choose collaborators for research and writing.

The authors of the post at a conference presentation.
Erin & Kristin.

Erin is a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied woman born and raised in a small rural farming community in the Midwest. At the time of writing, she has a dual identity as a mid-career librarian employed in a tenure-track position at an R2 research university in New Mexico, and a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Administration at that same university. As such, my perspective of my research is colored through the experiences and perspectives my background brings to the table. 

I (Kristin) was born in the midwestern United States and was raised racialized as white with one Jewish and one Irish Catholic parent. I identify as a middle-class, white, straight, cisgendered able-bodied woman scholar, mother, and wife. I am aware of my unearned privileges due to a number of my intersectionalities aligning with the culture of power in the United States. I am deeply vested in pursuing equity and social justice in educational change and reform in my work as a change agent and Assistant Professor in educational leadership. I take a critical stance in my teaching, writing, and research in the borderland area of Mexico and New Mexico and serve as an ally to those disenfranchised by our hegemonic, inequitable, and oppressive systems.  

We want to thank our colleague Indira Sultanic, who was originally slated as a co-author but had to back out for other commitments, for still graciously serving as a peer reviewer on the draft of this article, and demonstrating that good co-writing relationships take many forms and levels of engagement. 

This article provides some advice on how to choose collaborators for research and writing. We have experience conducting research and co-writing in various settings including peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and blogs. Our experience varies widely as we work in the fields of library science and educational leadership. In this blog, we share some lessons that we learned from both successful and unsuccessful co-writing collaborations. It is not always easy to choose people who work well together, get things done, and create a cohesive team. It is easy to see the co-writing process as too much of a challenge and you may be unsure of how to proceed; however, even a co-writing team that seems to have more differences than similarities can be a powerful force when it comes to collaboration.

1. When to work with someone starts with self-reflection

There are a lot of good reasons to choose to work with a co-writer. Co-writers are great for projects or research that involve multiple departments in your library. Co-writing is conducive to very large research projects that require a ton of detailed attention. Co-writing also supports networking or work with colleagues or friends who are important to you. It’s a great way to learn about doing research from someone who has more experience than you, or to bring on someone with skills that you lack who can make your work stronger. Co-writing should be a choice that benefits everyone involved so it must be approached with intention and clarity. Before you know what to ask of your co-writer, you need to know what you expect of yourself. 

2. Competitive Personalities

Competitive people are often viewed negatively, but a competitively driven person may make a great co-writer.  When determining whether or not to work with someone with a competitive personality, you should ask yourself if they are competitive with themselves to do better or if they are intentionally targeting you to make themselves look better. Oftentimes, it is the former, not the latter that is at play in the situation. Another thing to consider is if uplifting your work (and vise versa) will benefit them and if they understand the concept of sharing praise for a well-written article or book chapter. Managing conflict with a competitive person is a necessary ingredient in the messy fields of, well, everything. Using a writing plan or even a writing contract can be a helpful tool to avoid the bad side of competitive personalities that co-writing may bring out in people. Plans or contracts can help to keep everyone (even yourself) accountable for positive contributions to the writing project and the proper amount of recognition when the project is complete. 

3. Order of Authors

This is especially important because many universities and organizations base evaluations on how often faculty and instructors first author their creative and scholarly works. We generally consider these factors when determining the author order:

  • The first author is usually the person who contributes the most to the work. This is not just in writing the actual paper, but in other areas as well including data collection, literature review search, and coding and analysis of data.
  • If you are the person who collected the data, you should take the lead on being the first author. Collecting data is no joke and it makes you the most knowledgeable writer on the team, so this needs to be recognized in the order of authorship. Graduate assistants can and should be recognized in publications as either co-authors or in the acknowledgements. 
  • Another consideration when co-writing is the need to be recognized at work at the time of writing. If one of us is going up for a promotion or needs the line of first author on their CV for some reason, we may assign a higher author position to that person.
  • We also consider the outlet of the publication when deciding the order of authors. If it is something in library science Erin would be the first author; if it is a pK12 educational administration publication, Kristin would likely take the first author spot. 

4. Co-writers to network, mentor, or fill a gap

Sometimes the research we are doing requires us to think outside the box of friends and colleagues. We may be newer to the field and looking for someone to mentor us in the writing process. We may want to write with someone we met at a conference, or someone whose work we admire. We may require someone who has skills we do not have. These are all great reasons to pursue a co-writing relationship. Publishing in peer-reviewed outlets can help in this regard as you will receive feedback to ensure the quality of your work.

Co-writers who are friends or colleagues are simultaneously the most fun and most stressful part of potential research and writing collaborations. On the one hand, writing with a friend or colleague can give us a lot of joy as we are working towards a common goal of successful research and involving someone we care about personally or professionally. These are people that you would like to see successful in their career. This is one of the most rewarding co-writing experiences you can co-create with your friends and colleagues.

5. Co-writers from marginalized backgrounds

We would be remiss if we did not address the business of pursuing a co-writing relationship with our colleagues, friends, or networks from BIPOC and other marginalized backgrounds. The library field is overwhelmingly a majority white, able-bodied, cisgender profession, and so working with librarians, scholars, and academics from underrepresented backgrounds is crucial. However, the relationship needs to be approached with intention and respect. Remember earlier we said that everyone should benefit? This is particularly important when you are asking a librarian from a marginalized background for their time and perspective. The library world needs to take a long hard look at how we are engaging with our colleagues and make real efforts at centering their experiences and creating equity in partnerships. 

6. Believe your co-writers

Maya Angelou once told us that when people show you who they are, you should believe them. This especially holds true for choosing and maintaining co-writer relationships. If someone says they need to back out of the project, and that they are only able to commit a certain amount of time and effort; you should believe them the first time. Make sure your enthusiasm for the research does not unintentionally drag them along for a ride they are not invested in. That said, it’s a great idea to offer a compromise first. Often, when talking to co-writers about a project beforehand, or during, we will suggest other ways the work can be divided to make a collaboration doable. Can you find ways for them to join you in the writing later when their schedule clears? Is there a task small enough that they could commit to it (citations/references/literature review assistance are typically great for this)? If the answer is still no, accept it. You don’t want a guilt-tripped co-writer. You want a co-writer who wants to be there working on this project with you. Thank them for thinking about it, leave them an avenue to change their mind (if you’d like), and tell them how much you value their perspective and want to work together on another project in the future. 

7. Workload management

When approaching a research project, co-writers are bound to have challenges managing their time. Since schedules may not sync (as illustrated in #2), it is important that everyone understands their expected contribution. An equitable split of the work involved, and deadlines (even before you have hard deadlines from a publisher) can help everyone manage their time appropriately. An equitable split may look different depending on your team. In addition to considering workload compared to order of authors, you may have co-writers on your team that can only commit to smaller tasks for reasons of scheduling or workload etc. This is the delicate dance of workload management between collaborators: allowing everyone to contribute in a way that is manageable for them, while also respecting the time of everyone else. Unless you are in a time crunch (and remember you likely will be once you’re staring down the barrel of revisions and acceptance), you may have space to allow for a longer writing period so everyone can contribute appropriately. 

When considering the division of labor, you and your colleague should both have the impetus and drive to sit down and complete the project. If either of you is constantly using an excuse of why you did not have the time or energy to complete projects, you may need to postpone until a better time. In this post, we are not saying that each of us have always completed projects and have never fallen short of an initiative. What we are saying is that we take the time to consider whether or not we have the time in our busy schedules to dedicate to each project we undertake and make the time to complete it…somehow. This brings us to the next issue in choosing a co-writer in this blog. 

8. IRB and other legal landmines

Depending on what your research project looks like, you may need Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval to conduct your work. If you work at a university you’re in luck, as universities have support systems and boards in place because of the research that goes on there naturally. However, if you’re not connected with a university, the process to obtain IRB approval may be much more complex. When you add in co-writers and different research sites it can get even more complicated. The best way to make sure you’re following all the rules is to talk to your IRB board, and if you don’t have one, find a university IRB to consult. 

9. When to walk away (and stay away)

Just as it is good to know when to pick up a partnership, it is also good to know when things are not working out and it is better to walk away. This can be the hardest decision to make, as it may also signal the end of the research and maybe starting all over again. However, sometimes a writing collaboration, for all the good work you do, can sour and walking away is the best option. If you are working with friends or colleagues, you are likely working within a relationship you want to last. There are a lot of reasons to walk away from a co-writing relationship. It’s similar to the above rule for knowing when to create these relationships in the first place as well as the first rule of knowing yourself and your own expectations. We all have boundaries that will make things a no-go at times such as disagreements that cannot be resolved reasonably, a co-writer not pulling their weight, unethical practices (particularly when there’s an IRB involved), and more, could all be reasons for you to exit a co-writing partnership. 

10. Your role and responsibility as a colleague and co-writer

Our final advice on how and when to choose a co-writer is to remember the importance of holding up your role and responsibility of being a good colleague and co-writer. It is your responsibility to hold yourself accountable to the expectations set with your co-writer(s) at the beginning of a project. It is important to remember the lessons you learn from your co-writing experiences, or you could find yourself left as the sole author on every publication in the future. It is within your power to investigate future partnerships for competitive personalities, order of authorship, workload management, and potential land-mine issues before they happen. It may be necessary to reflect on your experiences of cowriting if you want to consider trying to work with someone again and in what capacity in the future. 

Further Resources

The following resources offer some suggestions for curating and managing co-writing experiences. Their perspectives, different from ours, are also important to consider. In addition, we have added examples of co-writing projects we have worked on in our careers, noting the type of partnership that we started with. There is one each from Erin and Kristin, and the first one we worked together on.

Bennett, L.M., Gadlin, H. & Marchand, C. (2018). Collaboration and team Science field guide. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Cancer Institute. 

Nelson, A. (2022, March). A heretical truth: Self-care may not be enough. Cultivating Wellness: A Newsletter Celebrating Latino Behavioral Health, 1(1), 5-6. 

Samples of Erin and Kristin’s co-authored work

Friend co-author: Wahl, E. R., & Pierce, P. (2021) How creative writers can work with archivists: A crash course in cooperation and perspectives. Journal of Creative Writing Studies. 6(1). Article 1.

Friend co-author: Kew, K., & Fellus, O. (2022). Borderland education beyond frontiers: Policy, community, and educational change during times of crisis. Policy Futures in Education, 20(4), 417-432.

Mentor/ing co-author, Colleague co-author: Wahl. E. R., Kew, K. & Zubia, J. (October 2022). Implementing sustainability in library instruction: The journey to creating a crowdsourced mission statement informed by positionalities and core values. In Okojie, V. & Igbinovia, M. O. (Eds.), Global perspectives on sustainable library practices (Chapter 6). IGI Global. 

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The expressions of the writers do not reflect anyone’s views but their own.

Nimisha is a subject librarian at University of Cincinnati, where she supports all research, reference, collection development, and digital scholarship for history, gender studies, and anthropology. In her spare time you can find her riding her bike, knitting, or reading. @mishiebhat on Twitter.

1 comment on “The politics of collaborative works: How to choose a co-writer

  1. Erin Owens

    I think you have summarized these considerations very well! My collaborative author experiences have occasionally been frustrating, but mostly rewarding, and in either case have always provided learning opportunities. Thank you for providing constructive insight to those who may be considering this approach to research.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: