Friday, 30 January 2015

How to be a lead author: five key practices

This post is aimed at PhD and early career researchers who are lead authors for the first time on a research manuscript that is being prepared for submission to a journal. Here, I share some thoughts on the role of the lead author of a manuscript, from the perspective of someone who's been a lead author, as well as a co-author who has been dependent on lead authors. I especially focus on the role of the lead author in leading and managing a number of co-authors who contribute to a manuscript.

It's intriguing to have been part of so many different ways to successfully complete a manuscript, and figure out how lead authors help contribute to success. Some of these have involved three or four co-authors; others have involved many more (see Finn et al. 2014, below). Having worked with several lead authors, here I suggest a number of good practices that characterise how effective lead authors engage with their co-authors. These suggestions are based on experiences where researchers work together on a project to achieve a research goal, and then write a manuscript together with the aim of submitting it to a journal. In summary, these key practices of effective lead authors include:

1. Be a leader.
2. Clarify authorship
3. Clarify the distribution of work among co-authors
4. Communicate regularly
5. Anticipate and resolve causes of disagreement

1. Be a leader.
One of the more important roles of a lead author is in the name. When the group decides that you are the lead author (or the role emerges for you), take charge early on and lead from the front. Don't sit back and wait for progress to happen, or for other people to initiate it - they are all waiting for the lead author to do so. Group activities require discussion, agreement and consensus where possible, and the lead author plays a key role in clarifying uncertainty, and making decisions. Clarify the aims of the manuscript and achieve a common vision as much as possible before the writing starts.

Different lead authors have different approaches, and different groups have different expectations. Lead authors should explain to their co-authors how they expect to approach the role - the more co-authors are involved, the more thorough and formal this communication needs to be. Managing people can be a lot more tricky than the research! So, at the beginning, some time invested in clarifying expectations and work practices can be invaluable. 

See 'How to be a lead author: part II' for the text of an email from a lead author to her co-authors - it has several examples of leadership.
2. Clarify authorship
This is crucial. To be honest, it's already too late to be clarifying authorship when the manuscript is being written. It's best to clarify authorship as early as possible in a project, and to agree what activities will warrant authorship, and who will undertake relevant actions that contribute to a manuscript. See previous PhD Skills posts Manage the authorship of your journal publications and Positions in journal author lists- do they matter?

3. Clarify the distribution of work among co-authors
Practices vary a lot among research groups. In some cases, the lead author is left with the majority of the writing of a manuscript; in others, writing is delegated and the lead author collates the writing from different individuals. Again, a key role of the lead author should be to lead a discussion on how the manuscript will be prepared, and who will do what.

In any event, a lead author should be prepared to delegate some activities. The best lead authors delegate tasks in a way that co-ordinates the skills of individuals to contribute to the team effort. Different team members will have different strengths, so it makes sense to allocate tasks that correspond to people's abilities, whether it be e.g. reviewing literature, writing text, analysing data,  preparing graphs, or critiquing drafts. This won't always be possible, but is worth keeping in mind.

When co-authors have tasks to complete, an important role for the lead author is to specify deadlines and timing of delivery. Inevitably, another role is to remind co-authors to contribute by the deadlines, or to agree new deadlines. See the paper by Cooke et al. (2014) for some great advice: "Practical guidance for early career researchers dealing with tardy or unresponsive co-authors."

4. Communicate regularly
Successful groups of researchers and co-authors place a strong emphasis on communication. In papers that I've been involved in, key co-authors have arranged to meet at international conferences and allocate time to discussing a manuscript and results. In other projects, we have visited each others' labs and offices for one or two days of focused discussions and feedback about draft results and manuscripts - these kinds of face-to-face discussions are invaluable (they are also enjoyable!).

Weeks (and perhaps months) can go by surprisingly quickly for lead authors with multiple projects and papers to work on. (We have had papers that have taken three to four years to complete, not including the time for the original experimental work.) As a lead author, don't go silent for too long a period, and let co-authors know what is happening- even if only to report that there hasn't been as much progress as expected. There are few things more frustrating than long periods of silence from a lead author. Regular communication helps to maintain motivation and trust among co-authors. It's also useful to emphasise the co-operative aspect of writing the paper, and help maintain motivation.

As an example, see a related post 'How to be a  lead author: part II' that contains the text of an email from a lead author to her co-authors, and illustrates several good practices.
5. Anticipate and resolve causes of disagreement
Hopefully, there won't be serious interpersonal disagreements, and there usually isn't. However, if there is, be very careful. If you are a novice researcher, this is definitely a time to get a more experienced person to intervene, or to mentor you. Don't attempt to resolve disagreements by email; it's usually best to pick up the phone.

Other more run-of-the-mill disagreements can and do arise. Many of these are a normal and healthy part of the research process e.g. differences of opinion about the best way to present a figure or table; alternative interpretations of results by different individuals, and; differences about the target audience for a research paper. For example, in some of my own research, we have had discussions about whether we target our research to an ecological or agronomic audience (e.g. see Finn et al. 2013 in References). An important function of a lead author (perhaps assisted by other senior researchers) is to facilitate honest and open discussion, laced with a healthy dose of diplomacy! When you make a decision, explain the reasons behind it so that those who may have had a different opinion can at least understand the decision.

PhD Skill: Learn to be an effective lead author - talk with other researchers about their experiences as lead authors.

Further reading
PhD Skill post: Manage the authorship of your journal publications

PhD Skill post: Positions in journal author lists- do they matter?

PhD Skill post:  'How to be a lead author: part II'
Cooke et al. 2014. Practical guidance for early career researchers dealing with tardy or unresponsive co-authors. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7: 73-76, 2014

Finn, J. A., Kirwan, L., Connolly, J., Sebastià, M. T., Helgadottir, A., Baadshaug, O. H., Bélanger, G., Black, A., Brophy, C., Collins, R. P., Čop, J., Dalmannsdóttir, S., Delgado, I., Elgersma, A., Fothergill, M., Frankow-Lindberg, B. E., Ghesquiere, A., Golinska, B., Golinski, P., Grieu, P., Gustavsson, A.-M., Höglind, M., Huguenin-Elie, O., Jørgensen, M., Kadziuliene, Z., Kurki, P., Llurba, R., Lunnan, T., Porqueddu, C., Suter, M., Thumm, U., & Lüscher, A. (2013). Ecosystem function enhanced by combining four functional types of plant species in intensively managed grassland mixtures: a 3-year continental-scale field experiment. Journal of Applied Ecology 50: 365-375.


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