Are you dreading writing that paper with your collaborators? Have you had awful experiences with authorship disputes or endless rounds of revising a manuscript? Here’s a system for how to make the collaborative writing process enjoyable and efficient for everyone.
If you have published a scientific paper, chances are you weren’t the only author. Research is no longer done by lone wolves but rather a collaborative effort. You might have co-authored a piece with your supervisor, your PhD or undergraduate student, a fellow PostDoc or whole groups of collaborators. Whether your collaboration is overseas or across the corridor, you’ve probably felt the challenges of working on a manuscript with a group of people.
Here are some tips to make sure your collaborative paper a) gets done efficiently, b) won’t make you hate your collaborators and c) becomes that stellar piece you had in mind when you set up the collaboration. There are three crucial checkpoints at which you should have a discussion amongst the group members: At the start of the collaboration, before writing the paper and after the first draft is ready.
Set the premises for your collaboration
There are some things you best discuss way before you are writing up the findings. Ideally, you and your collaborators should have a meeting at the very start of your project and agree on some points:
Who owns the project? The owner of the project is the one who is responsible for keeping the project on track, following up with the members of the collaboration, arranging meetings... She will likely be the corresponding (and/or first or last) author of the manuscript. This role does not need to be a principal investigator (PI) – in fact, most early-career researchers will probably appreciate the role and get lots of valuable project management experience out of it.
What is everyone’s responsibility? Every member of the collaboration should have a specific task they can be held accountable for. This could be a certain part of the lab work, supervision of a certain task etc.
What is the timeline for the project?
The timeline of the project is best discussed from the start. When should the compound be synthesized and when are the simulation results due? Make sure every collaborator has enough free time in their schedule to complete their task. It surely is hard to estimate when the whole project will be finished or the paper submitted. Nevertheless, I recommend to agree on an end date because it helps everyone to keep on track and stay motivated.
How can every member of the collaboration be reached? What are acceptable response times?
Every member should specify by what means they would like to communicate. The default here is probably email but do consider platforms such as Slack. It allows you to create polls, upload documents and discuss topics in threads. Just a note of warning: They can speed up communication but they can also become a huge time waster. In order to use Slack or similar tools efficiently I suggest to define how often you expect everyone to check their messages and reply.
It’s time to plan the paper writing
So, you are a few months into your collaboration and results are dripping in. Now you are probably getting a good idea what the story of your manuscript will look like. Most scientists start the writing process too late. And yes, I was and am guilty of this too. Just a little bit more research… Right?
The truth is the longer you hold up the writing process the longer it will take you to finish your project. The reason for this is two-fold: Writing will help you understand the literature more deeply that builds the foundation of your research. And by writing up your results you will also easily see gaps in your story and arguments. If you start writing early you still have enough time to investigate certain ideas in the lab or at your desk.
For your collaboration, this means that now is the time to discuss the writing process. The points of discussion are actually similar to those at your initial meeting:
Owner- and Authorship. Reassess if it still makes sense that to keep the project owner in their role. It might be that the research shifted focus and that it would make more sense now for another member of the group to direct the writing process. Here it makes sense that the project owner is either the first or last and possibly corresponding author. In addition to the responsibilities of the project owner outlined earlier, he or she should also be in charge of compiling the pieces of writing from various collaborators into one manuscript and submitting it. Now is also a good time to agree on the remaining order of authors. If you struggle with this, check out this guide by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and these tips from Naturejobs.
Writing responsibilities. Who’s writing which part? Remember to talk about the introduction and discussion sections in particular, as they likely need real collaborative effort. You perhaps want to set further meetings to discuss the content of those sections.
Timeline. Now is a good time to revise your plan (if you haven’t yet): In what time frame could the remaining research be completed? What should the deadlines be for the different members of the collaboration to finish their part of the writing? When do you expect to have a first draft?
The paper as such. All of the collaborators should agree and be aware of what the main message and the conclusions of the paper will be. It’s good practice to spell those out and save them somewhere accessible to all (a server, dropbox or similar) or to send them out via email or Slack or similar. Remember: These are not set in stone! The main message and conclusions are likely going to change when you continue to discuss and obtain your findings. Just update them accordingly.
Software. Decide on one program everyone will write with so that the person who is compiling the different parts isn’t overly burdened with converting Latex scripts into a Word doc or vice versa. There also exist a number of collaborative writing tools such as Authorea and OverLeaf. Easy options for writing with several authors are Google Docs or Word Online.
Target journal. You might not know for sure at this stage which journal you want to submit the paper to. It is still worthwhile to narrow down to one or two candidates. Make sure everyone is familiar with the journal guidelines and formats their writing (and the references!!) accordingly. This will save lots of time at the end!
Making the rounds
Once the project owner has received all the parts from the different collaborators and compiled the paper, you’ll have your first draft. Now it’s time for some decision-making again:
Editing. Should the project owner/first/last author or another collaborator be responsible for editing the draft so that it is concise and coherent? Or are you going to hire an external editor (such as me) to do this?
Revisions. In what order should the co-authors read and comment on the draft? How should the comments, changes and edits be submitted to the project owner? A common option is to ask every co-author to switch on track-changes if you work in Word. It’s easy to see the changes an author has made and whether the owner wants to accept or reject them. Some authors prefer to get a list of the suggested changes so they can implement them themselves.
Dealing with lots of opinions. The project owner should take all the group members’ suggestions into account. Instead of ignoring suggestions that the project owner doesn’t agree with, it’s better to seek discussion with the co-author. If they can’t come to an agreement, the topic should be opened up to the whole group.
Final draft. Every co-author should read the final draft before the paper is submitted.
A couple of general tips for writing in scientific collaborations
When you meet with your collaboration partners and co-authors – be it in person or virtually – have someone take minutes. The project owner should update the timeline, responsibilities etc based on the minutes.
There is project management software out there, which you might want to check out. If you have never worked with programs like this, I recommend to start looking into Asana, Basecamp or Trello. Setting up these systems can be a time-consuming undertaking, however, and it might just overcomplicate things for your purposes. So, consider wisely if this would be a good investment of your time.
There you have it: A whole system for each stage of your research collaboration. Hopefully, this will make writing with co-authors a more joyful experience for everyone! If you need some extra motivation to tackle your collaborative research paper: Take advantage of the fact that you work in a team. You will now be held accountable for delivering what you’ve promised, which give you a great boost in your productivity. Need more convincing? Scientific articles that are the product of a collaboration tend to get cited more often.
If you feel that your collaborative research paper isn’t the best it could be, just reach out. I offer structural edits and structural reviews where I make sure that language, structure and flow are concise and consistent.
Blog post on “How to write in teams (without loosing your sh*t)” by the health sciences grant editor Dr. Sarah Dobson
A research paper for those who are ready to dive deeper: “Strategies for effective collaborative manuscript development in interdisciplinary science teams” by S. K. Oliver et al.