A Case For Co-Authorship In Philosophy (guest post by Joshua A. Miller and Eric Schliesser)


The following is a guest post* co-authored by Joshua A. Miller (Georgetown) and Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam). A version of it was previously published at both of their blogs: Miller’s Another Panacea and Schliesser’s Digressions & ImpressionsIt includes information about the frequency of co-authorship in different disciplines, discusses varieties of co-authorship and how they fit with philosophers’ views of what philosophical publications are, and presents an argument for more co-authorship in philosophy.


An Ethical Argument For Philosophy Co-Authorship;
on Friendship and Disagreement
by Eric Schliesser and Joshua A. Miller

The most dazzling example of co-authorship is Paul Erdős, who co-wrote more than 1400 papers in mathematics with 485 collaborators. (What is your Erdős number?) To do this, he became functionally homeless: “His modus operandi was to show up on the doorstep of a fellow mathematician, declare, “My brain is open,” work with his host for a day or two, until he was bored or his host was run down, and then move on to another home.”

In the sciences, co-authorship is normal. In the humanities, it is uncommon. In philosophy, it is almost non-existent¹, as this chart illustrates:

 Yet philosophy is not without famous co-authors (e.g., Marx and Engels). What’s more, some monographs ought properly be considered co-authored, like John Stuart Mill’s collaborations with Harriet Taylor Mill: “when two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common it is of little consequence, in respect of the question of originality, which of them holds the pen.”

There is little scholarship on co-authorship in philosophy, but a steady trickle of blog posts suggests that there is interest and anxiety on this point (see, for example, Helen de CruzMark ZelcerRobert Paul Wolff).

1.      What is co-authorship generally?

Co-authorship in the sciences is ideally ruled by two rules rooted in a particular sociology of labs and research groups. First, co-authors contribute to the scholarly endeavor for a piece of publishable scholarship by planning, executing, or analyzing the results of some sort of research. Second, co-authors compose the written portion of the research, either collectively or through some division of labor.

Both of these ideals are violated, of course—there are plenty of massive multi-authored articles where scholars receive token authorship (gift authorship) or someone who made substantial contributions is not credited as an author (ghost authorship.) In that way, these are “endorsed” norms, not the “enforced” ones: violations abound and are even legitimated as common practice in some “big science” research areas. But this remains the practical ideal.

2.      Why is co-authorship deprecated in philosophy?

Professional philosophers collaborate, usually through disputatious conversation, but usually not in a way that counts multiple thinkers as the author of a single paper. We are also much less likely to cite our peers than the agenda-setting papers in our sub-fields, especially as a part of a generic literature review. (See Kieran Healey’s data.) It is more common for close collaborators to co-edit than to co-author: for instance, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum famously created the “capabilities approach” together without co-authoring any of their foundational papers. They did, however, co-edit the seminal volume, The Quality of Lifein 1993.

So while we do not imagine ourselves to be lone geniuses communing with the ancient canon, it is the case that many philosophical papers are projected as manifestos of a single principled thinker. Indeed, philosophers are particularly prone to a kind of “subauthorial collaboration” that is formalized in lavish acknowledgements in the text or an early footnote. (Cronin, Shaw, La Barre, 2003)

David Lewis, who understood philosophical politics as well as anybody (recall),  comments on this kind of “ghost” authorship in his paper, “Causation as Influence:”:

“This paper mostly presents the latest lessons I’ve learned from my students. Under the customs of the natural sciences, it should have been a joint paper, the coauthors being (in alphabetical order) John Collins, Ned Hall, myself [David Lewis], L.A. Paul, and Jonathan Schaffer. But under the customs of philosophy, a paper is expected to be not only a report of discoveries but a manifesto; and, happily, the five of us have by no means agreed upon a common party line.”²

Yet analytic philosophers often imagine themselves by analogy to the natural and social sciences, and American and continental philosophers increasingly emphasize the collaborative nature of our enterprise. Why, then, do we not use co-authorship more?

One obvious reason is the relative paucity of grants and research support compared to the natural and social sciences. Without an incentive to adopt the lab or research group model, most working philosophers are not members of a funded research unit with reporting requirements. Rigorous research is understood to support ‘research-led teaching,’ and so the single-author model is based primarily on the single-teacher model. We should thus expect the introduction of larger private grant-making institutions, like the Templeton Foundation and the Berggruen Institute, and public European grant agencies, to usher in an era of increasing research group size in philosophy, and the more frequent co-authorship.

We expect that  new collaborative technologies will decrease the costs and difficulties of collaboration to the extent that philosophers will more often overcome them, even without any increased funding or benefits. Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, and simple Microsoft Office sharing, versioning, and commenting will all tend to ease the speed with which scholars of all varieties—including philosophers—create collaborative documents. Social media, chat programs, and email ease collaboration over distance to replicate the proximity by which labs and research groups co-compose.

Lastly, we might think of philosophical research as long-shot bets (Langhe and Schliesser, 2017) that explore concepts, methods, or techniques that may be generally applicable. As such, it will be difficult to trace any particular result in the world back to a paper or monograph, and it is preferable to have many such long-shot bets rather than focus the efforts and attention of a highly skilled research team on sequential elaboration of just one of these gambles. It will generally be better to encourage idiosyncratic work done by individuals and small teams in hopes that one of those bets pays off. In the age of increasingly easy collaboration some enduring, virtual small research teams will emerge without, hopefully, fully displacing lone wolfs and disputatious research groups.

3.     What norms of co-authorship might philosophers embrace?

If philosophers do adopt co-authorship norms, which ones should we adopt?

We should start with the ideal of recognition of actual contribution to the research and knowing participation in the composition. Co-authorship should never be merely “honorary” inclusion for a member of a team or department who contributed to neither the research work nor the writing endeavor. However, the division of labor in some disciplines has the result of producing co-authored pieces where some credited contributors don’t even understand the paper they have helped to produce. Should we extend co-authorship to a student assistant who writes the literature review for a piece of research without understanding the rest of the paper? Should we accept co-authorship for a paper whose conclusions we do not endorse, if we supplied the formal modeling or computer code that underwrites it?

Our current professional ideal is consensus. On this ideal all authors must give credence to every jot and tittle of the work, even if their confidence varies slightly. Co-authorship in philosophy is stricter because philosophers can and should endorse all the claims, arguments,and conclusions of the paper. Papers can be thus be co-authored in philosophy when two or more researchers find a common interest, discuss it at great length, and truly co-compose the entire paper, contesting each argumentative move and turn of phrase until agreement is reached. As such, it should be very unlikely to see large groups of co-authors writing together, given the difficulty of producing such an exacting meeting of the mindsand we even look askance at philosophy papers co-authored by three or four scholars.

Another possibility is that philosophers working on closely-related research might try to divvy up the tasks in a field of research around some question such that only one or a few of the authors of a work understand the whole thing, while others are credited for their contributions without being “first” or “lead” author status. This requires trust in each other to handle sections of the paper that address relevant issues from their sub-fields; perhaps a paper that is 12,000 words long is written in two halves, with only the introduction and conclusion truly a joint project. On this ideal, co-authors retain the right to veto truly abhorrent claims made outside of their assigned sections, but only by threatening to dissolve the partnership. Otherwise, they can only register objections and hope to be heard.

A third possibility would be to follow the norm in law courts, where empaneled and en banc judges issue both dissenting opinions or in some cases join the majority in parts of their decision but not others, perhaps affirming the result but not all of the methods used to arrive at it. In such cases, a minority might dissent vehemently, while the court is understood to have rendered the opposite verdict: that minority dissent is clearly a separate research project in philosophical terms. They are not understood as co-authors of the majority opinion but as co-authors of a distinct opinion which did not win a majority of support. The more instructive question is what to do when judges affirm parts of the main decision but not all of it, and by analogy, situations where co-authors affirm parts of a research project but not all of it. Can it be possible for one of the co-authors to “sign on” to parts 1, 2, and 4 of a paper, while dissenting from arguments found in part 3 and in the conclusion? For example, in the past one of us has used a footnote to signal an alternative position from the one arrived at in the body of the paper.

A fourth possibility is majority voting. Bright, Dang, and Heesen (2017) argue that scientific work should aggregate researchers’ judgments. Claims and propositions should be made in a paper that receive the assent of the majority of the authors. One might well find oneself outvoted in some cases, and this would be fine so long as there was agreement that voting had not produced a contradictory or logically incoherent set of claims.

A fifth possibility would be a kind of deliberative dictatorship: a lead author could write a paper, assign sections for others to compose, and bounce ideas off of possible co-authors. At the conclusion, all participants who agreed with the final product could sign on as co-authors, while dissenters could produce their own dissenting papers to be published alongside. This is related to proposals that might allow peer reviewers to receive more recognition for their work as initial gatekeepers.

Could all of these modes of co-authorship flourish in philosophy? Are some of them inimical to the discipline?

4.      Philosophers should co-author more of our work

Given the fact that some forms of collaborative recognition do exist, why suggest co-authorship as an alternative model for philosophy? Let’s start by dividing the reasons for co-authorship into roughly epistemic and roughly ethical categories, even if this is a division that is easily collapsed. Co-authored papers may simply be better for having multiple composers, readers, and researchers attached to them. The division of epistemic labor will often lead to better-written, more carefully crafted, or simply more copious publications: many minds make light work.

At the same time, co-authorship is partly about recognizing the contributions of our peers. In that sense, it is ethical. This is a weaker defense of co-authorship, since there are alternative methods for providing recognition. If a paper issues from a conversation with a colleague or a good objection raised at a conference or blog post, we philosophers would normally expect to mention that in a footnote, not to grant the colleague or objector co-authorship status. Philosophy papers are sometimes imagined to be the record of the thoughts or analysis of a single agent, and group agency seems much more difficult in these cases because we are so rarely in anything resembling agreement. We are rarely of a single mind, ourselves, so this is no big impediment, but this also ignores the fact that one can commit to a written product while having varying confidence in its disparate elements.

But there’s a significant ethical claim that might recommend co-authorship: the ideal of scholarly friendship. Co-authorship can be a way to channel professional philosophical relationships in productive ways, a norm for guiding conversations and arguments towards shared, potentially overlapping projects. There is independent reason to believe that shared projects are an intrinsic good tied closely to well-being. (Korsgaard, 1992) Thus we should, if possible, prefer to share the tasks associated with philosophical research with others, not just after publication but throughout the scholarly endeavor. Philosophical co-authorship is desirable just because philosophical friendship is desirable.

Shared projects are possible both between equals and between mentors and students. As such, co-authorship is a way to encourage productive collaboration within departments and with undergraduate and graduate students. In the pedagogy-first model of much philosophical research, departmental colleagues at most small schools should not co-author their research because this leads to overlapping areas of interest and knowledge. A department with only a handful of philosophers should instead hope that its faculty have as little in common as possible, even if they must share governance of their department and spend their careers working side-by-side. But if co-authorship underwrites philosophical friendship, then even a maximally pluralistic department should seek opportunities to co-create research, actively seeking agreement and shared methods, research areas, and conceptual terrain.

Like friends, co-authors need not agree on everything.³ Finding some method for adjudicating those disagreements is important, but philosophical writing can encompass these minor dissents or majoritarian procedures, just as our departments do. The key is that the commitment to co-author—like the commitments of friendship—is a commitment to resolve disagreements using whatever methods are available. Friends do not obsess over decision-procedures, though we adopt them to ease tensions for the sake of shared projects. The same should go for co-authors.

Like friends, co-authors need not be equals. We see in the sciences that co-authorship allows a kind of scholarly mentorship, and in philosophy graduate students experience intense collaboration for the first time while writing their dissertation with a senior scholar. We even acknowledge that this is akin to co-authorship by treating dissertation advising as something close to co-authorship for some professional purposes.

More of this sort of mentorship should be encouraged. The practice of learning from another scholar does not end when a philosopher receives a PhD, and probably we shouldn’t pretend that it does. Perhaps newly-minted PhDs aren’t yet ready for the full burdens of a research program, or perhaps they would benefit from mentorship when they move on to a new research program. Or perhaps not: perhaps this would end with more domination by senior scholars, as the division of labor creates permanent hierarchies. But it’s not as if our current, academic political economy is hierarchy-free.

A final reason is merely accuracy: our authorial norms give a false idea of our practices to the rest of the academy. We should consider revising them to align ourselves with our fellow academics. Let’s not pretend that scholarly productivity metrics are irrelevant or that Deans do not look askance at our publication records compared to other disciplines.


[1] Despite the best efforts of some of the authors of this post!

[2] The quote and suggestion comes from Christopher Hitchcock, who offered it as a comment to an older post on philosophy coauthorship at New APPS.

[3] We are indebted to Andrew Corsa’s and Eric Schliesser’s unpublished research on Margaret Fuller’s ideas on friendship and magnanimity.

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George Gale
George Gale
4 years ago

Interesting. Maybe philosophers/historians of science are different? I just checked my latest c.v. (2014) and it has 60 papers listed; 10 are co-authored, with 5 different co-authors. My most frequent co-author was a theoretical physicist, cool-ly enough.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  George Gale
4 years ago

Most established philosophers of physics have Erdos numbers in the mid-single digits, in support of this theory.Report

Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  George Gale
4 years ago

Plus, a co-authorship rate as low as ~16.7% (10/60) is (I am nearly certain) literally non-existant in my field (biology). I would wager that even a rate of <50% is virtually – if not actually – absent among even early-career biologists!Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

I suspect the lack of co-authorship in philosophy is basically down to cultural norms, not anything about the nature of funding, or collaboration software. Any attempt to explain why co-authorship is rare in Anglo-American philosophy should also explain why it is not rare in Australian philosophy. (See, e.g., https://philpapers.org/s/Robert%20Pargetter and https://philpapers.org/rec/JACMMA.) And I don’t see the prospects for an explanation in terms of the nature of philosophy, professional standards for co-authorship, grants, etc., that can explain the North-South difference.

In any case, I heartily agree with the authors that there should be more co-authorship. I encourage, and occasionally require, students in my graduate classes to co-author papers for class credit. And I think it’s a good idea to get people started early on the idea that collaborative philosophy is good philosophy.Report

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

More infamously (if not as thoroughgoing-ly Australian) is https://philpapers.org/rec/BEAOTT-3Report

John Turri
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

Brian,

You helpfully linked to a couple phil paper resources showing co-authorship by Australian philosophers. Of course, you also could have linked to a couple phil paper resources showing co-authorship by American and British philosophers. Obviously, I recognize that you, personally, are in a relatively good position to form an anecdotal impression of the relative rates. Still, I’m left wondering whether you’re aware of any data showing that co-authorship is significantly less rare among Australian philosophers than American and British philosophers.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  John Turri
4 years ago

I’m not sure how many Pargetters you could find in American or (especially) British philosophy. Maybe Ernie Lepore comes close. So the anecdotes have some value, at least at noting the limit cases.

There are a few ways one could try to do this more rigorously. It isn’t trivial. You have to identify who counts as Australian in the relevant sense. You might want to adjust for era (even Australians didn’t co-author much back in the day) or for subject matter (you don’t want Australians to look more co-author-y just because they write lots of logic papers, and logic papers are often co-authored).

The best thing I can think of is to look through the bibliography of one of the Oppy and Trakakis volumes (either the 2010 Companion to Philosophy in Australia, or the 2014 History of Philosophy in Australia) and measure the % of co-authored papers in them. I suspect it would be higher than the numbers cited here, but it would be interesting to see it checked.Report

RICHARD RUSSELL WOOD
RICHARD RUSSELL WOOD
4 years ago

Even logic?
Mein Gott!Report

nicholesuomi
4 years ago

I like the court model idea, at least some of the time. Giving the minority dissent seems like it would only improve the work as the majority then has more immediate pushback, encouraging better writing and thinking, and readers get better access to where at least some disagreement lies. Many collections of papers in books already feature a back and forth, anyway, and as long as philosophy is as argumentative as it is, that may as well be reflected in the papers.Report

Daniel Whiting
4 years ago

In view of the comments about research funding, it’s worth noting that the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council – at present, the main source of funding in the UK – requires co-authorship for its Research Grant scheme. According to its Funding Guide, Research Grants must “include a principal investigator and at least one co-investigator jointly involved in the development of the research proposal, its leadership and management and leading to significant jointly authored research outputs” (1.1.1). This requirement, which the AHRC takes seriously, is likely to increase – indeed, to have increased – the amount of co-authorship in UK philosophy.Report

Sam Baron
Sam Baron
4 years ago

I’d like to put in a plug for the cultural norms suggestion, advocated by Brian. Here is a comment that I have heard or seen written in many places on grant reviews, selection committees and in conversation:

“Their CV is not very good. While they have published 20 papers in very good places, most of these papers are co-authored!”

The comment expresses a norm, or a cluster of norms. There is an idea floating around that if you co-author a lot you are a worse philosopher. Co-authored publications are implicitly or explicitly discounted by the various review processes that we have in philosophy. Such norms put pressure on us all to minimise how much we co-author. For example: what would you think if you were on a hiring committee and the writing sample submitted by an applicant was a joint publication? I suspect that for many people the answer would be ‘this is no good’. Why? Because there is a view out there that the amount of work that an individual puts into a co-authored paper is 1 divided by the number of co-authors. A joint writing sample then looks like half a paper! Having done a fair bit of co-authoring I can say with confidence that many co-authored papers are more work than single-authored papers. Over time, when you have a very good working relationship with someone, it can *maybe* end up being about half the work of a single authored paper. But I think that’s the exception, not the rule.

I’ve never seen or heard a convincing argument for why extensive co-authorship is a bad thing (though there may be one). In so far as I’ve heard arguments at all, they tend to exclusively focus on the negative aspects of co-authoring, and rarely take into account the obvious benefits.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are different cultural norms in different areas of philosophy. It has already been pointed out that history/philosophy of science have more tolerance for co-authoring. But it’s notable that co-authoring in logic appears to be quite common, and co-authoring in X-Phi looks to be the norm.Report

Aaron Thomas-Bolduc
Aaron Thomas-Bolduc
4 years ago

Some things:
– Sam’s point about co-authored papers being seen as “worth” much is important. It’s especially important for grad students publishing with more senior figures, as I’ve at least heard the thought that it’s mostly the senior person’s pub.
-There is A LOT of co-authoring in the neo-logicism literature (that my diss is on). Often this is long-term co-authors (e.g. Hale & Wright), but not always, and occasionally by authors who disagree.
– If we change our practices, care will need to be taken wrt the ordering of authors. Under the current model, I’m in favour of alphabetical, but that may not be best in some of the other scenarios you describe.
– I’m currently co-writing a couple of papers (sharelatex) which would never have gotten very far if we had been working alone – we have different skills and interests.Report

Guy
Guy
4 years ago

I have loved all my co-authoring experiences. I can’t imagine why the rest of you all aren’t doing it more often. Right when you hit that point where you are not sure what to do with it, you bang it in the email and it come back a week or two later, further along and better. Priceless.Report

Roy T Cook
Roy T Cook
4 years ago

I suspect that much of the emphasis on solo publications is, as has already been noted, a combination of cultural norms in the profession and the impression (I think right) that co-publications count less in promotions, etc. As I have gotten to a point where I have to think less about promotions and such, I have co-published more and more (15 papers, with 10 different authors – 20 with 13 different authors if introductions to edited volumes count) and really found it both worthwhile and enjoyable. A while back, when I was contributing to M-Phi, I did a more tongue-in-cheek, unscientific post comparing co-publication in mathematics and in philosophy – you can find out about your “Cook” number here: http://m-phi.blogspot.com/2011/08/roys-fortnightly-puzzle-volume-8.html.Report

lee
lee
4 years ago

It seems that fields where expreimental methods are frequently/largely performed have more co-authership than others.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
4 years ago

There’s a version of Sam Baron’s overheard comment which is sort of semi-rational. When I was young I had a childish ambition to outdo Robert Pargetter by giving more papers than he did at a single conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. I count myself as having achieved this ambition even though, at the conference in question, I gave four papers and he gave five, because only one of mine was co-authored while only one of his wasn’t. Now to translate this into the language of progressions, promotions and appointments, consider two candidates of roughly the same academic age, each of whom has twenty good papers in twenty good venues. But the bulk of the first candidate’s papers are coauthored whereas the second candidate only has a couple. (I guess I am setting this scene in Australasia – not just *Australia* – where co-authoring is fairly common: about 8% of my own output is coauthored, all of it with other new Zealanders.) Now wouldn’t it be reasonable to give the preference to the second candidate rather than the first on the grounds that the second candidate is *individually* the more productive scholar of the two? What would NOT be rational, however, would be to prefer a candidate with twenty good solo-authored papers to a same-aged candidate with forty good CO-authored papers. That would suggest an irrational bias *against* cooperation rather than a rational *preference* for greater intellectual productivity.Report

Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  Charles Pigden
4 years ago

I think this is only the case if “productivity” is the sole criterion of the hiring committee, which it shouldn’t be (mentorship ability, teaching ability, ability to work in groups, etc. all strike me as additional, important concerns that are more likely to be positively correlated with levels of co-authorship). For example, an ability to cooperate strikes me as not just important to academic life, but critical (both in terms of the quality of the work as well as the quality of the community [i.e. coworkers]). I would actually be actively biased against the person with only sole-authored papers!

But, if you had a healthy dose of independent evidence that the candidate is a good mentor, teacher, colleague, etc. – then yes, I imagine I’d favor the candidate with the higher rate of sole authorship.Report