Anonymous, via email: Do you have any tips for collaborative writing? I do a lot of co-authoring work (not just nominally but actually: two or more writers, one document, shared attribution). This kind of work obviously raises questions about voice (does one smooth out the differences and aim for a neutral tone? Or keep each author’s quirks?) and about process (is it easier if one person steers the ship into the Publication Port or should it be all hands on deck the whole time?). How should we handle these concerns?
Dr. Editor’s response:
Successful collaborative authorship involves more than simply ensuring that your colleagues don’t revise an out-of-date version of your document. Let’s review some best practices for your shared voice, your article’s structure, and your path to getting published.
Unlike fiction or poetry, in academic writing the author’s voice is secondary to the reader’s needs. When writing collaboratively, your authorial voices need to do more than sing in harmony: you’ll need to aim for the same tone, the same pitch, the same timbre.
So, smooth out your stylistic differences. If one author loves em-dashes and the other prefers parentheses, then you’ll need to agree on a single approach to punctuating your interjections.
Edit one another’s contributions, and your own, ruthlessly. Do the usual things: favour the active voice. Revise wordy constructions. Aim for an average sentence length that is comparable to the best writers in your discipline — usually, that means an average sentence length of 25 words or fewer.
It’s something a little different, though, to say that collaboratively-authored works must have a neutral tone, free of quirks. Keep the quirks that serve your reader. Take, for instance, the use of metaphor. Metaphors add clarity when they relate an unfamiliar concept to a familiar one (“mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell”), or when they render the abstract as concrete (“this debate is at a crossroads”).
The most effective metaphors are ones in which the items being compared operate in similar ways, rather than ones in which the items share a similar appearance. So, “my job is a prison” — a metaphor that suggests an underlying commonality between these two disparate things — is a more compelling metaphor than one that connects superficial, surface characteristics, like “the sun is a tangerine” (Jamrozik et al, 2006). The metaphor you use in your question, comparing getting published to docking a boat, works well because it reveals system-level commonalities: both getting published and bringing a ship into port involve a slow speed, precise maneuvers, and certain forces — currents, flows, pressures, trends — that are beyond any one person’s control.
When used well, figures of speech help your readers understand your work — but they’re also useful for you as a writer. Psychologists tell us that information, regardless of its veracity, is most likely to be trusted when it is both easy to understand and connected to prior knowledge (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). By connecting the reader to what they already know, your unfamiliar, novel insights become familiarized, and are in turn more likely to be believed. Want to appear more credible? Make your work easier to understand, perhaps by including an inventive metaphor.
A metaphor is just one example of a quirky writing style that may be worth retraining in a collaboratively authored text. If one author’s well-placed quirk makes the text clearer to your reader, well, then, quirk away! I see no downside to such quirking. On the other hand, if your co-author’s quirks include an abundance of hedging, abstraction, or zombie nouns — those don’t serve your reader. Such quirks have to go.
I can imagine an article structured as an exchange, a dialogue, in which the unique voice and perspective of each writer helps to further the argument. For example, in an article about pedagogy, two authors might share two perspectives on why they use a particular approach, or its effect in their different classrooms.
When you begin writing a collaborative draft of a journal article, consider playing with an innovative structure like a dialogue. Introducing structural variety into your academic writing can help you to avoid writing to a template — and, by extension, thinking in templated, predetermined, narrow ways.
Even in those disciplines where a strict IMRAD (introduction, methods, results and discussion) structure is conventional, consider weaving a couple of vignettes or moments of back-and-forth metacommentary into your article. Is one of your co-authors always skeptical, questioning your methodology, your sample size, your research question? How would including that voice, embedded within, yet commenting on your work, affect the persuasive impact of your argument?
Experiment with your structure: include the exchange in your draft, and see how you feel about its effect. Even if you choose not to keep the dialogue in the manuscript you submit, engaging explicitly with the divergent perspectives of the different co-authors will enable you to address the hard questions, justifying your decision-making.
Only one author should captain the ship of your manuscript. According to What Editors Want (2012), you should have only one “corresponding author” (CA) for your collaboratively authored article:
no matter how many authors are associated with the paper, the CA is always the ‘point of contact,’ the organizer, and the representative of the author group in all dealings with the journal. … [T]he CA’s job is to relay every communication from the journal to all the other authors, and to gather and collate all the contributions from those authors and send the final result back to the journal (37-8).
Some groups of authors choose the person who has the most experience getting published to serve as their CA, while others choose the person who has the closest relationship with the editors of their target journal.
I suggest giving the role of CA to the person for whom the article is most important. Who most needs to see your article published? Is one of your co-authors working on a book project related to your publication? Does your group include a postdoc on the job market, or someone going up for a tenure review in two years?
If your work is a side-project for all involved, it will take much longer to get submitted, revised, proofed, and published.
In sum: when authoring together, be innovative in language and structure, but conform to convention as you submit your work to be published. As individuals, this combination offers you the best chance of successfully communicating your findings.
However, system-level barriers may obstruct your ability to communicate your findings, and these barriers need collective action. Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, the peer review conventions in the STEM fields perpetuate systemic inequalities:
Moreover, for high-impact journals, the likelihood a woman will be published as the first, last or corresponding author decreases significantly as the impact factor of the journal increases. 12/
— Katie Grogan 👩🔬🧬 (@Dr_KatieG1) November 26, 2018
It is the responsibility of all journal editors to ensure their review panels are diverse, as “mixed gender or all-female review panels equally accept manuscripts regardless of gender of the first, last or corresponding author.” It is also incumbent upon “departments, journals, societies, conferences or funding agencies” to track and publish relevant data, to document these systemic biases, and to “address them in all areas of our work” (Grogan). As Dr. Grogan notes on her Twitter thread, which she regularly updates with new findings related to women in STEM:
How will you compensate for potential pitfalls? We write those paragraphs for our grants, why can’t we do it for this problem? We need the entire STEM community to actively lean into solving this gender bias problem, instead of asking the female part to solve it among themselves
— Katie Grogan 👩🔬🧬 (@Dr_KatieG1) November 26, 2018
I did an experiment like this writing as a dialogue with a graduate student. It was a lot more interesting than the traditional paper. We were hoping to ‘perform’ it at a conference but one of us can’t make it this time.