RA versus co-author

A reader poses a good question. I paraphrase:

I am close to closing a deal that will send me to Africa to manage a randomized impact evaluation and co-lead an NGO. Ultimately, my goal is to go back for a PhD. I am lobbying to get co-authorship on a paper or two from the evaluation. Given that this is my first experience negotiating co-authorship, I am not familiar with how it works.

I need to keep in mind that the economists are also people I would like to write recommendations for me. At this point there are no promises, only the commitment to consider co-authorship if I prove that I have sufficiently interesting research proposals.

I understand there’s a economic theorist at Harvard who does his best thinking standing in a corner with his forehead leaning into the wall. This is not a man who needs to worry about giving credit to co-authors. Much of economics and politics is likewise individualistic.

The rise of large empirical projects, especially those in developing countries, means more academic projects involve large teams. The norms for authorship, however, remain dominated by the more individualistic style.

The new norms are still evolving, but my sense is that co-authorship for RAs can’t be taken for granted. What follows is my take having been a junior and a senior partner on several projects.

Co-authorship as an RA usually implies some combination of making a creative contribution and doing a lot of the work. In some cases, the work is unpaid when authorship is on offer. In a field study that takes several years, like an impact evaluation, authorship also requires that you’re along for the full ride.

For new RAs, the people that hired you are going to wait and see if you’re pleasant to work with, willing to stick around and work hard, and able to bring in new ideas. At the point you begin to analyze the data, they might offer you co-authorship (especially likely if they are short of money to pay you for all that analysis time). But I don’t think most researchers would regard granting co-authorship an obligation unless you make a substantial original contribution–something that transforms the paper.

Keep some other factors in mind. First, on some projects there are already so many cooks in the kitchen that adding another can spoil the broth.

Second, some researchers want their paid staff mostly to be doers, and don’t necessarily feel that they need another thinker. This is especially true when the researcher is nontenured. Many want to be generous but their incentives point in the opposite direction. Tenured professors (and those with more field projects than they can handle) tend to be more willing co-authors. The professional staff at places like the World Bank are often generous for the same reason.

At the outset of a project, I would simply try to establish that co-authorship is a possibility on current or follow-on publications, but not assured. If it’s important to you to get a publication, seek tenured or busy scholars, and be bright and dedicated. But in general I’d recommend you do the best you can irrespective of the co-authorship possibilities, and look for a potential shared project in the next phase.

In the end, I don’t think being a co-author on will greatly influence your chances of getting into a PhD program. The work will give you great experience, and prepare you to write a better dissertation, and eventually (if it is coauthored) look good on your graduating CV.

Like I said, however, the norms are still evolving. Does anyone have a different take? If so, please state your point of view (e.g. lead researcher, student, etc) as well.

9 thoughts on “RA versus co-author

  1. Nothing to add about co-authorship, but I wanted to tell your questioner that it sounds like an amazing opportunity.

  2. As an almost-finished grad student, I would largely concur with Chris’ advice. The willingness of senior researchers to give co-authorship is highly idiosyncratic- some are very generous, others less so. Two things I would add: one, if these economists are at all well known your letters of recommendation from them will be much, much more important than having your name attached to one of their papers as a third author or something. Two, if you can use this opportunity to get data that you could use for your dissertation (or at least a dissertation essay) possibly by adding a few of your own questions to the survey, that’s a wonderful opportunity that you should take advantage of.

  3. Chris and poster Ben are right in suggesting the obsession with co-authorship is somewhat misplaced in seeking graduate admissions. The reader’s contributions to the project, whether it be typical RA work or a substantial creative contribution, should come through in the letters of recommendation. Unless admissions committees are naive, the description of the work in the LOR is what will matter, because that contains so much more information than a line on a CV. Thus, the reader shouldn’t worry much about the arbitrary distinction of co-authorship, which is mostly beyond one’s control. Getting an opportunity to make a substantial creative contribution is the real challenge/goal here.

  4. I started out in economics (A.B., M.A.) and ended up doing my Ph.D. in a different but related field. So I publish mostly in the medical literature. I agree with your post, that much of economic work and thinking is individualistic and that the standards for co-authorship are much higher. It is not uncommon to be the graduate student RA on a project that lasts *years* and to be rewarded with “The authors thank So-and-so for tireless and dedicated research assistance”.

    When publishing in the medical literature, authorship standards have evolved such that pretty much any research assistant damn near gets co-authorship, and major papers with up to 10-15 authors are not uncommon.

    You highlighted an important phenomenon: large randomized trials, which in the past have been published mostly in the medical literature, have in the past decade been making their way over to economics. Whose authorship standards will win out? This will be interesting to see.

  5. The writer’s first goal should be to do the best job they can with the RA tasks.

    I like Chris’s approach. You should tell your boss, that co-authorship interest you. In particular you might want to discuss a topic. I’ve found a nice niche looking at how impacts of randomized trial vary depending on the person or household receiving the program.

    Showing an interest and ability to think up potential research ideas, will show you are someone who will do well in graduate school and should be reflected in your letter of rec. So try to talk with your boss. Also try writing up a one page or less abstract on your own.

    The value of the publication in some sense depends on where you are going to grad school and where you plan to land. When evaluating job candidates from grad schools in the top 20-50 range, one publication at any point in a top 100 journal is a great way to separate yourself from our pile. Granted I’m at a non-R1 state school, my guess is that a top 20 or 50 department won’t care as much if you have a old article, but more where your current articles will be published.

    This POV is from someone who has been out of grad school 2 years and is starting to play the lead role on projects.

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