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Writing collaboratively

Collaborative writing is now a common part of the research and professional publishing landscape.

Collaboration

In addition to articles and teaching case studies, co-authoring of academic books – both textbooks and monographs – is becoming very common. Normally these are edited by one or two people, with individual contributors writing chapters. However, the practice of multiple authors contributing to chapters or encyclopaedia entries is growing. For example, Wikipedia has thousands, if not millions, of volunteer authors writing and editing its online content.

One factor contributing to the growth in collaboration is the increasing move towards interdisciplinary research. This sees teams in different disciplines combine information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, etc. to find solutions to problems they are unable to solve alone. Another important element is the rise of online collaboration sites, such as Google Docs.

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Benefits of co-authorship

  • Learning opportunities: If you are a first-time author, it can be a great way to pick up good publishing practices from more experienced colleagues. And, in the case of teaching case study authors, you are developing two complementary writing styles – the cases require a narrative approach while the teaching notes demand a more academic style.
  • Stronger submissions: More eyes on the paper can result in a more robust manuscript; what one person misses, another is likely to spot.
  • Improved funding opportunities: Funding bodies look favourably on co-authorship and collaboration. Interdisciplinary research is also a growing requirement.

Considerations

Establish good relationships

As you’re now already at the writing stage, you have probably found a way to work effectively together. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Collaborative work should be based on respect and equality
  • Every team member should be valued
  • Asymmetrical relationships, where the work is not evenly distributed, can lead to frustration on all sides
  • Openness and honesty is critical
  • It’s important to create an atmosphere where everyone can 'think aloud' and voice concerns

Draw up a plan

To avoid confusion, and even resentment, always draw up a project plan before you start. In particular. it’s important to agree:

  • Your vision for the paper: Is everyone aligned on how you will communicate your ideas or findings?
  • Roles and responsibilities: This is vital. Be very clear on who is doing what, for example, who will lead the project? Exploit your individual strengths.
  • Timelines: These should cover the deadline for the delivery of first drafts, revision rounds, planned submission date, etc.
  • Authorship: This is a good time to agree the order in which authors will be listed and who will take on the role of corresponding author.

Communication

Most communication will be carried out by email or via the online collaborative platform you have chosen. For a major project, it can be helpful to have face-to-face meetings every so often, or even group video calls. There are a few important points to think about.

Check in with each other regularly: If you have a weekly telephone call scheduled and there seems to be nothing to talk about, go ahead and have it anyway – you can always agree after five minutes that there is nothing to say, but you may find something surprising and critical comes up.
Everyone has a personal life: It's always worth keeping in touch with how people are feeling, for example,  Do your co-authors feel their work is going well? Or do they have concerns?
Remember, we are all different. Your co-writers may have more, or less, constraints on their time than you, or may not even want the same thing out of the project as you. It’s good to discuss these things up front or flag them if you feel a co-author’s priorities are changing.
Recognise different cultures. This could be country-related, e.g. restrictions on where or when you can meet; or regional or even work-place related. For example, your co-authors may be used to doing everything over email and never discussing things in person. Others might want to run through everything in a call or face to face. You will have some co-authors used to working in a team and some who prefer to work alone.
Deal with conflict: If there is any ill feeling or disagreement, encourage people to discuss what has gone wrong. Ignoring problems can lead them to escalate.

Review and rewrite where needed

When multiple people have contributed to a piece of work it can make it very disjointed for readers. Ensure the manuscript is checked and edited so that the tone is consistent.

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