Whose Work Is It Really? Collaboration and the Question of Credit

Seth Denbo, February 2017

During a roundtable session on collaboration at the annual meeting in Denver last month, the conversation turned to questions of credit for work done jointly with colleagues. One historian revealed that his departmental guidelines allowed a single-author book to be included in a faculty member’s annual review materials for two years, while a multi-authored work could appear for only one year. This reductive calculation says a lot about the value that the historical community places on collaborative scholarship.

While it is unusual for two or more scholars to share authorship of a book, historians collaborate in other ways all the time. Footnotes pointing to secondary literature attest to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Research involves working closely with archivists, librarians, and curators whose in-depth knowledge of their collections lead historians in new directions. While historians might experience the initial writing phase as solitary, turning early drafts into finished works with the help of editors is essentially collaborative. Colleagues who generously give their precious time to read drafts shape one another’s scholarship in fundamental ways; lengthy acknowledgments affirm the importance of this work. Peer review, at its best, entails further collaborative exchanges among historians. Historians also collaborate on curriculum development; the AHA’s Tuning project is one example.

Even our colleagues who work primarily in administration inhabit this collaborative network. Peter Miller’s essay “Argument by Other Means: Toward an Intellectual History of Academic Administration,” in the March 2016 issue of Perspectives on History, argued persuasively that administration shapes intellectual directions taken by individuals and fields. Miller uses the examples of the close working relationships between Fritz Saxl and Aby Warburg, and Clemens Heller and Fernand Braudel, in mid-20th-century London and Paris to demonstrate the importance of this type of academic collaboration.

When looked at in this way, the idea of scholarship as solitary enterprise is a fiction that distorts the nature of historical work and obscures the contributions made to historical thinking and writing by other historians, editors, colleagues outside the discipline, and even administrators. It encourages egocentrism and diminishes the value of the activities that help colleagues and improve ideas, writing, and explication. While including a list of acknowledgments in front of the book or a long footnote at the beginning of a journal article is good customary practice, it may serve to undervalue the significance of some of the activities that produce scholarship. As a discipline we have an obligation to our colleagues and students to improve the ways we encourage and give credit for collaborative work. We are, however, a long way from being able to do so. As first steps, we must define collaboration, understand the ways that historical work can be collaborative, and establish protocols for making professional judgments.

Those in the room at the session “Is Collaboration Worth It?” made very clear the need for, and the problems of, giving credit for collaboration. Variations on the observation “I get no formal credit for this” were repeatedly mentioned. So why, given the dearth of recognition, do scholars continue to collaborate? Participants in the panel all saw collaborating as professionally and personally valuable, and repeatedly spoke of finding the formal and informal partnerships they’d developed as fulfilling, stimulating, and vital to their work. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, editors of The American Yawp, for example, found that their partnership enabled them to facilitate a massive collaboration, including dozens of scholars who write and edit the online, open-access American history textbook. Vanessa Holden and Jessica Marie Johnson explained how co-organizing the Queering Slavery Working Group led to conference panels and online and in-person events. Paul Harvey spoke of how co-authoring books led him in new analytical directions.

Collaboration is difficult and time-consuming. It is not, for most historians, a route to less work or greater productivity. Scholars who take on collaborative projects—writing and editing a book together or maintaining a productive working group—talk about the extra work required. Collaboration, then, is a means to producing knowledge that would otherwise never happen. Sharing ideas with a scholar who focuses on another aspect of a subject, who knows related literature better, or who has expertise in another domain of knowledge altogether enables work that would otherwise be impossible.

Pressure from several fronts is now building against the widespread view of scholarship as individual achievement, and leading to calls for better mechanisms for providing credit for collaborations. Historians working outside higher education outpace academicians when it comes to participating in and recognizing teamwork. Museum exhibits and documentaries, to name two examples, have always involved collaborative research and communication. Growing cross-pollination between academic and public history only increases the need for evaluating this work.

Scholars are also taking direct control of scholarly communication more than ever before. Some of the most respected scholarly blogs—The Junto and Nursing Clio are two examples—are collaboratively written and edited. While some of this work is much like traditional scholarly publishing, these newer entities have collaboration and collectivity at their core. Other types of collaboration arise from the demands of new forms of scholarship. Collaboration is particularly common, and often essential, in digital history. Collaborative work in digital history can vary from small partnerships to large-scale funded projects involving teams of historians, computer scientists, project managers, and other participants. Problems often arise when departments attempt to ­determine the contribution of individuals to a larger project.

While collaboration comes in all shapes and sizes, these examples are all about creating and maintaining a shared vision. When that shared vision leads to scholarship that could not have been created otherwise, collaboration enriches in ways that should be encouraged. Reducing it to crude calculations that aren’t based in either the labor involved or the potential for new knowledge does a disservice to both scholars and their ideas.

The problem is not simple, and neither will be the solutions. Placing a high value on single-authored works is deeply embedded in the culture of our discipline. In figuring out how to give credit, we should avoid the impulse to count outputs, to assume that it takes half as much work to co-author a book, or to assign percentages—as funders often do—to effort on a project. To reward this work, we need to evaluate it for its contribution to knowledge. If we view scholarship as a disciplined and documented conversation, and evaluate work for its contribution to that conversation, we will avoid these pitfalls. In this way, the discipline can truly value the work and the ideas that collaboration makes possible.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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