Propelling Joint Projects
Junior scholars can learn a tremendous amount about research and journal publishing by working together with those who have more experiences in such domains, a topic I wrote about in my last column. However, such collaboration often runs the risk of stagnating, because the project may not be top priority for any of the participants involved. The goal of this piece is to offer advice on how to propel such projects forward. I draw on experiences with numerous collaborators over the years – some senior to me, some junior, some at the same stage – reflecting on what led to certain projects progressing quickly while others have continued to languish.
Co-authorships can often offer much more than individual scholars would be able to produce on their own. Collaborators can bring different sets of expertise to the project. When done right, the different team members can serve as motivators for each other. Given the numerous obligations academics juggle in the domains of teaching and service, one’s own research projects often slip to the bottom of the pile. However, having someone else depend on the progress we make on a paper can be a helpful motivator to sit down and write.
Collaborative writing comes with its own set of challenges, of course. Most people have preferred ways of working, which likely need to be altered a bit when the next steps of a project are dependent on other team members. A joint project can only progress as fast as its slowest member. But that does not mean that there is no influencing the speed of one’s co-authors.
An important first step to any collaboration is clarifying the division of labor early on in the project. It is important to be on the same page about what is expected of everybody – and when it is expected. Misalignment on such points can lead to frustration and slow progress. If one author thinks that her job is to write a bullet-point list of what will be included in the literature review while the other author is expecting that material in narrative form then receiving the bulleted list will result in disappointment or aggravation coupled with confusion -- none of which are conducive to making progress on the article.
It is best to write out as many parts of the work plan as possible up front. Then as drafts get passed back and forth among team members, it is worth keeping track of progress made on a versioning document separate from the draft (or as the first page of the draft). Such a file lists the most recent contributions of one author and outlines the immediate next steps that should follow by another collaborator. This helps ensure that all parties are up-to-date on what has been accomplished and what needs to follow.
Some people may find it useful to set up a calendar with deadlines, although it is often helpful to be flexible about such timelines, given the many emergencies that can arise for academics and how bad academics are in estimating the amount of time various tasks require. One of my most productive collaborations this past summer happened haphazardly when both a co-author and I happened to be at our computers late one evening. After receiving his revisions, I quickly went through the document making changes. I sent this back immediately and within the hour had another set of revisions from him to consult. This was a good example of how having a writing partner – which is what a co-author is in some sense – can motivate progress on a project.
At the minimum, it is a good idea to check in regularly – perhaps as often as weekly or every couple of weeks depending on the state of the paper – with one’s collaborators to make sure that the project has not fallen off people’s radars. It is often best to set a specific time when each collaborator owes an update to the other/s (e.g., each Monday by noon) to make sure these regular check-ins really do happen. Inevitably, every project member has other papers keeping them busy – not to mention lots of other types of commitments – so it is easy to let any particular study fall by the wayside. But as long as there are regular reminders of its existence, it is hard to push it completely out of mind and thus out of sight.
Collaborative writing also requires certain logistical synchronization that is worth clarifying up front to avoid confusion and associated delays along the way. When several people are involved in editing a document, the different versions can quickly become confusing if the participants are not using an agreed-upon system for keeping track of the latest files. My method is to add to the file name the date and the initial of the last person to make changes to the document (e.g., ArticleTopic083010EH). Only one person works on the piece at any one time to make sure that everyone is always editing the latest draft. Tools exist to do all this in a more synchronous manner (e.g., Google Docs), but other than for a short piece I co-authored that needed little in the way of formatting and had no citations in it, so far I have found such services too limited in capacity to rely on them entirely. Additionally, I do not want to have to be online to access my documents given that sometimes I work in places where that is not an option (e.g., on a plane).
Besides the versioning document I mentioned above, it can also be helpful to leave comments for collaborators interspersed in the text (e.g., using MS Word’s Comments function). Without an explicit system, however, these can get unwieldy. It is important to discuss the logistics of how such features should be handled. Thanks to prompting from a recent collaborator, I now include information about the target of a comment so that when it comes back to me, I know that it is something I had left for someone else and do not need to reread it unless my co-author left a response below it, separated by a blank line starting with 4EH. Alternatively, if I want to make a comment to myself about something I need to get back to later, I can write that out starting with 4EH and my co-author then knows that it may not be of concern. (Although in theory MS Word includes information about the author of a comment, this feature does not seem to work the way it should in most cases I have tried to use it, so some tweaking to the system seemed desirable.)
What can you do when co-authors are unresponsive? This partly depends on your relationship to others on the team. If you are the junior member then it is hard to push too hard against those senior to you, although an occasional prompting or inquiry can be helpful as sometimes people simply just forget about a to-do item. Whatever the status hierarchy, it is always reasonable to request clarification of people’s planned timelines for a project. It may be that your co-author has something immediate that now takes precedence over everything else.
There may be little you can do in such a case, but knowing this and the associated revised timeline can help you rethink your own involvement in the project and how it may influence your own schedule. It could also lead to a discussion about possibly revising the initially agreed-upon division of labor and perhaps, correspondingly, the authorship order as well. In one of my past joint projects, initially we had listed authors alphabetically. However, when time came to make major revisions on the paper, I had more on my plate than allowed for diving in at a level that the new version required, so I suggested to my collaborator that he become first author in exchange for leading the revision process. This allowed us to make the necessary changes to the paper in a timely manner while also rewarding the person who had done more of the work on the final output. (Authorship order is a topic worth its own focused piece that I may write one of these days.)
Collaborating on papers can be an excellent experience that I highly recommend. But it can also be frustrating and lead to a time sink if not done in an organized and well-coordinated manner. All co-authors must share a sense of responsibility for the piece. Some joint explicit planning up front about the process should help with the logistics and ensure that all parties benefit from and enjoy the process.