Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Author Contributions? Epic Fail, or Relational Success

By Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is (an extra) part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps (why Author Contributions at the proposal stage? Because you need to think about these issues early: read on!)

Who did what? Who deserves the real credit, and who came along for the ride? Who contributed what %?

Author Contributions statements for papers, theses, and tenure files are far more important than they might seem. Writing these little statements well is also far more difficult than it appears. I learned this the hard way, with an epic fail at one of the most important junctures of my professional career.

This difficulty isn’t helped by understandable but mistaken notions that these statements are about the ‘real credit’ or percent contributions.

I was going up for promotion—a crucial moment in an academic’s career. My director, who had to write the crucial departmental letter that would accompany my file to the higher levels at the university, was also a coauthor on one of the articles I submitted. I was directed to write a statement clarifying my contributions to the papers. I interpreted it as “Show that this was mostly your work—that you brought the key ingredients, not your coauthors”. Error #1.

My director/coauthor flagged a concern. Ouch. I reread the statement to understand. It started with my contributions, and followed with my coauthor’s, almost as if these were an afterthought barely worth mentioning. I also averaged-up—that is, if I felt I did most of a task (e.g., designing the analysis), I assigned it to myself. E.g., “I designed and executed the analysis, I wrote the paper. My coauthor edited.” Now imagining my coauthor’s perspective, my heart surged, my face flushed, and shame and disgust washed over me. What I wrote wasn't false, but it was certainly not an equal representation of both sets of contributions. It oriented around mine, because that's how I understood the task (wrongly).

The irony was palpable. I had already become excited about relational values (preferences, principles and virtues associated with human relationships involving nature; see also here), and I had been consciously thinking relationally in general. That is, I had been thinking first about how actions reflected and built appropriate relationships, and only second how they yielded positive or negative consequences. Here, I clearly failed: I had unconsciously treated the authorship statement as a means to the end of impressing reviewers, entirely missing their crucial contributions to building or eroding the relationships I sought with cherished colleagues.


One might think, following such a teachable moment of shame, that I would have written flawless Author Contributions statements ever since. I wish I could say that were true. I don’t normally make the same mistake twice, but Author Contribution statements are full of ways to fail.

If we think of the hours spent directly on the manuscript,
we may think like this. But that doesn't tell the full story.

More recently, the same cherished coauthor and I were wrapping up a paper many years in the making (almost a decade). Finally, it was time to write an author contributions statement. I was conscious to err on the side of generosity. I listed our contributions together (not mine first). I emphasized shared contributions to tasks wherever it seemed appropriate. But by my recollection, I had approached my coauthor with the idea, and indeed, with a draft of what I felt we needed to say, and she had responded to that. So, I wrote something like, “KC wrote the first draft.”

It was déjà vu when my coauthor responded with edits and comments, with her recollection that we co-wrote the first draft. My coauthor pointed out that it had been her idea to include an empirical component at all. I had started counting ‘first draft’ from even before there had been an empirical component (which was now the central identity of the paper). The paper sure was different back then, without its central contribution. Point taken, absolutely we co-wrote the first real draft of the current paper.

Worse, though, my mind full of the many hundreds of hours that I spent coding papers and refining the analysis without troubling my coauthor, I claimed credit for designing the analysis. She contested that, politely and respectfully, as always. When I wrote the statement, I didn’t even remember that it had been my coauthor’s idea to do an analysis, and indeed that we had discussed some of the major codes right at the outset. It wasn’t a long, involved or contentious conversation, so it didn’t even spring to mind. But it clearly structured everything that followed.

Double ugh.

This time, I had been thinking consciously with the lessons from last time. I had thought I was being generous. But my thinking was skewed by my memory, which was rooted in hours spent and emotion-laden moments as indicators of contributions. Key structural conversations from many years ago were overlooked.

It’s so much easier to remember one’s own contributions than others. I think in our own minds, others’ contributions often become momentary guidance in a journey that we travelled mostly solo.

Subconsciously, I was thinking about percent contributions as hours spent on the paper. In contrast, I had consciously brought my coauthor on board because I knew that she would leverage countless hours of her reading and thinking of different but complementary literatures into a focused contribution on the manuscript. And I knew that this focused contribution might enable the paper to be rich and beautiful.

I’ve also had experiences on the other side, of course, because I think it’s hardest for students to see their supervisor’s contributions because they structure what follows. One wonderful student had joined me to do a project that I had envisioned well before the student’s degree. He had first written about my contributions as the same as other coauthors (e.g., editing drafts). These other coauthors were ones I had suggested as committee members, while helping this student envision what the project could look like and how it could make a great contribution to the literature and to problems that we both seemed to care about (based on his Critical Ingredients document). He didn’t mean to diminish my contributions, they just weren’t that visible to him, because they were so structural as to be part of the context.

I had another student—among the most principled, fairest people I know—who wrote that she ‘wrote the paper’. The paper was a Google doc with a bunch of notes when she invited myself and a coauthor in to give it structure, direction, themes, and relevant literatures. Yes, she typed most of the words, and of course she led the project and clearly deserves first authorship. But for me, ‘wrote the paper’ now means ‘gave shape to the main ideas in a complete good draft’.

The whole notion of percent contributions makes zero sense to me, even though it’s explicitly requested by some journals and grant agencies (others are more progressive, e.g., CRediT, the Contributor Roles Taxonomy). There is no single dimension by which one can measure author contributions on a paper. A paper should be more than the sum of the parts; coauthorship shouldn’t replace work, but rather shape the whole paper.

Coauthorship therefore shouldn’t be measured in time spent, but our memories lead us that way.

Good notes are crucial here, to record others’ contributions along the way. Then can we write Author Contribution statements that reflect how a paper is a beautiful symphony of ideas from a team.

A great strategy, which can avoid a lot of awkwardness, is to discuss or specify the responsibilities at the outset. Personally, I generally avoid pre-structuring contributions so as to maintain an organic adaptive process, but it’s great to discuss the options.

Then we can write statements that depict research as a deeply relational process, and which further build these collaborative relationships as being of more than instrumental value.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Distilling and discussing the IPBES levers & leverage points for transformative change

14 months ago 132 nations agreed upon the pathways to sustainability. 

   These are the Levers and Leverage Points of the @IPBES #GlobalAssessment 

   They are far more provocative than they seem. This new paper in People and Nature explains why: https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pan3.10124


Several accompanying pieces make different points:

  1. Our blog response to Peter Bridgewater, handling editor at PaN.
  2. My story in The Conversation
  3. An IPBES podcast, which just aired on Wed.


Please share with potentially interested parties. If we’re going to re-orient societal efforts towards transformative change and sustainability, we will need agreement on how, and that it’s needed.


Why is this in People and Nature? As a Lead Editor, I have seen firsthand the excellent work done by my colleagues there. We are collectively working towards transformative change in academic publishing. It offers precisely what my coauthors and I sought: deep interdisciplinarity and consistently thoughtful reviewing and editing. Peter’s blog (above) offers a glimpse of how we were pushed in all kinds of productive ways. In a few weeks, I’ll also share a paper Terre Satterfield and I have been working on for 8 years, also in PaN.

Creative Commons Licence
CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

This past semester, I had the great pleasure to re-design and teach our program’s core PhD course (RES 602; see Intro to this series). I bucked many years of history with my reimagined grading policy for the course, which is to effectively replace grading with  individualized feedback. I told the students that they would all receive ‘A’s if they did the work and put in a genuine effort. Here’s why.

First, some context: in this course on “Interdisciplinary Research Design for Sustainability Impact”, the whole purpose is to coach students to become rigorous, insightful, impactful researchers. Thus, students’ and their own work are at the centre. And these are diverse students: all interdisciplinary to some degree, but in vastly different ways. Some primarily in the physical or natural sciences, some in the social sciences and humanities. Some do largely qualitative work, while most do some quantitative research. They straddle different epistemologies, and they adhere to radically different theories of change.

In a nutshell, there are seven classes of reasons for my grading policy that ‘A’ is the default.

1. The students are all on their own journeys, doing radically different kinds of research in different academic traditions, with different standards of evaluation. Some of these I know well, others I’m still just learning. → I can’t equally judge them all.

2. I have my own positionality in all of this. I’m more excited by some kinds of questions and approaches than others. → It’s therefore key to decouple my feedback from measures of performance that will go on students’ records.

3. The spectre of having to provide defensible grades to all would substantially shift my teaching towards a different set of uniform assignments. By their uniformity, such assignments could never properly equip a diverse class of students to do their own projects. Moreover, assigning (and justifying) numeric grades is time-consuming and detracts from the time I can spend giving tailored feedback. → Freedom from grades enables me to make different contributions to different students.

4. We don’t actually need grades for any real purpose at this stage. They simply serve to let people know that students are on track (or not). Other times, what students really need is a letter of recommendation. I can write a detailed letter for all of the students without needing to rely on grades. → Why perpetuate an ill-fitting tradition?

5. Grades exist partly to motivate students when other motivations aren’t sufficient. This also doesn’t apply here. If I’m not giving students assignments that are clearly meaningful to their programs and later careers, or if those things aren’t sufficiently motivating (I’m sure they are), then we’ve got bigger problems. → Self-determined motivations are superior to externally imposed ones (i.e. grades) (Gagné & Deci 2005).

6. You don’t need grades to provide hard-hitting feedback. Many times, my comments pointed to the lack of some element (e.g. “You’ve specified a great set of real-world implications. But what about the academic ones? How will your project contribute to a broader understanding of similar problems in different contexts?”). Even without grades, comments like this are hard to take, but at least there’s a decent chance students will receive them as purely constructive, a growth area. Accompanied by a 3 / 5 grade, which suggests that students should have already known this, I imagine such comments would feel like a smack-down. Meanwhile, boosting feelings of competence is key for intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci 2000). → Grades add salt to wounds.

7. Grades (or their absence) fundamentally change the relationship between professor and student. From judge and jury, professors without grades can be a source of guidance and assistance on the student’s journey towards being an independent researcher. That’s what I want. → Grades don’t put the relationship first, and the relationship should come first.

Now clearly I didn’t do everything right in this brand new course. I’m sure I bungled all kinds of things (hopefully small). But in the last class, in the feedback session, students said two things that earned many thumbs up on Zoom, and which were music to my ears.

First, students noted how appreciative they were for the opportunity to receive highly tailored and detailed feedback about how their thinking was developing. Providing individualized feedback to students provides a clear roadmap for change in their own context, and without differentiated grades, this is unencumbered by my notion of how much better they could have been. In the words of one student during our in-class debrief, “In the tradeoff between grades and feedback, I’ll take feedback any day! And you provided extensive, thoughtful feedback every single week.”

Students also commented that they appreciated having a safe and honest space to delve into the messy truths of research design. This “safe-to-fail” approach extended to both in-class discussions and weekly assignments. For assignments, I permitted students to re-imagine the instructions in order to suit their own research project. “Because of that [flexibility],” one student commented, “we all got what we really needed out of the assignments, not just what was expected of us”. When coupled with detailed and tailored feedback, this empowered students to imagine and construct robust research plans based on honest feedback from me, and from their peers. Additionally, weekly informal discussions about how the class was going for folks provided an opportunity to be nimble and adapt weekly assignments on the fly based on the actual real-time needs of students. “You made it safe to make mistakes,” one said, “And that’s what we needed.”

Next up: Author Contributions: Epic Fail, or Relational Success? (extra)

Previous: How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

The Intro to this series (with links to the full set): How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps


Gagné, M. and E. L. Deci (2005). "Self-determination theory and work motivation." Journal of Organizational Behavior 26(4): 331-362. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/job.322

Ryan, R. M. and E. L. Deci (2000). "Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being." American Psychologist 55(1): 68-78. 

Creative Commons Licence
CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.