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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why Collaborate? (and Why Not)

Recently, I have been collaborating with Evan Fox-Decent (McGill Law) on a series of papers, which explore the theoretical foundations of international human rights law.  Our basic thesis is that Kant’s theory of fiduciary relations in the Metaphysics of Morals offers a sound philosophical basis for attributing human rights obligations to states and state-like actors.  (The first two installments in the series are available online here and here.) 

From time to time, friends in the academy ask why Evan and I decided to collaborate on this series of papers (other than the fact that we share the same first name).  My usual response is that the project developed as a natural outgrowth of our shared interests.  Evan contacted me after reading an article I had written on fiduciary themes in U.S. administrative law.  At the time, he was exploring similar ideas in a book project focusing on examples from Canadian law.  We began exchanging e-mails about our shared interest in the fiduciary concept’s applications to public law generally—including international human rights law—and it soon became apparent that a collaboration would offer some valuable synergies for our respective research agendas. 

In speaking with others who have engaged in collaborative scholarship, my perception is that law professors choose to co-author for a variety of reasons.  Some work with scholars in other disciplines to develop more sophisticated models, theories, and perspectives for an interdisciplinary audience.  Others team up opportunistically to take advantage of their collaborators’ different and complementary skills (e.g., expertise in statistical analysis, eloquence in writing, encyclopedic knowledge of relevant case law) when writing for an exclusively legal audience.  Junior academics occasionally seek out opportunities to work with well-established senior colleagues in order to strengthen personal or professional ties, learn from a co-author’s successful research/writing process, or perhaps secure a more prestigious placement.  Senior academics might seek out junior scholars to provide mentoring, draw on junior colleagues’ fresh perspectives, reduce their own workload on a particular project, and augment their overall scholarly productivity.  For many, co-authoring provides an excuse to establish or renew friendships with a colleague at one’s own institution or another institution.  Co-authoring can also provide helpful external deadlines for finishing a project, keeping each co-author focused on making progress amidst other demands.  In addition, co-authoring can provide a refreshing alternative to the often-reclusive writing process as collaborators bounce ideas off one another and share drafts for near-instantaneous feedback and discussion.  (Most law professors get into the teaching business because they love a good discussion; collaborating on scholarship helps to draw that dynamism back into the writing process.)      

At the same time, there are a variety of potential pitfalls in collaborative scholarship. 

Some academics no doubt leave law practice precisely because they grow weary of the assembly-line model of collaborative brief-writing and wish to pursue their singular vision in an ivory tower built for one.  In scholarly collaboration, they are likely to find that their vision for a paper eventually diverges from their co-author’s vision in some material respect.  If they are lucky, these tensions will prove to be constructive and will lead to a more rigorous and satisfying final product; if not, competing visions could lead to frustration and frayed nerves.

Other risks in co-authoring are readily apparent:


· Collaborating with a scholar outside one’s discipline can carry substantial risks for the unwary, particularly when it comes to assessing how a project will be received within an unfamiliar discipline.  For example, those of us who are not “quants” by training might find it difficult to gauge whether a potential co-author has the expertise needed to construct a robust data set and run sophisticated, respectable regressions.  We might also worry that colleagues at our home institution will find it difficult to appreciate an interdisciplinary paper’s contribution to a field outside the law


· Co-authoring means taking a chance that a paper will develop on a timetable that is somewhat beyond one’s control, as it will depend upon the collaborator’s availability and waxing/waning interest in the project.


· Some untenured prawfs might worry that reviewers within or outside their institution could discount a co-authored paper for tenure purposes.  (I hear conflicting reports from faculty at other schools on the relative weight given to co-authored papers in tenure decisions.  My own view is that tenure committees should accord roughly equal weight to co-authored work based on a scholar’s potential for future collaborative scholarship.  I also think it ordinarily makes little sense to try to “look under the hood” of a co-authored piece to parse out collaborators’ respective contributions absent some compelling reason to believe that one author’s contribution is more or less substantial than another’s.) 


·     Co-authoring has the potential for unmitigated disaster if a collaborator fails to produce or produces poor quality work.  Caveat emptor.       


Despite these potential risks, my experience suggests that collaborating can add an immensely satisfying dimension to the work of legal scholarship.  I would be very interested to hear about others’ experiences with co-authoring, their views of the professional risks and rewards of collaboration (especially pretenure), and their perceptions of the direction legal academia may be headed in this regard.    


Posted by Evan Criddle on March 16, 2010 at 09:21 AM | Permalink


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I have co-authored with a number of different scholars for a number of different reasons over the years. My advice is to have clear divisions of labor at the beginning, know the work and writing style of your co-author in advance, and know your own tolerance for letting go of complete control. I only want to work with co-authors who are good writers. I warn my co-authors in advance that I am slow but careful, and if that will drive them crazy, I am the wrong co-author for them.

Posted by: lyrissa | Mar 16, 2010 10:07:14 PM

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