Q: How can I be sure of the first author's quality of research when joining a collaborative project?

Detailed Question -

Aa a coauthor, how can I be rest assured when joining others for a research project? At times, I may not be able to check all the code or data. In such a case, how can I be sure of the first author’s quality of research?

1 Answer to this question

First, let me paraphrase and summarize your query to ensure I have grasped it accurately. So, you have either just started off or are about to start off on a collaborative project. However, you are concerned about being able to handle some parts of the work (such as checking codes and data), either due to time or capability. You therefore wonder if the first author would be capable of helping or supporting you on the project – and how you can be certain of this.

If this is the case, let’s begin by talking about the role and contribution of the first author (and also the research/lab supervisor).

In most cases, the first or lead author on a paper/project is the one with the most knowledge and/or experience on the topic. In some cases, they would have first chosen the topic and then gone about choosing collaborators for the project. If they have been assigned the project, such as by a lab or institutional head, again, they have been chosen based on their expertise and experience on the topic and research as a whole and also for their ability to lead a team. So, in most cases, the first author on a collaborative project has the capability for successfully heading the project.

However, sometimes, the responsibility for leading the project can rest on the lab/research supervisor also known as the principal investigator (PI) – who may also be the corresponding author. Here too, in most cases, the person brings rich expertise and experience to the table.

So, based on the nature of your project, the first author and/or project supervisor should be able to adequately guide and support you. Mentoring is a key skill for a research supervisor. This is as crucial from their perspective as yours: they want the project to succeed as much as no doubt you do.

Now, getting back to your basic query, here are some things you can do to assure yourself of the capability of the first author and/or project supervisor.

  • Get to know their credentials: Look up and read their papers. See how many citations they have obtained so far (on a site such as Google Scholar). Find out the various ways in which they are contributing to their field and to science as a whole (such as through expert opinions, interviews, and so on).
  • Go through their profile: Look up their profile on the institution page, on their website (if they have one), or on a social media platform such as Twitter or LinkedIn (if they are on those platforms). You will come to know about their experience and expertise and also ways in which they are engaging with and guiding other researchers and even lay people.
  • Have a discussion with them before/at the time of beginning the project: Talk about their expectations from you, your strengths and challenges (so that they can guide you appropriately), and other ways in which they can support you. Also talk about the various ways in which you can contribute to the project.
  • Speak with team members: If there are multiple members in the team, there may be other researchers you could speak with, some even at the same level as yours. Some of them may have even worked previously with the first author and/or project supervisor. So, they could share their experiences with you, which will help you gain a better understanding of being able to work with the leads.

All in all, a collaborative project is a great opportunity as a researcher. Most research nowadays is proving to be very collaborative as it is proving to be multidisciplinary. So, this will allow you to build this very key attribute of a researcher. It’s understandable that you may have some concerns now, but if you work on the points mentioned above, you should be able to work successfully on this project. So, all the very best!

For more help, you may also refer to the following resources: