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How to cyber-collaborate

Options:     Print Version - How to cyber-collaborate, part 1 Print view

By Margaret Adolphus

How did we get here?

The organizers of the 1998 Academy of Management Annual Meeting faced a problem: a world-class name in knowledge management – a visiting professor from Japan at the University of California – had missed the submission deadline. On the one hand, it would be hard to programme him in, on the other, he would be a big draw. So, all the programme chairs, including Charles Wankel as chair of the management education division, were asked what they could do to help. Not one to miss a trick, Wankel got around the problem by getting sponsorship from Park Xerox for a reception and gift in the professor's honour.

A magical opportunity for networking, but, it being 1998, once the reception was over, most of the contacts Wankel made were in his past.

The twenty-first century is, however, a different universe: you can add people you meet to your Facebook and LinkedIn contacts, so you can keep up to date with what they are working on, where they are travelling and even what their family is doing. Both provide convenient ways of keeping up with large numbers of people without having to meet them in person.

Nowadays, many academics live in a highly networked world where choosing people to collaborate with may simply be a matter of checking through LinkedIn or other similar sources of contacts. And, once they have their collaborators in place, wiki-type technology can create a solid infrastructure for sharing work. In fact, the social technology developments of the Web over the last decade make it much easier to collaborate with more people more efficiently.

There's no need for the endless phone calls, walks to the post room, team meetings and myriad e-mails which I remember from my days of managing multi-authored projects. But let's take a step back, and have a brief look at the concept of authorship without the confusing overlay of technology.

A brief history of authorship

People have been collaborating over creative works since time immemorial. The popular concept of the sole author, and with it notions of the unique literary or artistic work which needs to be protected, dates back to the European Romantic Period and its view of the uniqueness of creativity. It's a view that's epitomized in Virginia Woolf's depiction of the solitary writer in A Room of One's Own.

While works of fiction are rarely co-authored (although even that is changing with the Web), collaboration is common in academic life because very often what is written about is the product not of imagination, but of research, to which a team of people have played a part. An extreme example of this occurs in science journals, where articles can have hundreds of names attached, simply because what is described is a complex experiment to which many have contributed.

Although it is unusual to have such prolific collaboration in the social sciences, frequently articles have at least three names in the author byline. Solo scholarship is most common in the humanities, but collaboration is common for digital projects: for example, the archive collection of Walt Whitman's poems was managed by a project team which included an archivist, programmer, digital initiatives librarian and a professor of English (Barney et al., 2005).

In addition to research articles, co-authoring of academic books – both textbooks and monographs – is also becoming very common.

Normally these are edited by one or two people, with individual contributors writing chapters as a discreet chunk, which one might describe as a "unit of individual authorship". Emerald's "Advances in ... " e-book series is an example of this. To read more about it, visit the e-book series information page.

However, the practice of multiple authors contributing to one unit, whether it be a chapter or an encyclopedia entry, is growing. Take Wikipedia for example: it has (currently) 85,000 volunteer authors, who are free to write and edit articles within clear guidelines. Thus one article may have many contributors, with the original author's work being overlaid by many others, who provide more information, further links, and correct errors and bias.

Perhaps this is an illustration of how, according to David Weinberger (2007), the Web 2.0 world of multiple authorship has affected the nature of content, which, when it emerges online, does so in tiny pieces. This content is "unbundled", and each piece is "smart" and can create various new meanings according to how it is rebundled.

Authorship in the digital age

So, in the digital age, people are collaborating in all sorts of ways to create books and journal articles. Let us sum up with a definition of collaborative authoring from Wikia Creative:

"Coauthoring is a collaborative process whereby multiple authors create the content of a written work. Coauthoring is very common in modern academic works, and in some fields is the norm. Coauthoring is often necessary because completing a given work may require broader expertise, equipment or resources than a single author can provide ... A common practice in academic and research writing, coauthoring is a longstanding and important method in the ongoing development of human knowledge. Although a technique that is likely to be as old as writing itself, coauthoring is taking on new characteristics in wiki based, mass collaborative environments such as Wikipedia and Meta Collab.

Collaborative authorship is the act of co-creating and consulting within a group of people to create a project, in which the author of the project is the group itself rather than a single person" (see: Wikia Creative, http://collaboration.wikia.com/wiki/Coauthor).

This definition reinforces points already made: the importance of collaboration to academia, and the way it has been affected by wiki-based mass collaborative environments. It also emphasizes the power of the group and its ability to offer a broad range of expertise and perspectives: the collaborative work can provide richer content, as illustrated in the next section.


Barney, B., Ducey, M.E., Jewell, A., Price, K.M., Zillig, B. and Walter, K.L. (2005), "Ordering chaos: an integrated guide and online archive of Walt Whitman's poetry manuscripts", Literary and Linguistic Computing, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 205-217.

Weinberger, D. (2007), Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, Times Books, NY.