Collaborative Research as Resistance: Successful Collaboration across Disciplines

From the Series: Co-authorship as Feminist Writing and Practice

Photo by Ryan Anderson, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Discussions abound at Oregon State University (OSU) and elsewhere regarding a greater emphasis on teaching and on the several hours per week of service to the field that all faculty are expected to dedicate in the promotion and tenure (P&T) process. Nonetheless, the clichéd (but no less accurate) “publish or perish” mantra remains in full force at many Research I (R1) institutions. In order to be successful (in as much as getting promoted constitutes “success”), faculty must publish extensively and compete successfully for grants. Across most fields, there is also a more recent and growing emphasis on cross-disciplinary research and collaborative co-authorship—though, as Melissa (Missy) often points out, this is not necessarily so in U.S. anthropology programs. Funding agencies encourage, and sometimes even require, an interdisciplinary team, and university strategic plans make promises about discouraging siloed academics. In this essay, we describe strategies that our research team has used to foster academic success among all team members, including graduate students and non-tenure track, tenure-track, and tenured faculty.

Strategy 1: Understand the Sometimes Disparate Tenure Expectations across Disciplines

The first, and most obvious, issue that must be addressed when contemplating initiating a successful, cross-disciplinary research team are those of P&T (or graduation) requirements, which vary substantially by field, rank, and position (see table 1). Depending on how great the gap between the disciplines represented by your research team, this can be either essentially a non-issue, or a rather large one that requires careful, conscious, and long-term management by all members of the team. For instance, our fields are epidemiology (Marit [assistant professor], within the College of Public Health & Human Sciences) and medical anthropology (Missy [associate professor] and Holly [doctoral student], within the College of Liberal Arts). The scholarship portion of the P&T expectations for these two fields—in terms of number and type of publications, author position on publications, and grant funding—are quite different.

Table 1. Comparison of promotion requirements in our respective fields.





Funding and data collection




Doctoral students

Book-format dissertation common

2 or 3 first-author papers usually stem from the dissertation; manuscript-format dissertation possible

Small grants ($20,000– $30,000) are common, to fund mandatory field work/data collection

Book-format dissertation uncommon

2 or 3 first-author papers usually stem from the dissertation; manuscript-format dissertation is the norm; one manuscript as a “methods” paper is encouraged

Rare; primary data collection not required

Assistant professors

One book required for promotion

2 or 3 per year; solo or first author required; typical papers are 8,000– 10,000 words

Strongly encouraged but not essential to promotion; funding that is obtained tends to be smaller than in epidemiology or medical sciences

Discouraged; if a book is written, does not count for promotion

3 or 4 papers per year; mix of first author and methods author (2nd or 3rd); typical papers are 2,500– 4,000 words

Large grants required for promotion

Associate professors

Second book or numerous high-impact articles required for promotion

2 or 3 per year; solo or first author required; typical papers are 8,000+ words, senior (last) author standing rarely acknowledged

Required for promotion; funding that is obtained tends to be smaller than in epidemiology or medical sciences

Discouraged; if a book is written, does not count for promotion

3 or 4 papers per year; mix of first author, methods author (2nd or 3rd), and last (senior) author; typical papers are 2,500– 4,000 words

Large grants required for promotion


First- and solo-authored papers still encouraged, senior (last) author standing rarely acknowledged

First-authored papers discouraged

Note: These are for one university only and we are highlighting the scholarship portion of promotion and tenure only. Service and teaching requirements would be in addition to these.

Anthropology faculty at OSU are expected to publish two to three peer-reviewed articles each year. Solo authorship is encouraged, though this is slowly changing as university-level expectations for collaboration trickle down. Barring solo authorship, being first author is highly desirable, even for senior faculty. Second author is acceptable on some proportion of publications; third or lower authorship counts very little toward the annual requirement for publications. A book is required for promotion to associate professor, and often another for promotion to professor. Grant funding is acknowledged and appreciated, but large grants are neither common nor necessarily expected. Grant amounts obtained by anthropology faculty tend to be small (less than $100,000).

In epidemiology, on the other hand, faculty are expected to publish three to four papers per year. Some of the discrepancy in number of papers between our two fields stems from usual paper length—8,000 to 10,000 words in anthropology versus 2,500 to 4,000 words in epidemiology—as well as from the expectation that anthropologists conduct primary data collection for all or most projects, whereas secondary data analysis is acceptable in epidemiology. Junior faculty in epidemiology should be first author on at least one of these papers annually. However, and in contrast to anthropology, senior faculty in epidemiology are expected not to publish as first author, but rather to cede this position to students or junior faculty. As epidemiologists are methodologists, it is not at all unusual for our curriculum vitae (CVs) to have dozens of papers on which we are the second or third author; this author position in our field indicates that we were the methods expert on the team, and ran (or consulted while a student ran) the statistical analyses. If not first author, and not methodologist, then being last, or “senior,” author is desired, whereas senior author is not a widely recognized accomplishment in anthropology. No books are expected; indeed, junior faculty are discouraged from “distracting themselves” with book writing. Grant funding, however, is expected: while it is possible to get promoted to associate professor without federal R01-level funding, doing so is difficult, requiring extensive justification and a solid track record of smaller funding.

Strategy 2: Manage Publications for Disparate Tenure Expectations and Promotion Timelines

How have we translated these varying expectations into practice? In general terms, awareness of what each team member needs for academic success, within the boundaries of authorship ethics, can lead to strategic planning of publications and grant applications that maximize opportunities for advancement for each member of the research team. For example, we (Marit and Missy) first began working together in 2011, and Holly came to OSU as a doctoral student in 2012. In 2011, Missy was in her final two years before promotion to associate professor; Marit was a post-doctoral fellow who needed an additional project to start working on (and publishing from) while finishing the manuscripts from her dissertation research. Our first several collaborative papers, then, had the author order that satisfied both of these needs: Missy as first author and Marit as second author and methodologist. Once Missy was successfully promoted, we then consciously shifted tactics, and Marit was first author on the next several papers. Note that, in each of these cases, we did not “award” the first author spot to someone merely because their CV needed it. On each of these manuscripts, the person who is first author did the first author’s job: conceiving of the idea, writing the draft, collaborating on analyses and interpretations, etc. As deliberate collaborators, we shifted our focus from working on and publishing papers that stemmed from Missy’s ideas to working and publishing Marit’s, as indicated for our individual promotion timelines. Now that Marit has been promoted from a post-doctoral fellow to assistant professor, our collaborative co-authorship strategy shift has returned to working on Missy’s ideas, so that she can put together a dossier for promotion to professor (recall that, in anthropology, even senior faculty are required to publish as first author). Throughout this process, we also published with other colleagues as the first author, and published papers on which we did not collaborate with each other.

During the planning stages of every paper, we think about which students to include on that particular project and subsequent manuscript. While we do not always include students as co-authors, we strive to do so as often as possible. Again, this helps both the student’s career (students need papers when seeking academic positions) and ours (we need evidence of mentorship in P&T dossiers). We usually try to include students from the beginning stages of a project, and are very open about our thought processes regarding author order, expectations for each person depending on that author order, etc. Again, we are not “giving” anyone anything: student authors on our papers are expected to contribute at a level that, ethically, warrants authorship. We thus model what we hope is perceived as productive, yet highly collaborative and inclusive, behavior for future academics.

Strategy 3: Manage Funding for Disparate Tenure Expectations and Promotion Timelines

During our nine-year collaboration, we have competed successfully for funding from several federal agencies, private foundations, and healthcare systems. When preparing grant applications, we follow a similar system of strategizing what is needed for success. Recently, Marit has more often been the principal investigator (PI) on grant applications because her (epidemiology) P&T depends on this. Marit gets the needed recognition in her program and also does the lion’s share of grant preparation and writing, as is expected of the person who is PI. However, in terms of sustaining our research team, it does not matter who is technically the PI on any given project: funding is funding, and all of it supports our work and the students we mentor. We also recognize the need for flexibility. Missy is the PI on our largest current grant project because the funder required a clinician as PI (Missy is a licensed midwife, as well as an academic in anthropology). This system works well for us given our respective fields. Such a division of labor and prestige sharing likely would not work for everyone, though we suspect that a version of strategic PI-ship could work for most teams. It has certainly meant more money, and more publications, with more joy, comradery, and mutual respect for us.

Strategy 4: Socialize Students into Collaboration, rather than Competitiveness

Other issues we have grappled with while maintaining a successful, cross-disciplinary research team are those of expectations and personalities. For our approach to collaborative co-authorship, all team members must be dedicated to the success of all other team members and willing to forego instant academic gratification for themselves in favor of long-term success for everyone. Egos absolutely must be checked at the door. This is, frankly, more easily accomplished with students than with other faculty, who have already been socialized into the hyper-competitive nature of academia. Students with whom we work learn early in their student careers that the success of the team will lead to individual success, and that arrogance and competitiveness make it harder to develop a supportive professional network. Once this culture is established, students who are further along in their programs set the example for other students and mentees, leaving faculty able to rely on peer modeling to set supportive behavioral expectations, as long as they, too, set a positive, collaborative example and are willing to intervene when necessary. Students prosper within this model, and they become each other’s champions because our research team emphasizes collaborative rather than competitive behavior.

This “all for one and one for all” system does not, of course, work perfectly. We can both cite examples where we attempted to begin a collaboration with other colleagues, only to abandon the idea when it became clear that team success was not a priority for all parties involved. We also occasionally admit a student who desires a more competitive environment and is not willing to temper personal praise for the good of the team. For some students, particularly those coming from other higher education or professional degree programs, competitive behavior must be unlearned. Students who struggle with our collaborative mind-set generally either self-select out of our research team within a year or two, or substantially modify their behavior, as they see this model begin to work for them.

Strategy 5: Liberally Share Successes

The final key to our collaborative success has been to share the credit with everyone who has earned a piece of it. At least for us, rarely are accomplishments truly a solo endeavor. Why not acknowledge the other faculty and students who helped? Academic glory is not a finite commodity. Sharing does not detract from the prestige, and indeed allows multiple people to add a line to their CV. For instance, Missy’s school director recently nominated her for a university-level award; upon hearing of this, Missy asked the chair to add Marit and Holly to the nomination as well, as the three of us have collaborated closely on the project in question. Holly now touts a prestigious award just as she begins her own tenure-track position, and Marit, in a few years, will be able to add this award to her associate professor dossier. And yet, neither of these detracts from Missy being able to claim a university-level award when she submits to the P&T process for professor. When we discount individual egos, there are no downsides. The university was happy to print three certificates instead of just one, and indeed administrators were thrilled that a first-generation graduate student was one of the recipients.

To reiterate, our model of academic cross-disciplinary collaboration has been remarkably successful and consists of simple tenets that, if implemented and embraced by all team members, can lead to productive academic careers. We carefully plan manuscripts and grant applications, with the whole team working next on whatever the most immediate priority is, given everyone’s timeline within the graduation or P&T process. We expect all team members to “play fair”—if it’s your turn to be first author, you need to step up and do the bulk of the work on that paper. We model collaboration and mutual respect, and care for each other and for the students who come to work with us. We decline to work with people, either students or faculty, who are not willing to set their egos aside and work together for the good of the team. Finally, we liberally acknowledge colleagues whenever possible, and do our best to share credit with all who may have earned it.

One of the ways the academy exploits employees is by setting unreasonably high or ambiguous standards that can rarely be met given the hard stop of a twenty-four-hour day. The stress and burnout, particularly for women, that results from trying to obtain the unobtainable can take a toll on productivity, health, happiness, and work-life balance (Guarino and Borden 2017). Collaborative co-authorship, as we see it, is an everyday act of resistance. It increases both our productivity and our joy, while offering a work-around within a system designed to exploit, and exploit female faculty in particular (Guarino and Borden 2017). These tactics have served us well. We posit that a variation on these tactics, tailored to individual and collective circumstances, would allow other research groups to enjoy both their work and non-work lives to a greater extent, while allowing each team member to succeed academically.


Guarino, Cassandra M., and Victor M. H. Borden. 2017. “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?Research in Higher Education 58, no. 6: 672–94.