Authorship agreements for co-authored articles in a PhD by publication

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As much as a traditional PhD thesis might benefit from constructive feedback from supervisors and others, it is, or should be, a single-author text. But if you’ve chosen to pursue a PhD by publication, it’s possible or likely, depending on the norms in your discipline, that some of the constituent articles will be written in collaboration with others, including your supervisors. This is one of the advantages of a PhD by publication, but undoubtedly introduces several challenges and risks.

Co-authoring can be a fantastic or a challenging experience; it can enable meaningful collaboration or be a source of tension and conflict. In a PhD by publication, co-authoring is also subject to the institutional rules that govern what kind of work is acceptable for inclusion in the candidate’s portfolio. At my university the policy is clear: “a student would be expected to make 50% or greater contribution to each paper”.

The policy refers to the need for a statement affirming the student’s leading role in authorship, and indeed the graduate research school provides a template for a record of authorship. I googled for other examples of what an authorship agreement might look like, but wasn’t totally satisfied with any that I found, so I made one for myself. You can download it and edit it to suit your own needs: Phd by publication authorship agreement. You can also have a look at the actual authorship agreement that I completed for the article I wrote with my supervisors: Healy et al., 2020, authorship agreement.

The authorship agreement is quite self explanatory. The first section states the provisional title, abstract or project summary, author list, and research ethics details. The second section indicates the research outputs that the article is being written for, most importantly the primary and alternative target journals. I included the third section, an emphatic statement that this project is my project, when I initiated a collaboration with scholars other than my supervisors. It’s important to communicate expectations early in co-authored projects, and this statement allowed me to be crystal clear that the lion’s share of the work belongs to me.

The fourth section, the record of author contribution, serves two purposes. When I initiate a project, it allows me to be very clear to my co-authors about what I am asking them to do. I have been told by collaborators that they have appreciated this, as it allows them to better assess their prospective workload and decide if they want to take the project on. Then, as the project progresses I can update the actual contributions of each author. Of course, it’s impossible to enumerate the exact percentages of each author’s contributions in this section, so the numbers are broad estimates rather than precise records. The final section is for signatures of all authors, attesting that it is an accurate reflection of their relative contributions, and in the case of the PhD by publication, that the student lead author is playing by the rules.

I can think of two improvements that I might make to this agreement, particularly if I go on to pursue projects with people that I don’t know as well as my current collaborators. The first is an indication of what kind of co-writing strategy I am proposing, to ensure that our respective writing practices are compatible. The second would be the inclusion of a termination clause, specifying what happens if one of the authors doesn’t meet their obligations, along with being clear about what “not meeting obligations” actually means. For example, does their name slip down the list of authors, or is it removed entirely?

I expect to co-author most of my academic writing, PhD and otherwise, which is the norm in my field. So far, I have enjoyed co-writing and have not suffered any bad experiences. Although I created my Phd by publication authorship agreement to serve my PhD by publication, I anticipate using it as standard practice for all future collaborative academic writing projects.

Michael Healy
Careers and employability learning expert

I am Head of Careers and Employability at Career Ahead and doctoral student at the University of Southern Queensland. I am passionate about promoting transformational careers and employability learning, particularly using social, narrative, and dialogical methods.