Well, so much for my idea to write more regularly…
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the processes involved in co-authoring scientific publications, typically journal articles. I’ve had a wide variety of experiences, from exceptionally positive to not-that-brilliant, and everything in between so I thought I might put finger to keyboard and put together some of my own ethos.
There is now a plethora of programs, platforms, and methods for writing a paper. When I wrote my first paper 15+ years ago, nearly everyone used MS Word (or WordPerfect). Establishing what platform you use is important because it will filter down into some of the other aspects. This will largely be driven by the lead author, and linked to whatever reference management software they use, but there may be other considerations, too. I still prefer MS Word because I’m getting increasingly old & crotchety, but also because I still have a local copy that’s not reliant on an internet connection. I still (thankfully) spend a lot of time in the field, on remote islands or on ships where an internet connection isn’t a given. I also only have a (small, nearly full) free Dropbox account; don’t assume your coauthors have the same resources you do.
Whatever system you choose, make sure that all your co-authors are fine with it, as they might have restrictions you do not. When I worked for Environment Canada, for example, Google Drive and Dropbox were blocked. The ability for multiple authors to add comments and edits (ideally tracked) is an important aspect for me as well, so I tend to avoid systems where this isn’t an option.
The first rule of co-authorship is that not all co-authors will contribute to the same degree. Some contribute data, software, or samples, while others are much more involved in framing the publication, writing, and editing. Whatever your arrangement (which isn’t the topic of this post), make sure that you and everyone else is clear. There’s nothing worse that misunderstandings about who thought whom was doing what.
When it comes to writing, lots of tools, including Google Docs, and files in Microsoft OneDrive allow simultaneous editing/writing, which can be quite beneficial, but isn’t essential. Even if the method is to circulate drafts by email, there are tools like the Compare/Combine functions in Word that mean it’s easy to combine multiple versions. There’s nothing worse than a flurry of emails asking who’s got the most current version, or feeling like you have to start over if someone sends through their input halfway through. But fear not – these can all be combined later. It will be up to the group dynamic to decide whether everyone sees everyone else’s comments, or whether the lead author compiles all of these. Regardless, this brings us to one of the most important aspects of co-authorship – timing
How long should you give coauthors to add their input to a draft? Well, it varies. Early on, when there are likely to be a lot of comments, or if some coauthors are only seeing the draft for the first time, longer is better. I tend to default to a month, but I always make it clear that if folks have other commitments, the deadline can be flexible. I also make it clear when it can’t (for example, a journal special issue has a strict submission deadline).
If some co-authors are non-responsive, get in touch with them directly, and don’t be afraid to set more strict deadlines. But recognize that not everyone has time available to go through a 8000-word manuscript in a week; the time allocated for research, especially for folks who have high teaching responsibilities or are outside academia can be amazingly small (if I get 20% of my time in a given week these days, I’m lucky!).
When wrangling particularly large coauthor lists (I’ve done up to 22), all the above becomes more important. But it’s also important to make sure that regardless of time commitments, everyone who is a co-author has enough time to feel comfortable to “sign-off” on the paper, as it will have their name on it in the end, after all.
The hallmark to good collaboration is communication. Pick the tools that work for you. I dislike slack/teams/instant messaging for manuscripts because it implies that everyone is often around or can chime in in real time. Often decisions can get made, and then the conversation moves on before there’s consensus.
Forward the journal submission confirmation email (redacting any confidential sign-in details, of course), and a copy of the submitted paper around to everyone, and do the same with the reviews, and the response to reviews (see also above on timing), and the final decision. Not all journals alert all coauthors to decisions, or changes in status. I tend to not circulate journal page proofs unless I have a specific query, but that may be useful in some contexts. Always send around a copy of the paper (you should get an “author’s version” at most places, even if you lack a subscription and the paper isn’t Open Access).
If your data aren’t yet publicly available (and there are legitimate reasons not to, after all), it’s usually good for all co-authors to at least have the data, if not the code for analysis (if applicable), or know where to find these. It’s just redundancy in the system. If the lead author becomes uncontactable, leaves research, or loses access to their email address and there are queries, the other coauthors can (sometimes) help. This can either be done through private data repositories (figshare, which I use, has this and can provide a link and DOI even if the data aren’t public), or by email/shared folders. Again, pick a system that works for you and your team.
Anyway, just a few things that I’ve discovered over the years. Co-authorship can be thorny, prickly, and sometimes unpleasant, but if all coauthors work in an inclusive and understanding way (I can dream, right?!), it can also be much smoother. The bottom line is, have discussions, achieve consensus, be understanding, and communicate clearly at every stage.