Cathy O’Connor on Collaborating
Posted by Neal on January 26, 2011
Here’s the next of my summaries from the “Skills for Academic Success” panel from LSA 2011.
After Gregory Ward and Lauren Hall-Lew finished their presentation on networking, next up was Boston University’s Cathy O’Connor on collaborating. She began with the “what” and “who”: Collaboration is working together to achieve goals, and they need not be the same goals for each participant. Goals will differ depending on whether it’s two professors collaborating, a professor and a grad student, a new grad student and one further along, etc. She did make one exception, though: If all you’re getting is a paycheck (for example, if you’re just doing lab work for a professor who will write it up a single-author work), that’s not a collaboration. That’s just a job. For purposes of her talk, O’Connor narrowed the definition of collaboration to working together to help you produce something that will help you in your academic career.
Moving on to the “why”, O’Connor noted two common attitudes: “Gee, I wanna collaborate. How do I do it?” and “Ugh, do I have to collaborate?” She found that there were two main causes for the second attitude. First is encapsulated in the thought, “I’m unworthy, and will be revealed!” Variants: “They’ll find out how little I know!” “This is my only good idea, and they’ll get the credit for it!” The other one might be summed up as, “They’re unworthy, and I shouldn’t have to put up with their nonsense, only to have to dilute the credit I get for a paper.” Variants: “He’ll make me do all the grunt work”, “I’ll have to clean up his mess”; “He’s always flaky and late.”
In fact, these are reasonable fears, and depending on whom you work with, you may find yourself having either flavor of the “Do I have to do this?” attitude. So why do it? In short, when you work with someone else, there’s a chance that their strengths can balance out your weaknesses during the long process of doing research and publishing it.
There are many places to hit psychological blocks along the way. First of all, there’s the border between the land of “half-baked ideas, good questions, requests for papers, five neat examples” (where you could stay for years, O’Connor warned), and actual writing. Once you’ve started writing, there’s the psychological barrier you have to cross before asking people for feedback. Then there’s the rewriting. Then there’s actually submitting the paper somewhere (the biggest psychological barrier to clear, she said). And you can also get stuck between all the other steps (well, pairs of steps, I suppose) in the process of publishing a scholarly paper (see the writeup of last year’s panel discussion).
Collaborators can help one another get through these stages. If you’re a perfectionist, a collaborator can push you to get that draft out the door. If you’re a procrastinator, they can be the external nag that forces you to follow through on your plans. If you’re narrow-minded, they can open you up a bit. Or suppose you get some reviews back from an editor, and you can’t bring yourself to read them. For some people, that feeling doesn’t die down after a few minutes, or even a few weeks or months, and the reviews sit unopened. Now imagine your collaborator saying, “Ah, hand ’em to me! I’ll read ’em.” Five minutes later: “Ah, shoot, these aren’t so bad.”
“One year saved!” O’Connor concluded.
One question that didn’t come up was what if you tend to gravitate toward collaborators whose faults are like yours? But I guess in that case you’re no worse off than you would have been, and realistically, there are probably at least some of your weaknesses that a collaborator can compensate for.
So how should you go about doing a collaboration? First and foremost, ask yourself what you expect to get out of it. O’Connor shared several stories of resentment and hurt feelings because of misunderstandings in this area; for example:
- Two collaborators worked on a project that they never published. Several years later, one of them picked up the project again, added to it, and published it alone. The other scholar was angry, but hey, the first one asked, “Are we collaborator-married for life?”
- Researcher A asks Researcher B about something; Researcher B spends an hour or so helping. Researcher A includes B in the acknowledgments, but B was expecting coauthor credit! This is especially prone to happen when collaborations happen across fields of study, or even across subfields of one field of study. Norms can differ.
The moral: Assume nothing about the other’s expectations. Discuss them instead. O’Connor admitted that this can be an awkward conversation to have, but there you are.
A few other, standalone thoughts worth noting:
- Next, follow the “30/70 rule”: Expect to do at least 30% of the work yourself, but be willing to do as much as 70%. Over the course of a long-term collaboration, this number will vary.
- Never, ever confront a collaborator when you’re angry. Always talk to a neutral party, and not just any neutral party: a more-experienced neutral party who knows what’s right and what’s not.
- Be careful: Notwithstanding the benefits of collaboration, you do still want to do some single-author work. Woe to the author whose papers are all collaborations and whose last name starts with a Z!
One audience member asked how you get someone to collaborate with you. O’Connor’s response: “How do you get someone to go out with you?” That wasn’t a flippant dismissal of the question, but an admission that it’s one without answers that are likely to generalize.