Collaborative Writing: Personal Perspectives of Two Academics

Lior Weissbrod and Ilana Kaufman

Introduction

Collaborative writing is whatever we want it to be. That is a subversive statement in a world that relies on standardization and clear-cut definitions for proper communication. But, consider the following range of terms used to delineate the varied meanings of collaborative writing: “working interactively”, “jointly composing”, “contributing components” and even “modifying, by editing”; and, also “borrowing, synthesis and appropriation,” perhaps even plagiarism, are ways to write collaboratively (Farks 1991; Hill 2003). Academics engage in all of these forms of collaborative writing, though not in plagiarism, hopefully.

Along this continuum of modes of collaboration in academic writing, individuals may occupy a wide range of positions. Do you find yourselves completing each other’s sentences as you sit down to write in front of the computer screen? That’s terrific! You are able to work at the interactive end of the spectrum of modes of collaborative writing—the high end. However, much of the collaboration in academic writing involves modifying and editing each other’s texts. Good editing skills for academics at the peer-to-peer level are no less important, perhaps more so, than a knack for proficient writing. Writing together in this manner, from our point of view, offers one of the greatest advantages of working in academia and taking part in the grand, joint venture of scientific advancement.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Two Personal Perspectives

Ilana: I came to my first proper experience of collaborative writing only late in my career as an academic writer in the field of political science. Throughout the years I was a lone she-wolf (or should it be a wolfess?), as was the norm in our field of academic research (Bonnie, Cobane, Vander Ven & Cullen, 1998). The exceptions came mostly from the ranks of the “quantifiers”, whose articles and journals seemed, at least to us, to be more suitable for the Math section of the library. Indeed, my single experience of collaboration then was based on a simple division of labor, based on specialization:  I contextualized, and wrote the meaning of the questionnaire data which my partner collected and processed. In the course of those years, I encountered colleagues who co-authored conceptual articles and even books leaving me puzzled: how was that made possible, given the intellectual individuality of the task, or the technical obstacles involved. The spread of digital technology solved the latter, contributing, no doubt, to an increase of co-authorship and multi-authorship even in this sub-type of my field.

My two most recent research projects, however, were truly collaborative.  With two other colleagues (a political scientist and a sociologist) we researched two topics. With one of the two, I co-authored a research note on one of the topics. On the second topic, the three of us did the research and co-authored a chapter for a book. On the whole, collaboration was a positive experience for me. First, the brainstorming: fleshing out one’s ideas, getting feedback and finding common ground on intellectual matters is a gratifying experience, although it is extremely time-consuming and at times frustrating. Second, the division of responsibility: in the research stage, in the field, we could cover for each other. Third, the division of labor in the writing stage: each one wrote the part closest to his/her area of expertise. The problematic facets of collaborative writing I found to be (a) synchronizing the timelines of the partners in the project (b) unifying the tone and styles, and sometimes the terms of the discourse of different individuals, coming from different sub-fields and methodological orientations. The process of collaborative writing certainly requires a common interest in the subject matter, and a basic shared understanding of the terms of reference. It also requires a leader, someone who takes the responsibility to push the project forward, and to set the deadlines for the group.

The various digital tools of communication, such as shared document platforms were vital in our collaboration, but we also found that face-to-face communication was indispensable for making progress from one state to another. A delicate issue is the order of authorship. Since the workload was more or less equal, we decided by the relevance of each authors expertise on the topic for the target publication. Lastly, for those who are not native English speakers, the command of the language is a deciding factor: those who are better writers need to take upon themselves the leading role and edit their co-authors.

Lior: The process of writing in academia can at times become quite a lonely pursuit—there is no escaping the typically long intimate hours when it is only you vis a vis the machine—the writer with his/her computer, a process which must always begin from a blank page. And, yet, at the same time, collaborative writing where two or more coauthors contribute components to and/or edit each other’s text is more the norm than the exception.

The better part of my experience in academic writing has been one of collaboration, precisely of this sort. For the damned perfectionist, like myself, the process of writing often involves two emotional bottlenecks—beginning the work from a blank glaring screen and submitting it to collaborators, soliciting their comments and editorial suggestions. With time and experience I have come to see these two stages of the process of academic writing as essential and unavoidable as much as they are agonizing—an inevitable adaptation to the demands of the field. Generally speaking, peer-editing is an essential aspect in the preparation of nearly any type of text (e.g., grant application, journal article and even a conference abstract), and I have come to depend on this resource to the extent that I would not submit text to external review without subjecting it first to the scrutiny of trusted colleagues. But, working collaboratively with coauthors rather than merely referring texts to peer-editing affords the added advantage of sharing with collaborators a vested interest in the success of a joint writing project. I would go so far as to suggest that the contemporary academic arena, increasingly internationalized and networked, promotes an inherent incentive among academics to write collaboratively, and that amplifying the sphere of collaboration in this manner is ultimately good for continued acceleration in the progression of science.

Joint Overview and the Prospects of Collaborative Writing in Academia

What’s so good about it? And what does it take to succeed? The preparation of many, perhaps most Academic texts should not require a lengthy maturation process, as could otherwise be imagined for literary or other forms of more personal writing. In much of our Academic writing where collaboration was concerned, the text ceased from being the personal creation of a single author and mutated into the outcome of a collaborative venture—the result of a diversity of inputs from several authors—quite abruptly. One might say that the sooner that this shift occurs in the process of Academic writing the better. Effective dissemination of data (i.e., research results)—the bread and butter of academic work—is often of greater importance than the text’s message (i.e., discussion or interpretation of results). Science largely advances in a cumulative manner, with new ideas building on previous findings and their ongoing refinement.

The key to successful collaboration in academic writing is fully adopting the collaborative spirit. Some of the best creations of this writing form you will come across might essentially be the ultimate chimera of ideas and formulations. However, it’s important to keep in mind that each and every academic text that is written collaboratively must also have a lead author who is primus inter pares, and responsible more than anyone else for maintaining coherence among the different parts of a text. Single authorship especially of “idea papers” continues to be more prestigious across the academic arena, but for many there is a broad willingness to share in the oh-so sought after aura and intellectual property assets of publishing scientific work in favor of enhancing their work’s overall reach and impact.

References

Farkas, David K. “Collaborative writing, software development, and the universe of collaborative activity.” In Lay, M.M. and Karis, W.M. (Eds.), Collaborative writing in industry: Investigations in theory and practice, (1991), Amityville, NY: Baywood, pp.13-30.

Fisher, Bonnie S., Craig T. Cobane, Thomas M. Vander Ven, and Francis T. Cullen. “How many authors does it take to publish an article? Trends and patterns in political science.” PS: Political Science & Politics 31, no. 04 (1998): 847-856.

Hill, B.M. Collaborative literary creation and control: A socio-historic, technological and legal analysis. (2003), Retrieved from: http://mako.cc/projects/collablit/writing/BenjMakoHill-CollabLit_and_Control.pdf

 

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