On (not?) co-authoring, or The death of the author, or It takes a village to write a paper

Despite the death of the author having been announced a while ago (reference here – in case you missed it), a point in time comes when a PhD student needs to put some name(s) on their first paper draft (in progress, in progress, and still in progress – does the status ever change?).

I did my research, of course. I did a little survey among PhD students and other researchers, asking: ‘Do you co-author papers with your supervisors/others?’ The results were, to put it mildly, mixed.

Basically, I got four types of answers.

Type 1: You mean, you are not putting your supervisor’s name on your paper as co-author? (Question mark on the PhD student’s face.)

Type 2: Co-authoring papers? Hm. Never thought about it. Why would I do that? (With an air of genuine perplexity.)

Type 3: Well, it depends. Find out what your potential ‘co-author’ thinks about your paper. If they threaten to sue you if you as much as MENTION their name in ANY relation to your paper, it might be an indication of something, right?

Type 4: I once had lunch with someone, casually discussing my paper. The next day they wrote to me asking if I was going to include them as co-author.

And then there was a more context-specific Type 1a:

The other PhD student: So you are saying that you get enough comments from your supervisor to colour-code them into FOUR colours? And you are asking IF you should include them as co-author?

Me (in a tiny, tiny voice): We are keeping it open..? (With a question-mark intonation.)

The other PhD student (in amused disbelief): Ach so.

Of course, I asked my supervisor before I went into the field. I suspected my case was best reflected by Answer Type 3. They implicitly confirmed it by saying, very politely, ‘let’s keep it open’. And explained to me very, very clearly what supervision versus co-authoring looks like (context-specifically – in their case).

And it was great, and I clearly understood, but the problem is the ‘demarcation problem’. I mean, this distinction works very well in theory, but in practice…

In practice, first of all, I feel they may have strayed on the other side of their own demarcation more than once while wading through my clumsy drafts and directing me towards a little more grace (‘Tatiana, why don’t you simply say something like this …?’). And even if they hadn’t, how, tell me, how can you say that you are writing something ON YOUR OWN when it is at least as much a result of generous ‘chats’, ‘séances de pleurs’, Sunday afternoon emails from me, Saturday morning emails from them (‘Tatiana, at the risk of making things more complicated, why don’t you consider importing theories of power to explicate…’), and colour-coding of their thoughtful, attentive comments – as it is the result of the ‘here-I-am-sitting-in-my-Platonic-cave-writing-a-paper-after-everyone-finally-went-home’ sessions?

In other words – I am returning to the notorious issue of intellectual autonomy – see here. A unicorn, remember? Like the ‘ivory tower’ and ‘academic freedom’.

So here I am, sitting in my ivory tower of intellectual autonomy, bent over the yellow and orange comments and Sunday email answers (printed out and colour-coded, of course), and writing MY paper. ON MY OWN.

And it’s not only the colour-coding and séances de pleurs. (A sophisticated academic term for symbolic ‘crying sessions’ in which the PhD student complains at some length about the decimation of their nascent paper at a conference, while the supervisor politely nods until it’s time to insinuate that I ‘might want to take this critique with a pinch of salt’). It’s also the discussions with other PhD students, the study groups, the reading of each other’s papers, the lunches and coffees with colleagues incautious enough to ask ‘So how is your first paper going?’, the workshops, the nice and cosy department presentations, the infamous conference presentations. To say nothing about the poor, poor family and friends. And pets. If I had a pet, what monologues would they have endured by now (currently, in the absence of a pet, directed at my teapot)! In which this thing I’m trying to write is coming into shape.

The lengthy acknowledgements at the beginning of every PhD thesis (I’ve read some which were three pages long) – they always puzzled me. Now that I am approaching a final-final, this time definitely final! … first paper draft, I know where they come from. I think I am already starting to write one of those. Describing how a work of intellectual autonomy is a collective effort.

It takes a village to write a paper. With one, only one author’s name on the title page.

Anyway. After I finish typing this, I am going back to proudly producing an exemplary example of intellectual autonomy, in accordance with points D and I of the General Study Plan for Research Education. Entirely on my own. Amen! Hope you too have a good day.

And good luck with whatever creative/intellectual endeavour you are undertaking out there – entirely on your own. Let me know how it goes!

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