Co-authoring with research students

For a long time I refused to consider publishing with my research students.  I worried that it was unethical.  That was for two main reasons.  First, I had seen some very bad practice indeed – such as supervisors insisting that all of their students’ work had to have the supervisor’s name on, and not only that, but always as first author.  Second, I was a pretty independent researcher myself while doing my PhD, and my supervisors encouraged me to publish my work in my sole name (I did of course give them fulsome acknowledgements).  I guess there is a third issue too, which is that many of the doctoral students I work with are part-time EdD-ers (a professional doctorate) who aren’t motivated to publish.  And by and large, in my area of the discipline of Education, few of my colleagues co-author with their students

However, I’ve come to see things rather differently of late.  One of the advantages of being involved in my institution’s REF Committee was that, reading other School’s submissions, I picked up how some other disciplines promote the quality of their postgrad research provision.  Their narratives vaunted the number of co-authored student-supervisor papers they had published, and how this was viewed as a really important aspect of career development for doctoral researchers.  I went for coffee with a couple of people who were obviously committed to this approach, and talked it through with them.  They were clear too that such publications were important for supervisors – to get some recognition for the considerable amount of work they put into to some students’ research projects, and to build up the corpus of work around their specialist research interests.  Clearly, there’s a middle road to be navigated somehow.

Since I’m Director of Graduate Education in my School, and it was evident that no co-authoring seemed to be going on between students and supervisors, I decided to launch a debate in our Research and Enterprise Committee around a draft protocol.  I did a bit of hunting around, and came across the ‘Vancouver Protocol‘ – originating in the field of medical research, but now viewed as a simple but excellent standard for deciding authorship.  The Vancouver Protocol states that, in order to be credited as an author, each and every author on a publication needs to have been involved in the:

1.  Conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data AND

2.  Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content AND

3.  Final approval of the version to be published

The ‘ANDs’ are the key thing to note here – if a supervisor is not involved in all  three aspects of a publication, then they should not be listed as a co-author. (One additional point to be made is that the lead author must guarantee this right to 3 to all those who have been involved in 1 and 2!)

Then I got to thinking creatively myself.  What could I do about this, straight away?  Well, I had one brilliant student who had just passed her PhD with flying colours.  She did her doctorate full-time but wants to go back into an academic job, so making the PhD work for her by getting publications out of it is pretty important.  The first time I met her, part-way through her PhD, she came to see me to talk about her data on new lecturers in Further Education – a lot of stuff about time was cropping up in their narratives, and she didn’t know what to do with it.  Since, for my sins, the slippery notion of time and its theorisations have been quite a preoccupation these last few years, I was able to have a significant input in suggesting how she could analyse and interpret this data.

After her completion, I suggested we co-author a paper in which I would develop the literature review section on theories of time further, and help her with the difficult task of carving a one-paper slice out of the full-size thesis.  In this way, she could get the hang of doing this (it’s not easy!), and we’d sort of hold hands through the drafting, re-drafting and submission/review process.  So I feel I pulled my weight and met the Vancouver Protocol on that one.  And her name went on as first author, as she had written the larger part of the paper and the data was hers.  But I wouldn’t dream of putting my name on any of the other papers we’ve decided she should write from the thesis – the rest is all her own ideas, and I couldn’t contribute anything essential in the way I did with the paper on time.

Roundabout the same time period, a colleague asked me if I’d contribute a paper to the journal he edits.  It just so happened that I’d had a conference paper hanging around for a couple of years, and had not got round to polishing it up and sending it off.  This was mainly because it was a little out of my usual field (I’d been asked to contribute to a special symposium and had data from an evaluation project I’d done).  The main topic and argument of the paper were, I knew, still highly relevant – but I had no idea how I’d find the time or motivation to update the literature review.

Then a 2nd year part-time EdD student moved into the research phase with me, doing a project in the same area.  She had written an excellent literature review – in fact, it was exactly what my conference paper needed!  I asked her if she’d be interested in writing it in to the paper, and assured her that, if she did, her name would be on the paper as co-author.  Again, this meant we walked the path of preparing the paper for publication most of the way together.  We went through a couple of drafts back and forth before submission, and then got the referee’s comments back.  They gave particular praise to the literature review (!), but challenged us (in this case, me) to deepen the theorisation further – really exciting comments to get back!  I took this on myself – the student was by now in the throes of getting her own research proposal finalised – but shared the revised draft and the careful covering letter I’d written to the editor and referees.  And then we celebrated together when that version got accepted!

I won’t pretend that these experiences have turned my students into fully fledged authors themselves yet.  But it’s given me an insight into how, even at a very early stage of a doctoral researcher’s journey, they can contribute crucially to published work without that being too onerous on them, and in a way that means their supervisor’s work might see the light of day and not remain buried in a pile of ‘work in progress’ that never actually progresses.  And I think it has given them a sense of belonging to a community of researchers, who publish as a central part of their activity.  In many ways, it reflects that model of apprenticeship we in lifelong learning call ‘legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991) – newcomers are involved in tasks which do not have crucial consequences if they don’t entirely succeed, alongside more experienced colleagues, to learn the ways of doing and being a member of that community.

So it’s been a bit of a journey for me – what are your thoughts about co-authoring between supervisors and doctoral students?  Whether you are a supervisor or a student, please share your thoughts.

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