“Yes, we all count equally!”: Navigating Ethnographic Co-authorship among Junior Scholars
From the Series: Co-authorship as Feminist Writing and Practice
From the Series: Co-authorship as Feminist Writing and Practice
Why is writing still seen as a solitary process? Why are we mostly still writing alone? As junior scholars who frequently collaborate, we question the institutional importance placed on solo authorship within cultural anthropology. We need to rethink and fundamentally reshape how we approach the whole process of writing. We need to write together. In this essay, we argue for a critical reexamination of co-authorship as a powerful, exciting, and radical piece of the broader collaborative turn in anthropology. We recognize that collective writing is not universally seen in such a positive light within our discipline, especially early in one’s career. Indeed, when the three of us began working together, we admitted to each other that we had been advised by senior scholars against co-authorship, or at least “too much” co-authorship, until we had achieved tenure. We were warned about the current realities of the highly competitive job market and advised that the best way to stand out was by highlighting what we, as individual scholars, could produce. We were told co-authorship could be perilous for our careers, because when assessing co-authored pieces, hiring and tenure committees would not be willing to judge our intellectual input (see the introduction to this series for more discussion on the broader academic conversation regarding co-authorship). It was not until we had worked together for months and then years that we began to talk openly about our shared concerns and disagreements with the narrow and strict messages we had received. Through co-authorship, we felt that we were engaged in a deeply productive and empowering intellectual process that was in no way inferior to our own solo-authored work. We began to ask ourselves, and then each other: What is it that we learned through this process? How can we encourage others to follow this path? How might our shared experiences and academic practices shift disciplinary expectations around what it means to be a “good scholar”?
The three of us (Veronica, Mounia, and Lydia) met online three years before we would eventually all meet in person. We all work on reproductive health issues in Mexico, specifically on midwifery and childbirth practices. We were in varying stages of conducting or analyzing the results of dissertation fieldwork when we were brought to each other’s attention via colleagues and our engagement with the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction of the American Anthropological Association. We began to email collectively in 2015, and quickly found many areas of shared interests and concerns. Our early conversations were full of exciting discoveries of connection; it felt good to know that the work we had done for months, alone with our notes and transcriptions, found resonance among our peers. So, we began exploring connections—and differences—between our findings. The midwives we had come to know and work with came out of significantly different educational trajectories, geographical regions, and approaches to care, but through our conversations we began to build a layer of analysis that surpassed these differences, and revealed the many ways our research and analysis was connected to broader national and global issues. Once these connections began to appear, we decided to write.
In the paper that emerged four years after our initial online introduction (“A Tale of Three Midwives: Inconsistent Policies and the Marginalization of Midwifery in Mexico”) (Dixon, El Kotni, and Miranda 2019), we questioned the inconsistent relationship between the Mexican state and various practicing midwives, focusing on an individual midwife’s story from each of our research areas. Our argument—that midwives, like many of the women they serve, continue to exist at the margins of the Mexican state—was not in itself such a radical idea. What we came to see as radical, and what led us to want to further explore the benefits of co-authorship, was the process of getting to the argument, and the careful work of puzzling together disparate cases, questions, and settings until a bigger picture emerged. Building an argument that we all agreed with and that resonated with each of our data was a long process that relied on vulnerability, shared responsibility, and communication. We see these as key aspects of a productive and fulfilling co-authoring relationship.
Showing vulnerability meant being willing to say no when we did not have time to do the work, while at the same time being able to step aside and rely on others to take over for a bit. This meant that we openly acknowledged we were not superhuman and that there were limits to what and when we could produce. Although our intellectual work was important, we wanted to prioritize some sort of work/life balance. During the process of writing the article, personal and professional responsibilities competed: some got married, others raised small children; we moved across and between countries; we took jobs, postdocs, and lecturer positions; and eventually all of us graduated and moved on to the next stage of our careers. Life was busy. But we had committed to this paper and to each other, and the dynamic of three committed authors with shared goals allowed our piece to keep moving forward.
Vulnerability also meant putting ourselves out there for critique among our respected peers. In our individual writing projects, this was the kind of feedback we would not get until our ideas were much more polished; during this project, however, we opened our ideas and writings to comments from each other before they had fully settled. We chose to take the risk and trust that we could work through ideas with each other and accept critique that might challenge how we understood or interpreted our work. Through this process, we were vulnerable intellectually. This could not have worked unless we had trust in and respect for one another.
Shared responsibility was something that we built and came to rely upon throughout this process. We shared the responsibility to put in the intellectual effort and carve out the time to push our article forward. We held each other accountable to commit to conversations or writing deadlines, or to be honest when we realized we needed more time. As the article shaped up, we were all responsible for submitting it, responding to editors and reviewers, and organizing our revisions. We felt our work was truly collaborative. We were equally involved in the theoretical analysis, history, and discussion. We wrote and rewrote each others’ sentences to the point where it was difficult to distinguish who wrote what. There is comfort in the sharing of such minutia, but there is also an added weight: we were doing this not just for ourselves, but also for each other.
Communication was vital for our collective ability to maintain momentum throughout the process. We communicated through email and Skype, often at strange times of the day to accommodate our far flung homes (Mexico, France, Kentucky, and California). During these calls, we always began with a check-in that allowed us to slowly get to know each other as friends as well as colleagues. These short check-ins eventually became a routine practice of support and solidarity. We ended each call with a specific goal and a plan for the next steps, taking turns at note-taking on a shared online document. Slowly, as our notes and ideas continued to grow, we built our argument and began to outline our article.
Conversations continued between phone calls over comments and edits on our written drafts. We opted for continuous cycles of “round robin,” in which we took turns editing, posting comments and responses, and asking questions on our draft. During this process, we made sure to keep track of the latest version of the document to avoid duplicating our efforts or losing information, and we found Google Docs to be the most useful since we could simultaneously be working on the same document and seeing each others’ edits in real time. This process continued through the various rounds of revisions the journal requested from us. We also discussed the responses to the revisions as we worked through them. We did this by creating a spreadsheet with each specific comment from the reviewers where each of us shared our input and response to each comment. We did not resolve a comment until we were able to collectively reach an agreement. Nearly three years after we began the process, our article was finally accepted for publication. By the end, our piece was such a patchwork of our individual and collective thoughts that it felt like a true representation of a three-year conversation.
It seems important to note that the process we created for our co-authorship was heavily shaped by the technologies of our time. We were able to build up mutual trust because we heard each others’ voices and saw each others’ faces so frequently over Skype; we delegated responsibilities quickly via emails; and we worked through conflicting ideas virtually through comments and editing features online. Twenty years ago, such a project would have been more daunting and possibly taken much longer.
When submitting our JLACA piece after a year of collaborative dialogue and writing, we were forced to confront the issue of author order and struggled with how to represent our equal contributions. We entertained the idea of creating a name for ourselves, like J. K. Gibson-Graham or the Latina Feminist Group had done, but felt we were not established enough for such a move, despite the creative way that collective names allow for equality. We then discussed committing to two more articles in the coming years, such that each of us would be first author for one article. However, some of our senior colleagues discouraged us from seeking further collaboration beyond this one piece until we obtained tenure, and we were unsure about our ability to commit to such work with our unstable work situations. We all felt an immense pressure to conform to the academic conventions in cultural anthropology in the United States, which prioritized single authorship. We were desperate to find work in a competitive job market. In the end, we settled on the standard academic practice of alphabetical order. Yet our choice, which was in part rooted out of practicality and conformity, left us uneasy. As a way to push back, we added a note in the article to explicitly state our equal roles. Our hope was that this small documented act might encourage others to rethink how they conducted and published collectively, and to challenge broader disciplinary trends in authorship and knowledge production. Even this note was questioned during the revision process. The editors asked if the author names were placed in the order of contribution, an assumption that belied the difficulty in recognizing equal contributions. Our essay title derives from our emails responding to those revisions, as we affirmed that, “Yes, we all count equally!”
Writing collaboratively has brought several benefits to our professional and personal lives. For example, writing together has amplified the benefits of the peer-review process. While the peer review process can sometimes feel isolating when one is alone in reflecting on critiques, the process of collaboratively discussing suggestions and working through revisions was richly intellectual. Through such reflections we strengthened our arguments and responded to reviewers in a more targeted and timely manner. Yet, this experience was beyond just creating a more solid analysis. It was about getting to new arguments and ways of thinking and writing by changing up the whole practice itself. Rather than sitting alone and going through what can sometimes feel like a disconnected exercise of working through a draft filled with unidirectional reviewer comments, what we were doing was a far more dynamic process.
In thinking and writing together, we have also benefited from each other’s bibliographies, and discovered new studies, authors, and data. Following a completely different path from the “lone ethnographer” archetype, this process has allowed us to find our own voices while crafting a collective, cohesive tone that reflected our unique research experiences and styles. Through this journey, each of us has also built a strong and supportive network based on genuine friendship and intellectual camaraderie. We have since then reached out to one another for proofreading of research projects, shared support during job application processes, and collaborated on other publications (e.g., Dixon, Smith-Oka and El Kotni 2019). As junior parallel scholars, we do not underestimate the value of how this camaraderie and genuine support impacts our career and overall mental health. Working together pushes back against so much of the alienation that comes with academia. Yes, we could all be stuck competing against one another, but we're not. Instead, we are working against
a model that does not suit us and in the process creating spaces where we can thrive.
Our collaborative writing has not only entailed a more human process, but it has also been more intellectually productive. Working together we have produced a peer-reviewed article, a roundtable at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, and this edited collection of articles. We are currently working on another peer-reviewed article and foresee that many more co-authored pieces will continue to grow from our ongoing conversations. It seems that ever since we embarked on this shared intellectual journey we refused to frame it as a parenthesis in our career, a one-time experience. Rather than heeding the well-meaning advice of some colleagues to avoid co-authorship, we have become active proponents of its value. This collection of essays is part of our larger effort to increase the visibility of the merits that such work can bring to the discipline.
Our hope is that collaborative writing becomes seen as a possible path of empowerment and growth, rather than an indulgence. As it becomes more accepted as a process for creating strong scholarship, these increased benefits will strengthen the discipline of anthropology, allow for different voices in ethnographic writing, and make space for creativity of thought and expression. Most importantly, we must also be open to the fact that there are many ways of co-authoring, and our experience is just one way in which it can take place. Still, we realistically acknowledge that not all collaborative projects have positive results. But, by discussing our shared experience we hope to show how the process of co-authorship, when carried with clear expectations and goals, can be fulfilling, and bring both personal and professional growth. Through sharing our positive experiences with co-authorship, we hope to inspire other junior scholars to find people who help push their writing and ideas, and to enable collaborative scholarship to gain the recognition it deserves as work that innovates and, more importantly, as work that “counts.”
Dixon, Lydia Zacher, Mounia El Kotni, and Veronica Miranda. 2019. “A Tale of Three Midwives: Inconsistent Policies and the Marginalization of Midwifery in Mexico.” Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 24, no. 2: 351–69.
Dixon, Lydiea Zacher, Vania Smith-Oka, and Mounia El Kotni. 2019. “Teaching About Childbirth in Mexico: Working across Birth Models.” In Birth in Eight Cultures, edited by RobbieDavis-Floyd and Melissa Cheyney, 17–45. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland.