Is the academic lone wolf extinct?

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Photo by Krishh | unsplash.com

Academic lone wolves get a bad rap.

In today’s hyper-collaborative academic world, the idea that researchers might work on something alone, get funding alone, and publish alone, is weird and even abhorrent to many.

Yet, it is the reality for many humanities and social sciences academics, from postgraduates to senior scholars. They have projects where they publish and work on projects alone, as well as collaborative and joint initiatives that involve others in their own discipline and beyond.

It’s not a case of either/or, but the general vibe in many academic ‘advice’ streams is that scholars should not work alone.

Scholars can and do work alone, and they can be excellent colleagues, productive academics, and generous mentors. Sure, there are some researchers who work alone because they don’t play well with others, but many work alone because it is an expectation of their disciplines. Some work alone because they enjoy working alone, but it doesn’t mean they can’t work with others.

Not only is sole-authorship relatively common practice, it is in fact a sought-after signal that the researcher has the ability to create and complete major intellectual work. The opaqueness of who did what can be the source of much contention on work that involves more than one named investigator or author. Humanities scholars are not as often embroiled in these debates because they practice a discipline “where text and author are tightly coupled; where the process of inscription implies intimacy with one’s materials” (Cronin 2003 [196 Kb PDF]).  Read more of this post

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Author order and disorder

Debra Carr has a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science and a PhD in Engineering.

Prior to joining Cranfield University, she was employed by the Ministry of Defence (SCRDE), Imperial College (Mechanical Engineering) and The University of Otago (Clothing and Textile Sciences).

Debra is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and a Fellow of The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

In 2012, Debra was a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow. Debra’s research interests include personal protective equipment design and testing, and behind armour wound ballistics.


I’m a materials engineer specialising in textile science. After I finished my PhD, I first worked in Government and now I’ve been an academic for nearly 20 years.

I love working with my research students (MSc and PhD) and I try to give them as many opportunities to publish as possible.

When a student first approaches me, I talk about where their work might be published – should it be a journal, or conference proceedings? I encourage them to think about their work as publishable and plan the work right from the start for publication. I think this is as important for my students who are completing a taught Master of Science (MSc) that includes a 3-month research project resulting in a dissertation, as for my PhD students who are in a 3-year program.

Most of my personal research projects, and those that my research students conduct, are for customers who have a real-world problem (i.e. most of the work is applied in nature). Some projects cannot be published due to confidentiality and I let my students know this ASAP in the process. I always ensure we meet with the client.

As far as I am concerned, if an article is written from a thesis by either the student or me, then they are first author on the publication and I am usually second author as their supervisor. My boss and my institution (I believe) expect me to be second author. Obviously, these articles contribute significantly to my career progression as well as theirs and I have benefited from my students with respect to promotion. Other authors on the articles might be another research student or a staff member who has helped (academic or technical), and an industrial supervisor or a sponsor (particularly if the work was originally their idea – so an acknowledgement of their intellectual property).

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | http://www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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