Is Collaboration Worth It?

DENVER — Creating knowledge is a fundamentally collaborative effort, yet academe’s reward structure is historically unfriendly to collaborative research — at least outside the natural sciences, where papers with multiple authors are commonplace. Things are changing, but in many disciplines and on many campuses, traditional single-author scholarship is still prized over group efforts.

A panel here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association explored the pros and cons of co-authorship in what some argued should be a particularly collaborative field (uncovering and interpreting the past is not a one-person job), but isn’t. Asked to answer the session’s titular question — “Is Collaboration Worth It?” — panelists offered a lukewarm but hopeful consensus: it may not count, but it is, in some sense, worthwhile.

By “crass” accounting, collaboration is “absolutely not” worth it, said Ben Wright, an assistant professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas who helps lead a free, online, collaboratively built American history textbook effort called American Yawp. Though the project takes up much of Wright’s time, it will nevertheless be an ancillary piece of his tenure file, he said. “I’m not going to hinge my career on this project.”

Yet the project in is one in which Wright believes, and he’ll argue its value when he applies for tenure. “This is my fight, in a way,” he said, jokingly imploring those in the audience with tenure to “mobilize” for the collaborative cause.

Paul William Harvey, chair of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and “blog meister” emeritus at Religion in American History, said he spent five minutes to five hours per day for seven years working on that project. Harvey, who’s also co-authored more traditional academic works, said the blog may not have “counted” much in terms of annual reviews, but it counted a great deal personally. “Damn it, that’s worth it,” he said with a smile. And if “it’s meaningful to you now and something that you love, it’s going to feed into something that will count.”

Vanessa M. Holden, assistant professor of history at Michigan State University, co-edits the Queering Slavery Working Group, an online project that explores intimacy and sexuality during Atlantic slavery. Managing the site involves risk, in that it takes time away from other projects, but it’s already inspiring her more traditional solo scholarship — namely a monograph.

Holden and her partner in the project, Jessica Johnson, an assistant professor of history and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, both said assuming shared risk emboldens them to push the boundaries of their field. They make each other better people, too — or at least better colleagues, Holden said, admitting that as the eldest child her approach to collaboration used be “telling younger siblings what to do.”

Others took a more serious tone. Audience member Chad Gaffield, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, said, “The notion of the solitary scholar — let’s face it — it’s crazy. In the discipline of history, why have we clung to the single-author sort of stuff underpinning this? … Even with doctoral students, it’s ‘my project,’ or in the old days, ‘my shelf in the archives — don’t go near my topic.’ AHA used to do a register of dissertations every year, and the idea was, grad students would go to this and if they saw anybody on a topic, they’d stay away from it. That is still haunting us.”

In his own tenure case, for example, Gaffield said, the articles he’d co-authored were put aside and not really counted in his decision.

Some audience members agreed, saying that the AHA might strategically or explicitly — perhaps through some document or set of guidelines — encourage institutions to reward collaborative research.

Seth Denbo, director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at AHA, said of scholars, “The reasons why we do things are a lot more complicated than professional goals like tenure, full professor, all those things.” And the AHA is trying to promote change, he said. “One of the things we’ve been doing is trying not to talk about teaching and scholarship as separate — it’s all that. … In the guidelines we’ve produced on evaluations of a digital project, we use the word ‘scholarship’ to refer to all those things.”

Wright’s partner in American Yawp, Joseph Locke, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston at Victoria, said historians might be surprised by the appetite for collaboration, despite prevailing attitudes, as evidenced by scholars’ willingness to contribute to his project.

“There’s a hunger for this,” he said.

History isn’t the first field to grapple with its arguably problematic emphasis on solo work. The Modern Language Association, for example, has noted that “solitary scholarship, the paradigm of one-author-one-work, is deeply embedded in the practices of humanities scholarship,” and questioned whether that paradigm is always appropriate. Jointly produced work “should be welcomed rather than treated with suspicion because of traditional prejudices or the difficulty of assigning credit.”

Echoing some of the themes raised by AHA in the past and at Thursday’s session, MLA has noted that digital scholarship has led more professors to work together and called upon departments to focus on quality of scholarship over format.

The American Political Science Association also has studied the issue, finding that while less than 10 percent of articles across political science subfields had multiple authors in the decade of 1956-65, about 40 percent did in 1996-2005.