The best sort of co-author?

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgToday I'm working on revisions prior to resubmittal on a manuscript that has been a very long time coming. While I'm busy with the revisions and reference formatting, I offer up this multiple choice question for your discussion.

You've got a manuscript that you think is ready for submission to a journal. It's been through a significant reworking since the last time your co-authors have seen it, but now you think it is (finally) ready for prime-time. You'd also like to get the manuscript off your desk, so that you can focus on some other science for a while. In this scenario, which of the following co-authors are the best sort of co-authors to have?

  1. ones that sends back comments highlighting the weak spots you already knew about in the paper
  2. ones that sends back comments picking up on weak spots you didn't know about in the paper
  3. ones that doesn't offer any comments (has she read the paper?), but pats you on the head and tells you to submit it
  4. ones that doesn't respond to emails, including the email where you tell her that you'll submit the manuscript with her tacit approval if she doesn't respond by X day

Pick an answer and justify it in the comments, dear readers. I'll be back when I've had enough revisions to deserve a break from them.

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Number 3! "Perfect is the enemy of good."

Definitely #2: (s)he can find your weak spots before the referees do.

I can tolerate #1 and #3. #4 is worse than useless--why is he a co-author on the paper? Yes, I've had a bunch of co-authors in that last category (there is generally some political reason for including them), and they have invariably been male.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Jul 2009 #permalink

while 2 is the perfect one, you haven't listed the worst co-author. the one who keeps saying, mmmm, good, but needs changing a little, I'll get back to you tomorrow...tomorrow...tomorrow... and you never get it off your desk.

(usually a tentured faculty member, former PI or advisor) who doesn't need the pub and doesn't care if they are tanking your tenure.

1 & 2 can both be useful (as long as the person isn't holding up the manuscript over nit-picking or things that can't be addressed within the single paper).

#2 is always useful because it gives you the opportunity to address limitations with more analysis or in the discussion. It can also lead to future research.

#1 If both you an co-authors both notice a weakness, it's probably something a reviewer will also notice and may hold up a paper. Having multiple people notice it is a good impetus to clearly address the issue in the discussion to make clear to reviewers that the issue is known even if it can't be addressed in this specific paper.

Definitely #2 - whatever weaknesses there are will be commented on by reviewers (including the nit-picky ones - you never know what a reviewer may comment on), and I'd rather have my co-authors point out a weakness I haven't seen than ones I am already thinking about. I'd put #1 a reasonable second, though.

Having seen the effects of #4 (sadly, an advisor dealing with grad students), the only two options are to avoid working with such co-authors, or simply ignoring the lack of response. Ultimatums don't seem to provide any motivation, unfortunately. The fait accompli method is the only one that works ("sorry, I already submitted the paper - but I'll keep your comments in mind for when the reviews come back").

I'd prefer #3 over #4, too - at least you get a response, useless or not.

#1 and #2, especially if they also offer useful comments/insights on how to deal with said weaknesses.
#3 if they confirm a manuscript is "good enough".

I'd agree with FAW but with a caveat - #1 & #2, but ONLY if they actually fix the weaknesses (they're co-AUTHORS, not people you've asked to give it a read). Kibitzing and authoring are not the same thing.

On the other hand, if you really just want to get it out the door, #3 and #4 are better for achieving the short-term goal (assuming you give #4 a short timetable to respond!

ones that doesn't respond to emails, including the email where you tell her that you'll submit the manuscript with her tacit approval if she doesn't respond by X day

What happened to "hir" and "ze"!?!?!? HAHAHAHAH!

I keed! You are the best, SciWo! Love, CPP

I agree with the others: #2 is painful but helpful. Of course I also agree it should come with suggested changes and not just comments on what is wrong. I've had a #4 in my life for years (I just recently got to the point where I no longer have to include hir on papers) and once I learned the "last date to comment" email trick, I stopped being annoyed.

In my view, pointing out the weaknesses I already know (type 1 above) is incredibly useful because it shows me that I can't get away with that weak introduction or small piece of circular logic that I might have tried to slip through. I'd much rather get called out on my paper's known weaknesses by a co-author then by a reviewer.

A type 2 co-author could be useful too, but I'd hope they'd be involved enough in the project to point out otherwise overlooked weaknesses prior to the nearly-final draft.

Type 3 co-authors are convenient, but only if they provide that feedback in a timely manner. Again, I'd hope they were much more involved in the earlier stages of project design, execution, and analysis and truly merited their authorship.

Type 4 co-authors are obnoxious and make people want to avoid future collaborations with them. The "I'll submit by this date" ultimatum is unfortunately the only effective strategy I've heard of when collaboration is necessary with these folks. Even though I'm using it, it still strikes me a somewhat underhand and unethical. Like type 3, these people better merit their authorship through better behavior earlier in the project.

Finally to my dear CPP. I decided that you had a point, and was amazed by the number of readers grated by hir and ze. Henceforth, my policy will be to use her/she whenever refering to a general somebody and hir/ze whenever refering to a specific person who might not want to be identifiable. So my students will still be zes, but generic co-authors will be shes.

Therefore, I won't be telling you which of the four types of co-authors I've got on this project, other than to say I've got a type 5 - the totally helpful, usually prompt, insightful and logical co-author, and working with hir has been a source of joy for me over the 7 year duration of this project.

At this stage, type 3. At any earlier stage, type 2 is the most useful. But there is no perfect paper, and no predicting what the referees are going to focus on. May as well just get the sucker out there.

Marie @ #8

As far as I'm concerned, you've just won the thread - authors should write stuff, people who proof-read should be thanked in the acknowledgements.

Henceforth, my policy will be to use her/she whenever refering to a general somebody and hir/ze whenever refering to a specific person who might not want to be identifiable.


With #4, assuming tacit approval can get you in trouble with editors who require everyone to sign off. Have you considered telling them that you need to submit, and that if they don't respond, you'll have to move their name to the acknowledgments?

Agree with Marie at 8, unless the weakness is in a section on which they have no expertise. You can't really expect your analyst to correct sample collection errors, for example.

3 is fine if it is good. How else do you respond to a good paper?

1 & 2 seem to be the same person, as I find you usually get feedback on things you are already aware of - but sometimes you get a real gem of a comment that shines a new light on the subject.

As for comment type - 1 is useful as it can give a new angle on the problem. Type 2 is also useful - though it can often cause a bit of panic as you try to figure out how to address the new point.

#2 is the best, for sure, but I can live with #1s and #3s. Working with #4s is just frustrating. I wonder whether it would be a better strategy for those to instead write in second e-mail: "I am going to submit the paper without your name on it if you do not reply to my e-mail before date X".

By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Nov 2009 #permalink