Co-authoring Academic Publications: A Conversation with Ben Wright

By Elisa Uusimäki, University of Helsinki

Scholars in the humanities are often known for their solitary work and individual achievements, while those in STEM areas tend to work – and publish the results of their research – as part of a group, which may contain diverse authors representing different career stages and several academic institutions.

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Times are changing, however, and co-authorship continues to gain further popularity in the humanities as well.

In spite of being an early career researcher, I myself have co-authored several articles and enjoyed the process of creating such publications, including the feeling of being constantly under “peer-review” and the opportunity to learn from the talented and inspiring people with whom I have undertaken research.

To gain further insights into the phenomenon of co-authorship in academia, I turned to Benjamin G. Wright III, who is University Distinguished Professor at Lehigh University (USA) and known as a particularly collaborative and forward-looking scholar.

Ben has always been willing to introduce new methodological perspectives into his own research and, importantly for our present purposes, to write together with other scholars both within and beyond the field of biblical studies. Let us hear more about his thoughts on collaborative academic writing and the future of academic publishing:

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  1. How would you describe changes pertaining to co-authorship in the humanities during your academic career over the past thirty years or so?

BW: As I look at the field now compared to when I was a young scholar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I see two primary changes.

First, I think that we have become ever more specialized, even in the world of the study of Ancient Israel, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity. My degree was in Christian Origins, and so, although I primarily studied Early Judaism, I did some Hebrew Bible and some New Testament and Early Christianity. One of my earliest publications was on traditions about an early Christian “heretic” named Cerinthus. The more specialized we have become, the more necessary it might be to work with someone else on a topic that moves beyond our specialized area of study.

Second, recent trends in the humanities that focus more on interdisciplinary work push us outside of the boundaries of our field, and more often than not, outside the specific areas of our training. These two trends, as I see it, create an environment where working together with other scholars benefits those who work together as well as their respective fields of study.

 

  1. What kinds of personal experiences do you have of co-authoring publications? What have you co-authored, when, and why?

BW: I was fortunate in my graduate career to have studied with Bob Kraft at the University of Pennsylvania. Bob’s students know his collaborative spirit quite well. Also, with the CATSS project (Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint/Scriptural Study) at Penn, which required computer expertise as well as the traditional specializations in Septuagint Studies, we students worked with Bob and Emanuel Tov in a team atmosphere. So, my first co-written publication was with Emanuel in 1985 and was a product of working with the CATSS database.

Yet, when I began as a young scholar, teaching at Lehigh University, where I was one of the few faculty who studied antiquity, I fell into the habit of working primarily on my own. For me, at least, writing with other scholars (as well as teaching with other scholars) developed as a way of moving outside of my own little corner of the world and to try to work in the kind of collaborative environment that characterized my graduate years. I have been privileged to work with very fine scholars who have taught me a great deal. As I noted, my first publication was with Emanuel Tov in 1985, while I was still a graduate student, where I did the basic database/computer work, Emanuel wrote the basic analysis, and we fine tuned it together. Over the course of my career, I have worked with scholars who were my mentors, like Bob Kraft, with graduate student colleagues, such as Ted Bergren and Noel Hubler, and with younger scholars, both in my field and outside of it, who have pushed me to think in very new and different ways.

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Each experience of working with someone else is completely different and has its own process. I can only give an example or two. In the case of my article with Claudia Camp, she responded to an SBL paper of mine, which I thought so terrific that I suggested to her that we take her response and my paper and put them together in an article. My article with Suzanne Edwards of the English Department here at Lehigh came as a result of conversations that we had over time, and when I was asked to give a paper on the female body in Early Judaism, I knew that I wanted her to work with me, since her theoretical perspectives were beautifully suited to that topic. (Please see a list of Ben’s co-written publications at the end of this blog post.)

  1. Please name the three most significant things that you have learned through these processes of co-authorship.

BW: (1) Every process is different. I can say that I have not yet had a bad experience working with someone else on a publication. For me the processes have been dynamic in the sense that what works with one person won’t work with another. Sometimes that process just happens and sometimes my co-author and I have taken time to work through the process beforehand. In every case I have gotten to know my colleagues better, and for that I am grateful.

(2) In every case where I have worked with someone else, I have felt as if I have learned so much more than I have given in the process. To work closely with colleagues who are such good scholars has made me a better scholar in the long run. These days, my younger colleagues have pushed me to think outside of my own comfortable boxes, and as a result my own work has moved in some new and exciting directions.

(3) Working with someone else keeps me on my toes. I feel as if I have to be at my best at all times, thinking through the issues, writing well, being willing to take criticism, or being able to concede a point. I want to be my best scholarly self throughout the work. And in the end, I have looked forward to how my own perspectives have changed because of the different views and approaches that each of us bring to the project.

  1. Based on your own experiences and “philosophy of research,” how do you see the value of and the need for co-authorship in academia more broadly?

BW: As the humanities become ever more intertwined through good interdisciplinary work, asking the right questions might require us to work with scholars in other areas more often. No one can master all these areas, and if the humanities are to have a lasting impact on society, then we will periodically have to move beyond our own specializations to engage other disciplines and new theoretical perspectives. I have found that I invariably take those new perspectives and approaches back to my own, solo scholarly work.

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  1. Have you struggled with anything during the composition of co-authored publications? What kinds of challenges may one expect during such a process and how does one manage them?

BW: I think the challenges will vary. The biggest is finding a process that works best. In most cases, the way things start out changes as the work gets going. So, there has to be some flexibility to adjust the process as things go along. Good communication is perhaps the most effective way to manage process. A second challenge is more internal. I have been fortunate in that the people I have worked with have been friends and close colleagues before we began to work together. Still, however, for me, at least, my scholarly insecurities rise to the surface pretty quickly. I manage them by working hard to be my best scholarly self and to be as collaborative as possible.

 

  1. Changes in academic publication are not limited to the question of (co-)authorship, but also concern, for instance, the types of publications we produce (e.g., articles vs. monographs). How do you imagine, generally speaking, the future of academic publishing in biblical and cognate studies?

BW: I have heard it said that some scholars are book scholars and some are article scholars. I am not sure if that is true, but for the most part I have been on the article side. I have not co-authored a book, and I think that would be a quite different task from writing an article, although it would be interesting to find out how exactly it would differ.

I am not sure where academic publishing is headed. I think that my younger colleagues will determine that direction, and with the way that technology develops, who knows what publishing possibilities will be available in the very near future. I do think that while many scholars are beginning to disseminate their ideas in non-traditional contexts (by that I mean hard copy publishing of books and articles), there is still a place for the traditional venues. I was fortunate to enter graduate school at a time when Bob Kraft and others like him were pioneering a new mode of scholarly research, the computer, and I remember the suspicion in some corners about how that new technology in our field might dilute “real” research. I don’t think that has happened—quite the contrary, none of us can imagine doing our research without them. So, who knows what the next platform will be. No matter what the medium, however, good scholarship will still be good scholarship.

 

Thank you, Ben, for sharing your insights with STECA! We are looking forward to reading your future publications!

 

Please read more about Prof. Ben Wright’s research and career here: https://religion.cas2.lehigh.edu/content/dr-benjamin-g-wright

You may also want to visit the online Festschrift published in honour of him in the Ancient Jew Review: http://www.ancientjewreview.com/articles/2018/1/9/a-genius-for-mentorship-a-forum-in-honor-of-ben-wright-on-his-65th-birthday

A list of Ben Wright’s co-authored publications can be found here as well:

Books:

A New English Translation of the Septuagint. Co-editor with Albert Pietersma and translator. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. (Co-wrote “To the Reader of NETS” with Pietersma.)

Conflicted Boundaries in Wisdom and Apocalypticism. Co-editor with Lawrence M. Wills and principal contributor. SBLSS 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005. (Co-wrote the Introduction with Wills.)

The Apocryphal Ezekiel. Co-editor with Michael E. Stone and David Satran. SBLEJL 18. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000. (Co-wrote the chapter on “Martyrological Traditions” with Satran and the chapter on “Ezekiel’s Tomb in Jewish Tradition” with his advanced undergraduate student, Karen Wright.)

Articles:

With Eva Mroczek. “Ben Sira’s Pseudo-Pseudepigraphy: Idealizations from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.” To appear in The Pursuit of Human Flourishing: A Virginia Conference on the Book of Sirach and its Contexts, ed. Greg Schmidt Goering, Samuel Adams and Matthew Goff. Leiden: Brill (forthcoming).

With Hindy Najman. “Perfecting Translation: The Greek Scriptures in Philo of Alexandria.” Pages 897–915 in Sibyls, Scriptures, and Scrolls: John Collins at Seventy, ed. Joel Baden, Hindy Najman and Eibert Tigchelaar. JSJSup 175. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

With Suzanne Edwards. “‘She Undid Him with the Beauty of Her Face’ (Jdt 16.6): Reading Women’s Bodies in Early Jewish Literature.” Pages 73–108 in Religion and the Female Body in Ancient Judaism and Its Environments, ed. Géza G. Xeravits. DCLS 28. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015.

With Sidnie Crawford. “Guilt.” Pages 1002–1003 in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. Volume 10. Genocide–Hakkoz. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015.

With Karen Jobes. “Haman.” Pages 82–83 in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. Volume 11. Halah–Hizquni. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015.

With Claudia Camp. “‘Who Has Been Tested by Gold and Found Perfect?’ Ben Sira’s Discourse of Riches and Poverty.” Henoch 23 (2001): 153–174.

With Robert Kraft. “Coptic/Sahidic Fragments of the Biblical Psalms in the University of Pennsylvania Museum.” Pages 163–177 in The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma, ed. Robert J. V. Hiebert, Claude E. Cox and Peter J. Gentry. JSOTSup 332. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

With James N. Hubler. “A Coptic Gospel of John in the University of Pennsylvania Museum.” Pages 245–262 in A Multiform Heritage: Studies on Early Judaism and Christianity in Honor of Robert A. Kraft, ed. Benjamin G. Wright. Scholars Press Homage Series 24. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999.

With Theodore Bergren and Robert Kraft. “Jerome’s Translation of Origen’s Homily on Jeremiah 2.21–22 (Greek Homily 2; Latin 13).” Revue Benedictine 104 (1994): 260–283.

With Emanuel Tov. “Computer Assisted Study of the Criteria for Assessing the Literalness of Translation Units in the LXX.” Textus 12 (1985): 149–187.

With Robert Kraft and Theodore Bergren. “The Greek-Latin Parallel Text of Origen’s Homily on Jer 2.21ff and Jerome’s Latin Translation.” In PHI Demonstration CDROM #1. Packard Humanities Institute, 1987. [Electronic Publication.]

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