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Monday, August 15, 2016

Co-Authoring & Essays in the Legal Academy

Explaining to other professors why we law professors tend to write alone can be challenging.  When I told an accounting professor about my impression that it was "better" to write a single-author piece than a co-author piece, he responded that from his perspective it looked like I couldn't find anyone else that agreed with me.

Is my impression unfounded?  I'm curious about how other law professors view this issue.  My perception is that law professors tend to discount co-authored pieces and essays against articles.  If a well-placed, single-author law review article is the gold coin of the realm, essays and co-author pieces count for something less, maybe silver or bronze.  But how much less?  There doesn't seem to be any clear standard.  If an article is worth 10 points, is an essay worth 4 points?  Is a co-authored article also worth 4 points?  And then you have the co-authored essay.  Is that also worth 4 points?  They all seem to have the same value:  not as much as a single-author article.

Some are more pessimistic about the value of co-authored pieces.  Another view I've heard about co-authored work is that everyone assumes that the other author deserves all the credit for the piece, meaning that neither author gets any credit. Thus, a law review article with one name on it would be worth ten points.  Adding a second author to the article would entirely destroy its "value."  Some more thoughts on co-authoring after the jump.

One recent study found that publications by teams of co-authors tend to draw more citations and have a higher impact than single-author pieces.  This puts pressure on the idea that co-authored work has less "value" than single-author production.  For now, it may make sense to draw a line between career value and social/scholarly value. It does a young academic little good to devote too much time to co-author projects at the expense of producing traditional single-author work.  Am I wrong about this impression?  

For my part, I've enjoyed co-authoring and have done it repeatedly.  In every instance I've taken the second author slot.  It has given me the ability to work closely with some extremely talented people. It also tends to create more opportunities to talk about ideas.  Because I've had the good luck of partnering with hard-working co-authors, it has never been difficult to coordinate.  The  co-authoring process also creates natural pauses that allow you to reflect on the project from a fresh perspective.  I can put a draft down for a couple of weeks while a co-author takes the oar.  (In the interim, I turn back to that bigger single-author piece.) Afterward, I can pick it up again with a fresh perspective.

I'm curious about what other faculty thing about co-authoring.  My inclination is to keep doing it in a manageable way.  It seems easier to collaborate on narrower, more focused essays.  This lets me take on co-author projects without taking away the time I need to put together larger articles.

Posted by Benjamin P. Edwards on August 15, 2016 at 03:04 PM | Permalink


It strikes me as frankly absurd that legal academics are so inclined to discount coauthored works simply on the basis that they are coauthored. I can appreciate that a hiring committee (or tenure committee) might be quite concerned if a junior candidate has just a few papers that are all coauthored with prominent professors. But this is probably the only scenario in which I would materially discount coauthored works.

Coauthoring is not valuable simply because it divides labor, although this is indeed convenient, particularly in quantitative work. The principal benefit is that, conditional on the authors having a good working relationship, the paper will almost surely be better than what either author might have produced individually. If you agree that scholarship quality should be the foremost concern, then it seems to me that you should embrace coauthorship.

I regard the hostile opinions expressed here as emblematic of a bigger problem in the legal academy, which is that we tend to focus too much on proxies for publication prestige, and too little on intrinsic research quality.

Posted by: EE | Aug 18, 2016 5:12:33 PM

I agree with Will. It is important to write single-authored pieces pre-tenure so the faculty knows you can do it. On the other hand, there are some projects that make a lot of sense to co-author. Empirical projects come to mind -- especially those that require their own data set. For instance, if a project requires reading and coding hundreds of cases, it makes sense to divide the labor and then, importantly, quality check the other person's work. The more safeguards on the quality of the data collection, the better. In other words, without co-authoring, there is a type of law review article that doesn't get written -- or at least doesn't get written as often or as well.

Posted by: Aaron Nielson | Aug 16, 2016 2:33:21 PM

It seems irrational to discount co-authored articles completely. I understand the desire the distinguish between the work that each co-author contributed to an article. I also understand that most schools may expect junior scholars to complete some substantial work without the help of a co-author, in part to demonstrate their abilities. But completely disregarding co-authored work seems like it would discourage interdisciplinary work and not fairly reward faculty that have put in substantial time and effort.

I know at our school (major, top-tier law school), we absolutely count co-authored work towards tenure and promotion. We may discount it based on the amount of work that each author contributed to the piece (which our committee will investigate with the time comes for promotion or tenure). However, we certainly offer reasonable credit for such work. I am also aware that some of our peer schools have more explicit policies that treat co-authored work much like solo-authored work.

I also think it is perhaps most rational to discount co-authored work in cases where an entry-level faculty who have written a piece with a senior scholar. In such cases, there are genuine questions about the extent to which the entry-level candidate contributed to that piece (and its placement, etc.). But we would never ignore co-authored works completely when considering an entry-level faculty member, either. I was always under the impression that our school was pretty normal for top-tier schools, in this regard.

Posted by: prof | Aug 16, 2016 12:45:12 PM

I will say that I count them as almost zero when it comes to considering applications for tenure-track teaching positions.

Posted by: AnonHiringChair | Aug 16, 2016 11:54:22 AM

I can think of a significant scholar in Penn who publishes over thirty law review articles with a co-author. I took a quick look at this publication list and I see only two articles with only his name on it. It seems nothing is in stone when it comes to these kind of things.

Posted by: I.F | Aug 16, 2016 11:46:31 AM

To echo the division of labor point, is there a danger that law professors might underclaim the relative value of their contributions in co-authored work? For example, if two professors combine to produce a new piece of scholarship. Professor A is very good at task X and loathes task Y. Professor B excels at task Y but finds task X dreadful. Together, they can complete a high quality piece quickly. When asked to examine the contribution of their co-author, they might rate the work by how difficult it would have been for them personally to complete the task a co-author breezed through.

Posted by: Ben Edwards | Aug 16, 2016 11:21:12 AM

Anon | Aug 16, 2016 10:42:08 AM, I think my answer is quite different than what you are expecting. I have coauthored. I did not deserve the full credit for the article because I lacked some of the specialized, empirical knowledge that was needed to execute portions of the piece. And if someone were to ask me, I would praise my author to high heaven for having added so much to what I had to offer. But it is definitely not my best work nor does it deserve the credit of my single authored articles.

Posted by: Anon Prof1 | Aug 16, 2016 11:12:12 AM

I'm not an academic, so I can't speak to the value of co-authored pieces for purposes of tenure. However, when I think of the pieces of legal scholarship that I've found most useful (or even simply controversial) in the last few years, all have had more than one author.

Posted by: A.Rickey | Aug 16, 2016 11:11:16 AM

I wonder if any of the Profs claiming an inability to measure the merit of co-authored pieces has ever been a co-author? I think that experience would have an effect on the ability to assess merit.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 16, 2016 10:42:08 AM

Two thoughts:
1) Co-authored articles are sometimes great and can provide a real contribution to the literature. The identical statement is true for single authored articles.
2) Whenever I see a coauthored article, I have no idea what work any single author has done and don't regard any one of their achievements to be as great as those of a single authored piece. It isn't a matter of bias. I just can't tell who did what work, how much anyone of them did, what the specific contributions were of an individual, the extent to which any one of them contributed to the thesis or details of the piece. All these issues are self-evident with most single authored pieces; I say "most single author pieces" because where research assistants are involved, I also can't tell whether the brilliance of the piece should be entirely attributed to the author.

But take my second comment with a grain of salt: off the top of my head I can think of exceptional, groundbreaking coauthored articles by pairs who consistently wrote together and at other times produced just as high level work when writing solo. On the other hand, for tenure review purposes I wouldn't give nearly as much credit to coauthored pieces.

Overall, I think an individual has to show her or his own merits by single authored pieces, and once that's established s/he can pursue coauthored projects without eliciting doubts.

Posted by: Anon Prof1 | Aug 16, 2016 10:22:45 AM

According to Interdisciplinary at 5:16 above, "Single-authorship is especially problematic in our field, given that it is a field in which it is relatively easy to place almost any article in a legitimate journal, in which there is no peer review".
This is a very incorrect statement for the following reasons:
(1) it is NOT "relatively" easy to place an article - unless you are referring to sub 100 law schools or journals such as "porno and the law". All of the Top 50 journals let alone Top 25 school's law reviews and international law journals receive hundreds (at least) of papers every year some receive over a thousand. To be selected is very difficult and the odds are low. The Top 25 US law school flagship law review, international and business law journals have faculty consultants the journals show the papers that they want to make an offer to which makes an offer even harder to obtain.
(2) about this stigma against "student run" as opposed to peer review I say this is total BS. I have published in both and I can attest that the per review system has serious issues. The EIC peer journal usually (at least in my experience) is a gatekeeper and can can reject an excellent article for any number of reasons including personal bias, prejudice or plain mistake. This happens in student journals too but dont pretend peer review is "superior" in this regard. In addition, I found that the peer reviewers were holding back "final approval" until I realized that the reviewers wanted me to cite to their own work. This factor does not exist in US student journals. Finally, the top law journals of the student run type all have Faculty consultants which they use to verify the papers are novel and make sense.

Posted by: Guest | Aug 16, 2016 1:22:10 AM

I've been pondering the same thing. There was an article about this that I reviewed a few months ago on the ILTL website. Here is the link. http://lawteaching.org/2016/02/08/review-law-school-culture-and-the-lost-art-of-collaboration/

Posted by: Andrea Boyack | Aug 15, 2016 11:35:45 PM

I am lucky enough to work at a school that highly values co-authoring. (So far as I can tell our norm is something like: "prove you are capable of good solo work by writing 1-2 good pieces, then co-author to whatever extent it actually improves your work.")

My first five or so articles were all solo-authored and I actually had a hard time imagining why I would want to co-author. But then I lucked into various great co-authors and projects that has made my work better. I do think junior/senior pairs, cross-methodological pairs, infra-institutional pairs, etc. all have their own dynamics that are worth thinking through. But that's a question of when to co-author, not whether.

Posted by: William Baude | Aug 15, 2016 5:26:34 PM

I am lucky enough to work at a school that highly values co-authoring. (So far as I can tell our norm is something like: "prove you are capable of good solo work by writing 1-2 good pieces, then co-author to whatever extent it actually improves your work.")

My first five or so articles were all solo-authored and I actually had a hard time imagining why I would want to co-author. But then I lucked into various great co-authors and projects that has made my work better. I do think junior/senior pairs, cross-methodological pairs, infra-institutional pairs, etc. all have their own dynamics that are worth thinking through. But that's a question of when to co-author, not whether.

Posted by: William Baude | Aug 15, 2016 5:26:33 PM

The emphasis on single-authored scholarship is, without a doubt, one of the most pernicious pathologies of the legal academy (or any other discipline that relies primarily on single-authored articles).

The simple fact is that few, if any, scholars are good at every aspect of scholarship. But the single-author model is premised on the assumption that they are. If one individual is able to develop brilliant ideas, another is able to place those ideas in an analytically robust framework, and a third is able to cogently and effectively translate that into a written product, all three are doing important scholarly work and should be celebrated. Under the single-author model, mediocre scholars who do each of those only moderately well will likely succeed more readily than those who have abilities that would materially advance the field.

In other words: comparative advantage. We shouldn't be wasting the time of brilliant theorist's who is a poor writer by forcing her to write; and we shouldn't be penalizing the individual who is gifted at translating brilliant and complex ideas into understandable prose that will advance the field simply because he may not be coming up with two paradigm-shifting ideas a year.

Single-authorship is especially problematic in our field, given that it is a field in which it is relatively easy to place almost any article in a legitimate journal, in which there is no peer review, and in which the line between serious analysis and ill-conceived opinion is often razor thin. Co-authoring ensures that at least one's coauthors have thought about the issue and analysis. For many articles published in law reviews, adding a coauthor likely doubles the number of people who have read it before it is published -- and that can only be a good thing.

In response to the argument that faculties don't know how to evaluate the work done be each author, this is an old and easy problem that has been addressed in other disciplines: the authors include a statement of work at the end of a published article, or jointly memorialize each author's contributions for future reference. If other fields can spare a short paragraph at the end of a 2,000 word article, surely we can spare a footnote at the end of a 25,000 word article.

Posted by: Interdisciplinary | Aug 15, 2016 5:16:45 PM

I have lately been reading extensively in sociology, where it appears that single authored pieces are given much greater weight than coauthored, where first author gets most or nearly all of the credit, and where essays are valued almost not at all. I do not offer this as a paradigm, but only as a point of comparison.

Another point: The flagship sociology journals have 10,000 word limits that are more or less enforced, so there is no equivalent of the 25,000+ word law review article.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Aug 15, 2016 4:27:38 PM

This is very simple: if most of your articles are co-authored it would be taken that you need someone else to assist you or to do most of the work or whatever and this will count against you. I would certainly take it as a negative.
If however most of your articles are single author papers that proves your capability and having several co-authored works merely shows you collaborate and work with others which can be a good thing. Example: If one has 20 single articles and 2-4 co-authored that seems about right. If on the other hand you have 10 publications and 6 or 7 (or more) are co-authored I would view that as a negative.

Posted by: well-published | Aug 15, 2016 4:26:28 PM


it sounds like you work at an awful law school. "does not even count co-authored pieces toward tenure"? what a rank and lazy practice.

too much work, for you, to read the piece, assess its (de)merits, and discuss the co-authors' various contributions as need be?

Posted by: Marcus Neff | Aug 15, 2016 3:43:12 PM

I count a co-authored piece about the same as a short piece in a bar journal. I assume the senior co-author did none of the work, but used his or her name and reputation to secure a higher placement; whereas the more junior person did almost all the work, getting a placement he-she would rarely be able to secure on that junior person's name alone. A bad practice all around. For these reasons, my school does not even count co-authored pieces toward tenure.

Posted by: anonlawprof | Aug 15, 2016 3:36:58 PM

Philosophers are often asked the same question, because we too co-author less than people in many other fields. For instance, see here: http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/08/why-is-co-authoring-rare-in-philosophy.html

Concerning attribution, I like what a colleague of mine in math says. When two math professors co-author an article, they insist on equal credit: each gets 70%.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Aug 15, 2016 3:25:10 PM

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