Categories: News, Newsletter Issue 2019:2

An Interview with Catherine Maclean about Co-authorship

By David Slusky

David Slusky: What’s your overall approach to co-authorship?

Catherine Maclean: I view co-authorship as important for two reasons. First, co-authorship can improve a particular paper or project. Second, co-authorship allows me to develop as a scholar.

First, in terms of the particular paper, I work in interdisciplinary fields: my primary fields are substance use, mental illness, and public policies related to these outcomes. While I view economics as an extremely useful and powerful way to understand and study these questions, I also feel that economics alone cannot allow me to fully appreciate the institutions and individuals at the core of these areas. Working with scholars from related fields, for example mental healthcare providers and experts in particular policies – such as Medicaid as it relates to substance use – that are complex and yet vital to understand, can allow me to do better research on these questions. There have been many occasions where I have learned that I was completely wrong about, for example, the manner in which different healthcare providers interact as they deliver care to patients with mental illness. My assumptions were pushing the paper in the wrong direction. Fortunately, my colleagues are willing and able to help me out.

My view is that, particularly within public policy and my primary areas of research interest, no one discipline holds all the answers and by combing our strengths we can do better work. Also, from a practical standpoint, having co-authors allows you incorporate innovative new methods that you may not be aware of, locate papers that you really should read to improve your paper but just missed, pick up on errors/omissions in the paper, and improve the writing of the paper.

Second, I learn a great deal from all my colleagues. For example, I work with other economists who have expertise in different sub-disciplines (e.g., crime, urban, and labor economics) and related fields (e.g., medicine, sociology, and psychology). Through these colleagues I learn new methods, theories, and ways of thinking about research overall, this knowledge extends beyond the particular paper on which we are working and to my research as a whole. I am a better scholar in general for these interactions. Keeping up with the field is challenging given all the time constraints we face but working with colleagues affords me another, efficient, way to keep on top of new papers, methods, policy changes, and so forth.

Finally, I am fortunate to have highly motivated, incredibly smart, and really nice colleagues, and working with them inspires me and makes my work (even more!) enjoyable!

David Slusky: How has your experience with co-authorship been different in the economics world versus the medical/public health world?

Catherine Maclean: I think there are many similarities between economics and medical/public health research. First, co-authorship can improve the particular paper for myriad reasons and can improve an economist’s broader understanding of a research area. But, there are important differences that must be kept in mind. Different fields have different standards, for instance, while in economics alphabetical order for authors is common on papers, in other fields there is a more nuanced ordering of authors: the final author is often the senior author on the paper.

Second, public health and medical journals are often more open to a larger set of co-authors than is standard in economics. This means that there can be more ‘cooks in the kitchen’ and one must learn how to work in a setting in which there are potentially many many opinions on how a paper should proceed. Many of these opinions are not simply be cross-economists differences in opinion but cross-discipline differences in ways of approaching a question, which can be non-trivial. Trying to be, as much as possible, open to different schools of thought is critical. Different fields often use distinct terms for the same concept (e.g., ‘dynamic model’ and ‘event-study’, or ‘mediators’ and ‘pathways that explain the link between X and Y’ – hopefully I have this right!).

In only a very few interdisciplinary settings, I have felt the need to justify why it is reasonable for an economist to study a particular health-related question. Some economists may find this a troublesome or off-putting experience, but I have found that, once you take the time to explain how you are thinking about a question, many non-economists are (1) pleasantly surprised that we economists think about things other than financial markets, and (2) see that economists can offer insightful information on how to think about health-related outcomes; both of which can be promotional for our field as a whole! You need to learn many different customs and language in these different fields and not assume that what goes in econ also flies in other fields. In sum, my experience has been that overall there are more similarities than differences.

David Slusky: How has your relationship with co-authorship changed as you’ve advanced in your career?

My relationship with co-authorship has changed over my career. Earlier in my career, pre-tenure in particular, I was more willing to work with a broader set of people. Over time, I have become more selective. I have learned more about myself as researcher and I understand that my work style does not jive with everyone, and that is totally fine! I now look for a colleague who shares similar interests, brings in a somewhat different skill set, has similar expectations about objectives and workload, and is a nice person. Research papers, while rewarding, are really hard, you want to work with someone who complements you, motivates you, and is collegial!

David Slusky: Are there any major do’s and don’ts of co-authorship?

Catherine Maclean: Many!

First the do’s. Talk about expectations early on: where do you (ideally) want the paper to land; who is going to do what (things change but making sure that you are ok with the sharing of work is important); authorship (this can vary, but some disciplines have specific orders about authors and trying to accommodate your colleague’s discipline is a good thing to do); and what are your constraints (e.g., are you taking on new service rolls within your department/institutions and will that limit your effort-level)?

Second, continue to be open, if you are just at a place (we all get there) where work is particularly crazy, shoot your co-author an email and let them know that you are underwater right now but will return asap. People want to be supportive of their colleagues but they just need to know that you are still engaged. Our careers (particularly pre-tenure) depend on timely research productivity and worrying that your co-author has checked out a paper that is important for your career is not a good feeling.

Third, it is ok to take yourself off a paper if you just don’t have time, are not happy with the process for reasons that cannot be addressed, and/or feel you are not meeting the standards for authorship. Just explain to your colleagues why you are leaving the paper and try, as best you can, to offer some work-arounds (e.g., offer to try and find someone else, share all your code and reviews of the literature).

Fourth, ask your co-authors if it is ok if you present a paper at conference or for an invited talk! I am continuously surprised by people who tell me that, last week, they presented our paper at an invited talk! Some people feel very strongly about the stage at which they are ok with having their work presented, you should try your best to respect these views.

Fifth, give your colleagues time to review any material before the presentation, e.g., if you are giving a talk try to send the slides to the colleague in advance for feedback, they may feel uncomfortable with the way you have interpreted a finding.

Sixth, thank your co-authors when you present your work.

Now the don’ts. First, don’t blame your colleagues for errors, you are co-authors so you are co-responsible for the paper, all its good points and its warts.

Second, don’t stay on papers on which you are not really playing an author-level role; that is just free-riding and dilutes the efforts of offers.

Third, don’t feel you have to work with anyone who asks and/or keep working with a co-author who is just not a good fit for you work-wise.

Fourth, and I think this is very important, if you and your colleagues create a research output (e.g., a data set or an instrument to measure a particular outcome), don’t feel you have free reign over this output. Instead, discuss how this output is to be used after its creation. E.g., do you need to confirm with the other co-author on when and where a shared data set can be used to write papers? Or can all parties use the data for any paper they want without checking?

One last do: be nice! It is not hard and makes the entire process more fun!

David Slusky: If you could change one thing about how we view/treat/consider/evaluated coauthored work, what would it be?

Catherine Maclean: I would like to see economics journals being more ok with non-economists as authors. We are moving that way, but I think we should value the insight researchers from other fields can bring to our work, particularly when the research question cross fields.

Catherine Maclean is an Associate Professor of Economics at Temple University.

David Slusky is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Kansas and the Editor of ASHEcon’s newsletter.