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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

Effectively Collaborating on a Multi-Authored Publication


Andrés Pagán, Associate Editor

November 2022

Some of the most iconic scholarly publications were drafted by single authors, (e.g., Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity). However, contemporary scholarly publications are more commonly drafted by multiple co-authors. While some articles may have dozens of contributing co-authors, most publications will have 3 to 10 authors. Drafting a manuscript with collaborators adds an additional challenge to those inherent in publishing a paper. Below are 5 tips to help any team work more effectively to publish a paper.

1. Establish leadership
The interpersonal dynamics of research teams can vary widely. Research may take the form of an undergraduate project, it may comprise part of a graduate student’s training, or a study may be a collaboration among multiple senior researchers. In each of the above scenarios, the leader or mentor will be integral when the writing process begins. The leader should provide the overall vision of the research, assign roles and responsibilities to each co-author, and spearhead the writing of the manuscript.

2. Decide on contributing authors
Getting a study published often requires many steps and tasks (e.g., study conceptualization, sample collection, data collection, statistical analysis, and writing). One way to determine if a person should be listed as a co-author is to follow established guidelines, such as those provided by the ICMJE. Deciding on the contributing authors is critical because each member will be expected to make a substantial contribution to the paper. Therefore, assembling the team of contributing authors, whether by following established guidelines or creating your own eligibility criteria, is a critical early step when preparing a manuscript.

3. Employ a unified approach to writing
There are many approaches to preparing a manuscript. A manuscript may be prepared by a primary author that then sends the entire text for revision to each co-author sequentially. Alternatively, different sections of a text may be prepared by different authors concurrently, the manuscript is then then assembled once each section is complete. A third approach may be to draft a manuscript simultaneously on a document shared using a cloud service. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Importantly each contributing author must understand their role in helping to prepare the manuscript, and when they are expected to participate. Furthermore, the end product should be a coherent manuscript that comprises all the necessary sections and that all authors stand behind and agree to submit for publication.

4. Organization and workflow
Organizing the work prior to beginning the writing process will greatly help all co-authors. Numerous tools can be used to optimize the workflow. For instance, project management software (e.g., Trello, Jira) can be used to assign roles and deadlines for each person. Similarly, data management tools can help co-authors analyze data and share results seamlessly with their collaborators (e.g., Posit, Benchling). Whether on a desktop or online, word processing software (e.g., Microsoft Office, Google Suite) and reference management tools can make it easy to share documents, track changes, and organize bibliographies. One important factor to consider when planning and organizing project workflow is to ensure all collaborators have licenses for each application. Doing so will ensure full functionality and utility and that each member can contribute to the writing process effectively.

5. Create clear timeline/ meeting schedule
Writing is a collaborative effort, and each contributor will have certain responsibilities and expectations. Often, the work of one co-author will depend on the timely completion of another co-author’s task. By setting project timelines and reasonable deadlines, each co-author can better plan and execute their tasks efficiently, which can reduce delays. However, sometimes even the most diligent and talented writer can develop writer’s block or get stuck trying to solve a particular problem. To help ensure consistent progress in the preparation of a manuscript, regular meetings (e.g., bi-weekly, monthly) can be implemented. Regular meetings will help to address questions proactively as a team rather than have a single member struggle with finding a solution on their own.

Co-authoring a paper can be one of the more gratifying, yet challenging, tasks researchers undertake. While there are no fixed rules on how to establish a successful writing collaboration, the concepts listed above can help any team structure and execute their objectives and draft a manuscript more harmoniously.

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