Co-authoring: Shared Work ≠ Less Work

by Shannon Lucky
Library Systems & Information Technology, University of Saskatchewan

Writing is hard.
Collaborative writing is really hard.
image by nicmcphee

I recently co-authored a paper with two colleagues based on a library project we had worked on together. It made perfect sense to collaborate on a paper about the project. We brought our different roles and perspectives to the writing process and were each able to contribute in our area of expertise while letting the others complete the full picture. Personally, I couldn’t imagine writing about the project alone. It doesn’t belong to me and I felt would have been presumptuous to speak for the group. Because we had successfully worked on the project as a group I imagined it would be a breeze to write it up.

I was wrong.

I wasn’t wrong because any of us were controlling, egotistic, lazy, or unwilling to compromise. Far from it. I was wrong because we were all intellectually (and perhaps a bit emotionally) invested in the work. We each had our own clear (in our own minds) interpretation of what the article should look like, but we didn’t want to dictate it to the group.

In the end, I learned a lot and I am proud of our project. It isn’t the article that I would have written on my own, and that is a good thing. It’s about a collaborative project and the article benefited from the diverse perspectives of the team. However, there are some things I will do differently the next time I work on a co-authored project.

  1. Communicate early, communicate often. Having discussions about author order, citation managers, file naming standards, sharing notes or drafts, and timelines are not my favourite parts of researching on a team. However, making assumptions about these basic issues can create tension if you don’t talk about it early on. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth it to spell this stuff out – particularly if one person isn’t taking on the task of pulling everything together into a final draft.
    If your paper is being written by consensus, have these discussions right away.
    If your paper isn’t being written by consensus, have these discussions right away. Maybe we should develop a checklist for co-authors (like a pre-marital counselling checklist)?
  2. Writing styles are like snowflakes – no two are alike and too many piled up will make you miserable.
    image by timo
    Disciplinary differences in style are to be expected in library groups. Most of us come from another academic discipline prior to librarianship or serve users in a particular academic discipline as a liaison. We all use different citations styles, vocabularies, and writing styles depending on our own areas of expertise, and an interdisciplinary team is almost certain to have some stylistic conflict. Writing style is subjective but it can really slow down a project if there are big differences of opinion. If you and your co-authors don’t have compatible styles it might be easier to pick one person to put the paper together. Have everyone write sections but hand it over to the editor to make it flow. Swallow your pride and pick the person with the most appropriate writing style for the journal you are targeting.
  3. Realize that technology will (probably) cause trouble. Decide on how you are going to write and share your work (Google Docs, spreadsheets, Dropbox, a shared drive, emailing drafts, telekinesis, whatever) and if you want to use a citation manager. Make sure everyone has access to whatever technology you pick and is comfortable with it. There are so many options out there, but using a bunch of non-compatible systems is a recipe for disaster and data loss. Also, back up your work and use a versioning system – good advice for life.
  4. Meet face-to-face. This is something we did right from the beginning and I think it helped us deal with the issues that did come up before they became serious problems. Meeting every other week, even just to check in briefly, gave us the opportunity to talk through ideas we had, change the flow of the paper when necessary, and keep everyone on the same page. It also helped to hold us to our timeline because we knew we needed to do something for the next meeting, even if it was the night before. It was during these in person meetings that we addressed the problems we had and worked out our best solutions.
  5. Get an independent and impartial third party to read your final draft. You likely have a lot of eyes on the paper, which is great, but having someone unfamiliar with the material read it is important. After working over the content repeatedly it can take a fresh perspective to see that you accidentally edited out some critical information somewhere between version 12 and 13.

In the weeks since we submitted the article I have had many conversations with people about their experiences co-authoring (good and bad) and read some entertaining articles about co-authoring gone wrong. I am curious to see if the Brain-Work readers have advice, success stories, or cautionary tales to share.