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Co-authorship: Communication to create clarity

The connection cuts in and out as I steer through the Blue Ridge mountains on route 81. Bailey and I are talking about a job transition—and all that comes with it. Despite the rocky phone connection, my message is getting through: communication, honesty, vulnerability, and boundaries are essential life skills that are absolutely applicable in academia.


For all the East Coasters who know Route 81—you know the truck traffic. My body aches every time the mile markers approach 150. I remember being smashed six years ago by an 18-wheeler, gripping my steering wheel so tightly to maintain control and land in the median. The numerous back-to-back phone calls I made to Greg. To alert him that I was OK (even though he would have no reason to think otherwise). My body holds the samskara of this route.


Samskara is a yoga principle that relates to how the “body keeps the score.” The concept is that the subconscious can be triggered by your senses: the sight of an ex-boyfriend’s car, the smell of your dead grandfather’s cigarettes, the sound of “aww skeet skeet” reminding you of Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz serenading you at high school parties.


As the 150 sign passes my periphery, I try to forge a new memory and connect with a colleague who used to be one of my students.


The academy has devolved into scarcity mindset and competition (perhaps it always was there, but the word around the water cooler is that it’s progressively getting worse due to more PhDs, fewer spots, and less funding). We are simultaneously told to be on multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinary teams and that we need to 1) show independence by not working with our mentors, and 2) ensure that we have enough first and senior author publications to earn tenure.


That is—be a team member, but make sure you are recognized as the most important one. The best one. And when you’re on said team, make sure you include everyone who contributed, for their intellectual property rights. Be overly inclusive so you don’t burn any bridges. But don’t include someone who didn’t contribute enough because that would be unethical. And also, ensure that the author order represents the level of contribution. Take your time, hurry up in the battle of submission. Submit to a journal, get triaged. Change the citation formatting and resubmit. Wait again. Get the paper over the finish line. Add it to your CV. Download the document, disperse as you can. Feel self-promoting, so you close the chapter on that project, literally.


That, in essence, is the authorship process. But wait—we can do it better.


Another colleague and now dear friend, Dr. Laura Balis, and I adapted an authorship agreement document (see HVHE Resources). We suggest a table: research questions, working title, lead author, contributing authors, potential journal articles. This document can be revisited throughout the lifetime of the project and its accompanying dissemination strategies. Where students are involved, this can help them understand role clarity and authorship order.


Sometimes students (yes, even graduate students) are unaware of the authorship process. Especially as it relates to conference abstracts. I’ve been there.

***

I was supposed to share any conference abstracts with the principal investigator’s (PI’s) intervention. I was aware that Paul Estabrooks and Rebecca E. Lee had signed a Memorandum of Agreement for using a specific dataset to generate an abstract I wanted to submit to a national conference. What I didn’t know was that in addition to my PI, the PI of the intervention is always to be included in scientific reports (i.e., any dissemination effort), regardless of my perceived “heavy lifting” for a specific abstract or paper.


I email Rebecca E. Lee with a last-minute request (tail between my legs as I recite to myself, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine” in a mocking voice, but also hoping this PI wants to prioritize this abstract anyway). I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was basically that she was glad we got the abstract together, but she should be notified more in advance in the future. Instead of accepting that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, I started to radiate with SHAME:

Should

Have

Already

Mastered

Everything


Only in hindsight are these processes clear (and actually easy to follow). An action? In my lab, we have authorship agreements so that all collaborators (including, but not limited to, students) understand intellectual property and team science. How each person is involved with a project and what that contribution affords them: authorship, acknowledgment, or simply a new skill learned.


***


Authorship order and these conversations will continue throughout your career. The point is, a mistake is only a mistake if you make it more than once. And mistakes are accidents. Nobody makes a mistake “on purpose.” Keeping this in mind, no matter where you are on the team, will develop your sense of security in your intellectual pursuits, your compassion for others, and your self-compassion for your mistakes.



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