How to Write a Collaborative, Multi-Author Paper

Written by Adam Tozer

November 28, 2018

10 simple rules to follow when setting out to write a collaborative paper
These days science is becoming evermore multidisciplinary. Studies require large teams of scientists with different expertise, from different institutes, to collaborate, collect data, analyze findings, present the results and write them up as a paper.
Once you’ve overcome the significant hurdles involved in collecting data, analyzing it, and preparing figures for publication, how do you then set about writing a paper in collaboration? In fact, the act of collaboratively writing the paper can pose the biggest challenge to the process. How do you ensure fair credit or acknowledgement is given to authors? How do you set a consistent writing style for the document? How do you ensure deadlines are met when working with large writing teams?
In their recent editorial in PLoS Computational Biology, Frassl et al. outlined ten simple rules for collaboratively writing a multi-authored paper which they think can provide a foundation for writing multi-authored papers and conducting exciting and influential science. We discuss their points below.

1. ASSEMBLE YOUR TEAM ACCORDING TO THEIR STRENGTHS

This sounds like it should be straight forward, but is critical for the success of the manuscript. A good place to start is by reviewing the initial goal of the research project. Have goal posts shifted slightly from when the project was conceived? Do all team members want to be involved in the writing process? Is there enough expertise among the writing team to enable the manuscript to be written? Do you need to invite other people to join the team for the purposes of completing the manuscript?

2. LEADERS MUST DELEGATE TASKS WELL

When coordinating a large group it is important to provide strong communication and feedback. Project leaders must be able to listen to the input from team members to build consensus for decisions made on the manuscript. They must also delegate tasks to ensure timelines are met and the workload is shared. Most importantly, the project leader should be able to make the difficult decision about the structure, content and author contributions of the manuscript.

3. CREATE A DATA MANAGEMENT AND SHARING PLAN

If you haven’t already, you should implement a data management plan that outlines how data will be made available to the team members, and how it will be stored and curated. It should also explain who will have access to the raw data. Most journals require data to be made freely available nowadays.

4. BUILD A CONSENSUS FOR AUTHORSHIP

The order of authorship is a longstanding issue in science. By building a consensus on the authorship guidelines from the start you can avoid any conflict. To do this, decide amongst your team what contributions constitute an authorship on the paper.

5. USE A WRITING STRATEGY

Everyone cannot write everything. This is inefficient and ineffective. The strategy for writing will depend on the type of manuscript you are preparing. Is it a review paper, where all authors contribute equally to their parts of the manuscript? Is it a primary research paper, where most of the heavy-lifting is done by the author who has led the study? Whichever style you choose, ensure all members are engaged in defining the narrative, format and structure of the paper, as this will make editing the manuscript much easier to write and prepare.

6. DIGITAL TOOLS CAN SPEED UP COLLABORATION

Digital tools enable easy tracking of document progress, edits and version control. However, it is vital you outline a consensus on the naming of versions, and how you edit the document as a group.

7. IDENTIFY MILESTONES AND SET DEADLINES

Milestones and deadlines maintain momentum. It is important to highlight milestones when they’re reached as well as achieve the deadlines that you set. Start by setting the “final” deadline by which the manuscript must be completed or submitted. Work back from there to define intermediate milestones with clear objectives that need to be achieved in order to advance the writing of the manuscript to meet the final deadline.

8. MAINTAIN TRANSPARENCY THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS

Be open and transparent about deadlines and expectations to avoid causing conflict. It is important that a notetaker document all meetings to ensure transparency. Get feedback on all decisions made on style, deadlines etc. to ensure everyone is aware and happy with the planned process.

9. BE INCLUSIVE

Writers with different levels of experience or from different cultures will have different sensitivities to feedback and critique. Be constructive and inclusive with feedback.

10. CONSIDER THE ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF YOUR COAUTHORSHIP ON THE PAPER

The final step of submitting a manuscript involves all the authors confirming their contributions to the work described in the paper, agreeing on the final text, and supporting its submission. This final tick-box agreement is lead by the lead author. Ensure this is updated every time the paper is revised and resubmitted.
Reference:
Frassl, M. A., Hamilton, D. P., Denfeld, B. A., de Eyto, E., Hampton, S. E., Keller, P. S., … & Lofton, M. E. (2018). Ten simple rules for collaboratively writing a multi-authored paper.

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