Writing collaborative publications during your PhD

This guest post is by Kylie Budge, a PhD student in art/design education at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She is on the editorial team of the theteachingtomtom, in her role at RMIT University as a Learning and Teaching Advisor

Writing comes hard to some of us but, like most things, it does get easier with practice. One thing’s for sure, if you’re interested in an academic career post-PhD (or are employed in one now) writing and the ability to produce academic publications is a critical skill. Inger wrote a post a short while ago about why publishing during your PhD is a must for enhancing your career prospects. This post is more about how to get started in publishing and a look at collaborative writing as one way to make this happen.

Academic publications (journal articles, conference papers and so on) are either collaboratively written or sole-authored. I would strongly suggest trying the collaborative route for your first experience. However – and this needs to be emphasised – I’m not suggesting starting with a collaborative publication because it’s easy to do and sole-authored work is difficult. It’s not as simple as that. Despite the difficulties that can arise, generating and bouncing ideas off your writing partners is often less lonely, more interesting and more productive than doing it alone. Especially for a first-timer.

Getting started means finding people to write with. In my discipline, collaborative articles are often written by very small teams (2-3 people). In other disciplines (eg. the sciences), it’s common for large groups of authors to publish together. Even if you’re brand new to academia you already know one or two academics – your supervisor/s. You could consider writing with them, especially if you’d like to write about something stemming from your PhD topic. Chances are they will be interested in it too if they’re supervising your PhD project.

If you’d rather not write with your supervisor, then seek out people who are interested in similar topics and talk to them about what they’re writing about and your ideas. Over time your common interests will clarify and they might invite you to write with them,or you can be brave and suggest a writing project to them. Once you’ve got a couple of people (or more) to write with and a project in mind you’re ready to start. But before you do, there are a few other things to think about.

Collaborative writing involves a combination of writing and process styles. Not everyone works or writes the same way. It may take you a few experiences of writing collaboratively before you work out what your preferred writing process is and the kind of writing that suits you best.

Conceptualise the project with your fellow collaborators as much as you can before you start writing the article itself. This means talking together about what the article is going to focus on, particularly the contributions to knowledge. Try white boarding together as a group as you synthesise your ideas and clarify purpose of your article.

As you conceptualise the focus of your writing project, choose a publication or conference to target the final product of your labours. Wendy Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success” has some great strategies. Consciously focus on the style of the publication or conference you are targeting as you write.

Set a timeframe to work in. What period of time suits the authors to have the finished article written in? Twelve weeks? Longer? If you’re writing for a conference a deadline will be set by the organisers, which can make this decision easier.

Make use of the great collaborative writing tools out there. I’ve used Google Docs for two recent collaborative projects with great success. Any collaborative writing tool that enables you all to write in the one space (thus saving version control headaches involved when emailing drafts to each other) is worth its weight in gold.

In the draft stage, ask each person to write in different colours so that it’s easy to see who has written what. This way if you want to clarify, or question, a part of the writing you know who has contributed the area and can work from there. At the final stage, when all writers are happy, you can then change the text colour to black.

Work out what the collaborative writing process will be in advance. Will each person write a section or not? Some collaborative writers are able to work quite fluidly, dipping in and out of various sections without carving out sections for specific authors to write. Other combinations of people are not able to work like this. There is no one right way in terms of process. But it is important to talk about and to work out an agreed process to try.

Discuss and review the article you are writing at regular points during the writing project. This keeps everyone on track.

When you feel ready, give a good draft of the article to a ‘critical friend’ to read and ask for feedback on aspects that you (the group of writers) nominate – eg. structure, flow, engagement of the reader etc. Ensure the critical friend you approach has academic publications and can give feedback with a degree of experience.

Collaborative writing can be hugely rewarding for early career academic writers, however, communicating honestly and well with your writing partners is key! An added bonus is you can establish some strong networks which can lead you into more exciting writing adventures in the future.

Have you written papers with others? Or with your supervisors? Do you have any tips or techniques to share – or traps to look out for?

Related Posts:

Publications and your PhD

Is the University a Bad Boyfriend?

15 thoughts on “Writing collaborative publications during your PhD

  1. Judy Redman says:

    One warning: try to read some of your potential collaborator’s writing before agreeing to write together. If you really hate their style and circumstances make it difficult for you to say so (eg they are your supervisor), it won’t be a positive experience for you.

  2. Ana Canhoto says:

    Very good suggestions. I would just add – start with a conference paper as it is (usually) shorter, there is a deadline to work against and there isn’t so much pressure. If it doesn’t work well, it is a short experience and you can move on. It’s like you are ‘testing’ your travel partner with a short car journey before embarking on a long, long one.

    PS – Checked the book (Belcher’s) mentioned here. Great reviews. Ordered my copy, already. Thank you for the tip!

    • kylie budge says:

      Ana – I think your suggestion of starting off with a conference paper is a good one, although a lot of work (writing the paper and then preparing the presentation itself). Still, it can be a very enjoyable way to start out.
      I think the Belcher book is quite useful. She offers lots of good strategies.

  3. agitatedmorning says:

    Any tips on when collaborations aren’t working out, e.g. collaborators taking months to return comments/contributions?

    • Judy Redman says:

      Only to name the problem and see what’s going on eg “I’m wondering whether you’re feeling overloaded at the moment, since it’s taking so long for you to return your comments/contributions? Or maybe you’ve moved on and aren’t interested any more? Is there anything I can do to help, or do you feel like you need to withdraw?” If they say they still want to keep on, try to get them to commit to a date when they’ll have their bit done and if it doesn’t arrive within a few days and you get no response, remind them when they said they’d have it done and see if they want to withdraw. Your other option at this stage is to say “I’m finding this really frustrating. If you don’t have the time to do the work, I’d rather shelve it and put my energy into something else. How does that sound?” Of course, if you shelve it, you need to clarify who owns what’s been done already or you have work tied up that you can’t use.

    • kylie budge says:

      Working with others on collaborative writing projects is tricky stuff! Clarifying expectations about timelines and process clearly at the beginning can really help prevent things like you mention. However, even when this is done things can change along the way and co-writers can take too long to contribute. I would suggest talking about the time frame again if possible. It could be a way of checking in with your co-writer/s to see if they’re still committed. Dragging their feet might be a sign that they’ve lost interest or are distracted. If so, it’s probably best that this be known to all involved so a can decision can be made about how to move forward. Good luck!

      • ingermewburn says:

        I can only add, remember the 5 step assertiveness plan:
        Describe: “your contribution is late”
        Express: “I’m feeling a bit stressed about the deadline”
        Empathise: “I realise you must have been busy”
        Specify: “I would like to hear from you in the next week if possible”
        Consequences: “I think we would both like to have this finished as soon as possible”

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