On Paper Writing and Collobrations

The process of paper writing is organized chaos. So much effort is placed in the planning and doing the research, that little time is left for writing the actual paper. In addition to writing itself, coordination must occur to discuss themes, narrative, tone, and interpretations of results. But with tight deadlines and poor collobration structures, consensus and ideation on these topics often suffers.

When working with collobrators, two patterns generally emerge (with their associated advantages and disadvantages):

  • Synchronous: One persons works on the paper in a locked state and hands off to other co-authors. Sometimes, consensus is achieved on writing responsibities during hand-off.

      • Slow: Co-authors are idle.
      • Deadlocks: May fail to reach consensus before any writing happens.
      • Equal opportuniy: All authors have opportuniy to make contributions.
      • Strong writer: Works well if strong head writer is in charge and needs help on specific sections.
  • Asynchronous: Everyone writes the paper at the same time.

      • Unbalanced: The one with most "energy" wins and not necessarily the one with best ideas.
      • Thrashing: Co-authors overwrite each other changes with little discussion.
      • Fast: Text can appear really fast and pair writing can be done.
      • Experienced writers/Established projects: Works best with experienced paper writers on established research projects.


  • Laying out ground rules: Before writing make sure to establish a) how much you expect other authors to contribute, b) preferred writing process, and c) any additional expectations.

  • Swimming Lanes: When working asynchronously, establish swimming lanes that help writers focus on where they should work on text. Otherwise, freestyle tends to be the default.

  • Broadcast changes: When working synchronously, a good practice is to announce an outline of what you plan to address. This can be useful for two reasons: 1) How long to expect a writer may be taking, 2) offer the opportunity to raise objections.

  • Delegate: When working synchronously, delegate writing and research tasks to others. Funny enough, this often works best with collobrators in different time zones.

  • Outsider perspective: A reading group is a good way to get feedback on an near complete draft. Outsiders will especially help with crafting the introduction.

Other issues

  • Most writing issues are research issues: If there is confusion and uncertainity about the "story" or how to interpretation results these are often a sign of underlying issues with the research and not the people you are working with. The strong arguments and concepts are easier it will be to discuss and reach consensus on. http://www.chrisparnin.me/docs/phd/Shape.html. Unclear stories and findings lead to thrashing. Use the opportunity of disagreement as a lens into the problem being studied.

  • Side channels: These naturally form by following a path of least resistenance. If by-passing someone to get feedback is faster, you'll likely ask the same person again, with the consquence to by-pass consensus and buy-in. Be mindful of overuse of side channels.

  • Blend methods: Research has found that brainstorming in a group often leads to poor creativity. The best method allows for individuals to think offline and then come together to discuss ideas as a group.

  • First-author does not mean only-author: Finally, remember to ask yourself why are you working with others in the first place? Good co-authors should amplify each others thoughts not cancel them out. There is always something new to learn when working with a new collobrator, use the opportunity to at least once say, "okay, let's try this your way".