February 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM2

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Co-Authoring Papers in Research Teams: Avoiding the Pitfalls

In many states, both county-based and campus-based Extension staff are expected to conduct research and publish in both academic journals and practitioner publications. More Extension professionals are now experiencing the struggles associated with the sticky issues of authorship that faculty have long experienced. We set the stage with several true stories and present several points that can be used to avoid the common and difficult pitfalls of authorship that create ill will, even among close colleagues. By using the guidelines presented, it is possible to have professionally rewarding co-authoring experiences and to avoid the quagmire that results from either unthinking or unethical behavior.

Richard P. Enfield
4-H Youth Development Advisor
University of California
San Luis Obispo County

Faye C. H. Lee
4-H Youth Development Advisor
University of California
San Francisco County


These are true stories. An editor of a respected journal recently told the authors of this article that he had been contacted by an individual regarding a recent research submission that was made by a group of people who, apparently, did not quite have intellectual property rights to the data.

Several months ago, one of the authors of this article was summoned to a conference room by a highly distraught colleague. Entering with apprehension, he was relieved to learn that the issue was about authorship and nothing more dire. A research assistant on a research project was demanding first authorship on an article that he and the author's colleague had been working on for several months. The colleague had conducted this research for several years, whereas the research assistant collected and analyzed the data for the past several months. The assistant wrote the first rough draft after they collaboratively drafted an outline and felt that he was entitled to be the first author.

In a similar incident, another upset colleague confided that he had learned that several of his partners from a research project were putting the final touches on an article being submitted for publication. He felt he had been an equal partner on this project for the last 2 years. A partner had e-mailed the article to him, asking for comments on the article before it was sent to a journal. This colleague was livid that the article was written without his knowledge, was written without his being invited to be a co-author, and for being asked to review an article that he should have helped write.

Clearly these are sticky, after-the-fact, ethical questions of authorship. Recent Journal of Extension Commentaries have addressed broad issues of scholarship in Extension (Alter, 2003) and within the 4-H Program (Astroth, 2003). In California, scholarship (creating, synthesizing, and applying knowledge) has been Extension's mission for many years.

Thus, like campus-based specialists, all county-based academics are expected to conduct applied research relevant to our local constituents and publish our findings for academic and practitioner audiences. Issues such as intellectual property and authorship that used to be restricted to campuses, particularly between faculty and students (Fine & Kurdek, 1993; Smith, 2003), are creeping into Extension as our research expectations increase (Loveridge, 1998: O'Neill, 1990). In California, Extension supports issue-specific, statewide workgroups to conduct and report collaborative research projects. Drawing heavily from successful co-authoring experiences within our workgroups, we share strategies to avoid pitfalls of co-authoring papers among Extension professionals.

The first and most important step is an open and honest discussion about the authorship of papers to be written. The research groups should allow adequate time to reach agreement early in the process. Every member of the team should participate.

What Needs to Be Discussed?

  • The group's underlying philosophy. Agreements could involve such matters as: intellectual property, e.g., the research content belongs to the group, not to any individual; work style, e.g., will the group write articles collaboratively or individually; and shared values, e.g., the group wishes to be as inclusive as possible in providing opportunities for group members to be co-authors and to make intellectual contributions.

  • Individuals' goals, needs, interests, and writing ability. Whether driven by an impending advancement review, inexperience, interest in particular journals, or job requirements, group members usually vary in their interest and authorship needs.

  • The roles of people who may not be present, such as research assistants, other hired staff, former team members, etc.

  • Production goals. Research projects usually yield a primary article describing the overall research project and results as well as sub-papers about specific aspects of the research. Some research teams outline all future papers, even though individuals or small teams may be responsible for writing the papers.

Research groups should keep a written record of the discussion and any agreements for future reference.

First Author and Co-Authors

The group should agree on criteria for first authorship. This agreement may be different for the primary paper and for sub-papers. Options for the primary paper that is written by the entire group include:

  1. All members may be listed alphabetically,
  2. The research group listed as the author, or
  3. Some other variation.

One research team with whom the authors worked decided that two members would be listed as first authors for their leadership in writing the paper and the research team would be the third author, with members listed in parentheses in alphabetical order.

The group needs to decide the criteria for inclusion as co-author. One team decided that every co-author had to actually write a section of the paper. Another team decided that the article would be written by several individuals, reviewed by other team members, and edited by another, but that everyone would be listed as co-authors.

For sub-papers, other agreements may be appropriate. These papers are usually written by one or two members. The group needs to agree on who will be lead and co-author and how the research team will be acknowledged. For example, one group decided that the first authors would actually write the paper and the last "author" of all papers would be the research team.

Other issues the group may reach agreement on include:

  1. The order in which the co-authors be listed,
  2. How to acknowledge the research team, and
  3. Who decides who will be included as co-authors.

One group decided that the lead authors would have the final say about authorship based on their perception of the intellectual contribution made by workgroup members.

Revisit the Issue

Even the best plans can result in disputes, so ongoing discussions and agreements are also important. Keep written records of these agreements to refresh memories. The time and energy spent on issues of authorship will prevent problems, including hurt feelings and animosity. From our experiences, including the writing of this article, we know it is possible to use the guidelines presented above and have enjoyable and professionally rewarding co-authoring experiences.


If Extension scholarship is going to provide viable, researched-based, non-formal education in the twenty-first century, as suggested by Alter (2003), Extension professionals need to become familiar with, and implement, appropriate procedures for avoiding the authorship pitfalls described above. Having frank discussions and reaching agreements on intellectual property and authorship before writing papers are critical in research teams. The quagmire that results from either unthinking or unethical behavior will certainly not contribute to the scholarly success of Extension, and may indeed result in reduced integration of Extension into our land-grant universities.


Alter, T. R. (2003). Where is Extension scholarship falling short, and what can we do about it? Journal of Extension [Online], 41(6). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2003december/comm2.shtml

Astroth, K. A. (2003). Doorway, doormat, or doghouse? The challenges facing 4-H youth development scholarship in land-grant universities. Journal of Extension [Online], 41(6). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2003december/comm1.shtml

Fine, M. A., & Kurdek, L. A. (1993). Reflections on determining authorship credit and authorship order on facultystudent collaborations. American Psychologist, 49(11), 1141-1147.

Loveridge, S. (1998). Publishing research in Extension. Journal of Extension [Online], 36(3). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/1998june/tt2.html

O'Neill, B. M. (1990). How to get published in a professional journal. Journal of Extension [Online], 28(3). Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/1990fall/tt2.html

Smith, D. (2003). Five principles for research ethics. Monitor on Psychology, 34(1). Retrieved January 23, 2004, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan03/principles.html