Research papers as negotiations

At first glance, the writing of a research paper might seem nothing like a negotiation. Negotiations necessarily involve conflict, and the collaborative production of a research paper involves nothing but cooperation—right? But a closer look at the paper construction process reveals many opportunities or even necessities for negotiation within a research team. Anticipating these situations and planning a prospective response can make scholarly life more negotiable.

Consider the following five negotiations that commonly arise during the production of a research paper:

  1. Where to take a paper: The members of research teams often have very different views on a paper’s strategic direction. Are we trying to challenge the identification literature, the identity literature, or image literature? In the presence of such debates, I find the negotiation research on creative solutions particularly useful, in that it says that new ideas can often satisfy everyone at the same time. Does this paper actually present a previously unrecognized opportunity to clarify and integrate the three literature?
  2. Where to send a paper: Scholarly teams often disagree on the journal that should have the benefit of receiving their work. Some authors may advocate for a stretch journal—one that would be unbelievable if it worked, but probably it won’t. Others may advocate for a safe journal—a more realistic outlet that is also less likely to impress. In these instances, the negotiation literature’s focus on trust becomes particularly important, in that team members often have to trust in the judgment of colleagues who have published in places they haven’t. Could this paper ever get into that amazing journal where I’ve never had a prayer of publishing? Your five articles at that journal make you better qualified to say. If so, our debate is effectively resolved.
  3. What to expect from a coauthor: Authors often disagree on what it means to be a coauthor, and particularly the responsibilities implicit in various locations within the scholarly pecking order (e.g., first or last author). Sometimes this results from the authors’ differing disciplines. The last position in a long list of authors is tremendously coveted in medicine, for example, whereas the same position is best avoided in management. In other instances, these differing expectations come from differing experiences, in which team members have previously worked with assiduous or indolent colleagues. In these cases, I find the negotiation research on open information sharing especially important, in that openly surfacing expectations rather than implicitly assuming them heads off many an unpleasant encounter down the road.
  4. How to respond to reviews: In many cases, the best possible outcome of a scholarly paper submission is not an acceptance (impossible), but a revise and resubmit—an offer to alter the article in some minor or major ways and send it back. The problem arises when team members have very different reactions to a major request. Should we bend to the will of the reviewer asking us to rewrite the paper, or stick to our guns and try to convince the editor, if not the reviewer, of our original wisdom? (For some tips on how to negotiate with reviewers themselves, see here). In these cases, I find one word particularly useful: “why?” Why does your co-author feel so strongly about resisting the request to rewrite? Do they think it would derail the paper, require too much time, conflict with a favored theory or viewpoint? There are many reasons to prefer a particular response; figuring out which one it is can generate some new possibilities. If the problem is a coauthor’s time, for example, perhaps you’d be willing to take a crack at the rewrite?
  5. When to give up on a paper: Despite their best efforts, many papers find a home at none of the favored journals. Is it time to cut our losses or persist and shoot lower? The well-intentioned members of a scholarly team can disagree, perhaps because of their career stage (e.g., close to versus far from tenure review). In these instances, I find the negotiation principle of post-settlement settlements (PSS’s) particularly useful. PSS’s are attempts to improve a deal already reached, with each party having the ability to revert to the original deal if they wish. In this case, the initial list of authors represents the original deal; if one author wants to persist while the others prefer to cut their losses, could the persistent author assume more responsibility along with a higher position in authorship order?

In short, writing scholarly papers is a mostly cooperative endeavor, with smart and well-intentioned people all working to attain the same scientific goal. But the publishing process is complex and precarious, presenting many situations in which differences of opinion can easily crop up. By thinking about these situations as negotiations and applying some of the most well-known negotiation principles, perhaps we can all make the scientific endeavor a little more negotiable.

Advertisements

“My computer is slow today”

I don’t know about you, but every time I call customer service, there seems to be something wrong with their computer. “My apologies, sir—my computer seems to be slow today.” Now, if it happened just once in a blue moon, I wouldn’t think twice. But since it happens nearly every time I call, I’m starting to draw one of two conclusions:

  1. Everybody has a crummy computer
  2. Everybody is trained to say their computer is slow to buy themselves some time

Now, I’m not sure which one it is, but let’s assume for a moment it’s the second, asking ourselves whether we might learn something from this tactic, thereby making our own lives more negotiable.

I have argued here and there for the benefits of procrastination, suggesting that we’d all do well to take a little more time when negotiating. The benefits of pausing and taking our time during critical moments in negotiation are manifold: with the benefit of a pause, we can think, calculate, check with others, catch our breath, or simply let your nerves settle. Is it possible that our friendly customer service representatives are more sophisticated than they seem? Is it possible they’ve been trained to report a sluggish computer anytime they need to ponder our requests further, check our customer records more carefully, or even call their superior over to take a look? I think it’s at least possible, and I think we can learn from it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should all start lying about the performance of our computers. What I am suggesting is that there are numerous ways to buy yourself some time in a negotiation, and when we face a difficult moment in any negotiation, we should all make the effort to find one that is honest and authentic for us. If your computer really is running sluggishly, by all means, tell that story. But if your computer is running just fine, I’d strongly suggest finding some other credible way to slow things down. Is it possible you drank a little too much coffee and need to visit the facilities, really need to run the proposal by your spouse / boss / pet before deciding, or simply want to sleep on it?

In sum, our friendly customer service representatives either have really unreliable computer systems or a keen sense of how to negotiate. I’ve given both them and their computers the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they’re actually canny negotiators with excellent computers. While I would never advise you to lie about anything in a negotiation (and explicitly advise my students not to), I would advise every negotiator to find an honest way to put on the brakes when they have to. If you happen to own a crummy computer and can lay the blame accordingly, so much the better.

Negotiating your time back

Left to their own devices, people in organizations tend to take your time away. “Would you serve on the birthday committee?” “Would you contribute to our twice-weekly newsletter?” “Would you take our new hires out to lunch?” And who, with half a heart, could say no to such harmless extracurricular requests? The problem, of course, is that many harmless extracurriculars add up to one stressed out employee—someone who can’t get their job done.

In these moments, it’s time to get your time back. I would offer the following five negotiation principles as a framework for making the process more negotiable:

  1. Interests. Your interests are what you really want or need. In this case, they’re the tasks you really need to complete to satisfy your job. And perhaps the extracurriculars you really want to tack on because you like them. What do you really need and want to do, and how much time will it really require? Answering those questions provides a baseline for deciding how much time is left for the birthday committee.
  2. Alternatives. With respect to any particular extracurricular, what would you alternatively do with the time if you had it back? In other words, what’s the opportunity cost of being on the birthday committee? If they’re higher than inherent benefits of the birthday committee—to you, but particularly to the rest of the committee and whoever’s having a birthday—chances are it’s not worth your time.
  3. Bottom line: Given your interests, what is the absolute maximum amount of time you can spend on extracurriculars? That’s a rhetorical question for your consideration, not a question to answer in front of the birthday committee coordinator, lest they see your free time as an opening to ask you about the anniversary and holiday committees too.
  4. Perspective-taking: If you’re considering quitting a particular extracurricular, how’s the organizer likely to react, and why? The organizers of some extracurriculars will probably be more concerned than the organizers of others. And the very concerned organizers will probably be concerned for some particular reason, which you might be able to address by proposing a…
  5. Creative solution: Sure, the organizer of the birthday party may not do a happy dance when you resign from his or her committee. But could you bring back some semblance of a smile by understanding the underlying concern and doing something to address it? If the underlying issue is your refined knowledge of the birthday planning process, perhaps you could train someone else? If the concern is that no one else will volunteer as much time as you (providing further justification for your qualms), perhaps you could create a team of dedicated birthday planners, subdividing by month? If it’s that your absence will spell the end of the beloved birthday emails from the company, perhaps Microsoft can offer an automated solution?

In sum, we all, out of the goodness of our hearts, find ourselves agreeing to serve on something like the birthday committee from time to time. But when the scope of our goodness expands to include the anniversary committee, holiday committee, and everything else—and when we consequently find ourselves stretched too thin to even read our boss’s emails—it’s time to get our time back. In these instances, I’d suggest that considering some basic negotiation principles is well-worth your time.

How do negotiators lead?

How do negotiators lead? Even the question sounds strange, as one negotiator is not really following the other. Nevertheless, negotiations need leaders. Indeed, the negotiator who leads is often the negotiator who triumphs. And leading in negotiations can often make your own life more negotiable.

So what exactly does leadership in negotiation entail? In my view, having the gall to set a strategic direction for the negotiation. And—since the other negotiator has no particular reason to comply—doing so in a manner that subtly encourages them to follow. Leadership in negotiations, I believe, involves doing five things first, in hopes that they take the cue and reciprocate each time:

  1. Be the first to state a goal: In sharp contrast to the image of negotiators as bombastic businessmen who start by lobbing threats and tweeting ultimatums (not that we know anyone like that), negotiators-as-leaders are quick to inform their counterparts, explicitly or implicitly, that they share the same goal: identifying a solution that solves everyone’s problems. However bombastic the subsequent tactics, the shared goal provides at least the possibility of trust.
  2. Share the first piece of information: Negotiators-as-leaders know that neither negotiator has a snowball’s chance of achieving their own objectives unless both negotiators, having built some trust, lay some cards on the table. But most negotiators are wary of card-laying, lest the counterpart see the full hand. Thus, negotiators-as-leaders lead by example, by sharing a particular card—namely, some subtle indication of their foremost priority. It certainly takes gall, and surely is not risk-free. But neither is leading, the last time I checked.
  3. Ask the first question: The beauty of sharing the first piece of information is that the negotiator-as leader can then ask the first question. Having laid at least one card on the table, they can now legitimately ask to see at least one of the counterpart’s. And here’s the wonderful part: research suggests that when you do something nice to somebody else (e.g., sharing information), they generally feel compelled to do something nice to you (e.g., answering your question).
  4. Make the first offer: Leadership in negotiation is not all lollypops and sunshine. Negotiators-as-leaders also know how to lay on a little bombast, albeit at the right time and in the right way. One appropriate way to unleash the bombast, as I’ve said repeatedly before, is to make the first offer. But the appropriate time to do so is after a sufficient number of cards have been revealed. So negotiators-as-leaders know that they ultimately need to make the first offer, but only after they play a few hands.
  5. Make the first concession: The beautiful thing about making the first offer is that it also enables a negotiator to make the first concession. Having anchored the other side on an aggressive first offer, and having heard the presumably aggressive counteroffer of the counterpart, the negotiator-as-leader can now show some goodwill by backing down from the precipice. And as negotiators-as-leaders well-know, a little backing down can take two negotiators a long way from the cliff.

In sum, negotiations need leaders just as much as other organizational situations. It’s just that negotiators-as-leaders don’t have the luxury of devoted followers sprinkling rose petals at their feet. They have counterparts who may see them as the enemy, and thus show no particular eagerness to follow. So negotiators lead not by issuing directives or strategic decrees from the mountaintop. They lead by taking action and hoping the other side follows. And surprisingly often, they do.