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.

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