Friday, June 3, 2011

Guest Interview with Hans Noel: Collaborating on a Writing Project

I recently started to collaborate on writing an article with a colleague. Never having co-written an academic article before, I asked my husband, Hans Noel, for some tips. He is a political scientist who co-authored the book, The Party Decides. While the disciplines are different, the approaches are similar.  

Thanks, Hans!

Your recent book, The Party Decides, is a co-authored book. Co-authoring isn't easy. How did you and the other three authors share the research, writing and revisions?

The book began as a paper. For the paper, most of the division of labor was in the research. We had to collect data, analyze it, and so forth. So we divided the labor over those tasks. The writing fell mostly to just two of us on the initial paper, but that doesn't reflect the division of labor on the project as a whole.

As we moved forward, the paper grew into the book, and something similar happened there. Starting with the outline, we sent around a series of group e-mails with how we wanted to organize the book. That become more and more detailed, and then we shifted to drafts. Again, we had one lead writer, but there were contributions by everyone. For example, I drafted the technical appendices, since I was closest to the statistical work. I also wrote several other sections, including one chapter that I rewrote extensively from the initial draft, again because I was closest to the material. That's generally the rule in these things: Whoever knows it best does it. But we also shared responsibility for a lot. In that way, we were essentially doing peer review (though not blind) from the beginning.

The main thing for the writing itself was in revisions. We sent the manuscript around by e-mail. This was before Google Docs had really taken off. It still didn't have a good "track changes" feature, and we weren't all familiar with it. Instead, we sent it in sequence, from one person to the next. Each of us could make changes, using Microsoft Word's "track changes" feature. We could then discuss the changes by e-mail as it went around. The main thing about writing is revisions anyway, so we just did the revisions as a collective.

Someone had to lay down the initial framework, but by the end, it might be hard to tell where a particular phrase came from. At the same time, we wanted the piece to have a clear voice. So one person continued to take the lead on most drafts.

Since then, I have collaborated using Google Docs, and similar sites. It works pretty well, in that more than one person can be working on it at the same time. Google has only recently developed a revision history interface that makes it easier to track that, if it's important to a project. For only two authors, this might be less important. I've worked on some co-authored work where we've actually both been writing on the same file at the same time.

In some cases, one person does almost all the initial drafting. Co-authoring academic papers often doesn't mean each author _wrote_ the piece. The research itself might involve many people, and the write-up, while important, is not the most important part. Usually I have been pretty involved in the writing, but that doesn't have to be the case for the co-author to be central to the project.

What went particularly well in the writing of the book?

We worked on the project for longer than I think any of us wanted to. But in the end, I think it really evolved to a very good place. We ended up with a system of "internal" peer review.

Social science is subject to peer review, and so most work usually is the result of a back-and-forth with reviewers and writers. This is also time-consuming, but important to make the final product better. And yet, sometimes peer review can take a project in an odd direction, because the reviewer isn't involved enough to know what's possible and what's not. Getting an outside perspective is important, and getting outside approval is critical for research integrity. But sometimes satisfying reviewers can make the project worse.

The "internal" peer review was different. It couldn't take the place of external review, of course, but when one of us offered an idea or interpretation that didn't satisfy someone else, it would get challenged. Unlike with real peer review, we could argue it out. There were a lot of e-mails back and forth on this, and it was time consuming. In the end, what we wrote had been honed by that process. I can imagine situations in which this wouldn't work, where you had one dominant personality or, worse, two dominant but stubborn personalities. For this mix, that wasn't a problem.

There is some research that suggests that co-authored work is better than single-authored work, and I think this is part of it. There is, of course, the division of labor and the joining of different skill-sets. There is also just the instant feedback and collaboration. Two heads are not only better than one, if you put them together, they are better than two working separately.

What advice would you offer to writers considering embarking on a co-authored project?

Obviously, you don't want to collaborate with someone you don't get along with. You will have to make compromises about some things, but the more you have to sacrifice, the harder it is to agree on a final product. I've been lucky, in that generally I'm on the same page with my co-authors, but we have had serious disagreements. Of course, you need to respect each other and all want to work toward the end.

Similarly, you have to be committed to the same basic message. With research, sometimes you don't know what you are going to find out until you've done the analysis, but you do go into it with certain understandings of what different results will mean. In the end, everyone's name is on a single product, and no one will really know who was responsible for which part. So you have to be able to agree. If you don't all accept the basic argument you are making, then you can't make the argument. You might not be able to make any argument. If you come from too divergent of different perspectives, that may not happen.

Check-in on Monday for details on how to win a copy of The Party Decides.

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