Co-authoring Take 2: A co-authored blog post about co-authoring

Shannon Lucky, Library Systems & Information Technology, University of Saskatchewan Carolyn Hoessler, Program and Curriculum Development Specialist, Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness

This post is a follow-up to an article published on April 21, 2015 on Brain-Work about co-authoring. After that article went up I was delighted to receive an email from Carolyn wondering if I had plans to develop the co-authoring checklist I mentioned in my post. I hadn’t planned that far ahead, but I said that I would be interested if she wanted to collaborate on it – a perfect co-authoring opportunity!

Carolyn and I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet before, even though we work in the same building on the U Sask campus and, apparently, have some shared interests. We met up earlier this summer to talk through some of the issues that have come up for us during co-authoring projects and to share what we’ve learned in our respective positions. The following post was written by both of us and is based on the 5 Basic Elements of Cooperative Learning that Carolyn introduced me to. To see Carolyn’s description of our collaboration visit Educatus, the official blog of the GMCTE, where this article is cross-posted. 


Co-authoring and collaborative research can be personally rewarding and can strengthen a project by tapping into multiple perspectives and disciplines. It can also be difficult and frustrating at times but conflicts can be minimized, or avoided altogether, through  planning and clear communication.

The following checklist is based on the five basic elements of cooperative learning developed by Johnson, Johnson, & Johnson Holubec. Each element is defined and lists questions you should answer as a group and tips to keep in mind as your work progresses. These questions can feel uncomfortable or may lead to conflict, but it is better to have these hard conversations early and to sort out any impasses before it is too late. Sometimes collaborating with someone just doesn’t work and it can be better to identify these situations early and walk away on good terms rather than having a project fall apart mid-way through when lots of time, energy, and resources have already been invested.

Communicate early! Communicate often!

A good collaborative team needs:

  1. Positive Interdependence – having mutual goals, pursue mutual rewards, and need each other to be successful.

    • What are my goals for the project and what are my co-author’s goals?
      This can include the number of publications you will write, the venue and format of publication, and timelines.
    • What am I bringing to this project and what are other in the group bringing?
      Talk about your work style and preferences, personality, Myers-Briggs types, StrengthsFinders, what bugs you about working in groups – anything that will help your group get to know each others preferred work styles.
    • Can the project be easily divided so that everyone has a defined task?
      Doing the literature review, editing, analyzing, referencing, etc.
    • What will each of our roles on the project team be and will they be static or rotating?
      Note taking, coordinating meetings, synthesizing/pulling together ideas, etc.
    • What will the author order be or how else will author contribution be recognized?
      How is this determined and is everyone in agreement?


  • Know thyself – figure out what has bothered you about past collaborations and what has worked well. Communicate this clearly to your team members and ask them what works and does not work for them. Be honest and upfront about your expectations.
  1. Face-to-Face Promotive Interaction – reading each other’s expressions or tone and have positive interactions


  • How can we meet face-to-face, in the same room or using technology?
    Especially important when working at a distance. We must interact with each other in ways that avoid misunderstandings or assumptions and build consensus/respected distinction?
  • How frequently should we meet and how will these meetings be arranged?
    Are all meetings planned at the start of the project? Who is required at the meetings and who will organize and lead them? When will they occur?
  • What will our meetings look like?
    Will they be for planning and checking in on individual progress, working meetings, or discussion and co-creation focused?
  • What is the length of our project?
    Confirm what collaborator and able and willing to commit to in advance. Situations can change, but having a rough expectation for required time and contribution to the group can help with contingency planning if need be.
  • How will we create a good rapport and welcoming environment for the group?
    Whose job is it to set the tone? The meeting host and the content lead for the discussion don’t have to be the same person.


  • Pay attention to discussions happening over email and other non face-to-face interactions to ensure that positivity, respect, and encouragement is maintained.
  • Make sure everyone in the group is included in discussions so no one becomes isolated or siloed in their piece of the project. This recommendation does not preclude small task groups or subgroups, but communication should be forefront.
  1. Individual Accountability – each person knowing what they need to do, is able to do it, and does it on time.


  • What are the deliverables?
  • What are realistic timelines for me?  For my co-author(s)?
  • What are our external deadlines?
    e.g., special issue deadlines, external reviewer, conferences, personal deadlines
  • What will we do if we fall behind or need to step back?
    Anticipate setbacks and plan contingencies.


  • Make individuals accountable to the group and their collective goals, rather than to a single individual leader. Allow the weight of several people relying on and expecting each piece to prompt action. Also reduces the tracking and chasing of the leader.
  • Make sure there is an explicit link between author order and contribution to the project or ensure another type of recognition for all authors.
  1. Interpersonal And Small Group Skills – having the conflict-management, leadership, trust-building, and communication skills to build a well-functioning group


  • What skills do we already have in our group for leadership, conflict-management, facilitation etc.? What gaps exist and how can we fill them?
    This can mean adding a person or finding external support such as hiring a copyeditor.
  • What roles do we all want to play on this project?
    Take care to consider each person’s workload and other projects they are involved with. You might not want to be the lead researcher or editor for multiple projects are the same time.
  • What is my bandwidth for contributing to this project?
    Note if this is likely to change during the lifecycle of the project and how this will impact the group.


  • See what skill development opportunities are available in your area.
  • Co-authoring might be an opportunity to either observe or practice a new skill
  1. Group Processing – continuing to be a well-functioning group, checking in regularly and using the skills from element #4.


  • What points of coherence and dissonance have we identified as a group?
    • How do our personalities in element #1 work together or against each other?
    • How will we deal with disagreements?
    • What is the plan when individuals do not fulfill their part of the project?


  • Revisit your roles and decisions periodically as a group.
  • Build time to reflect and discuss the project into your meetings or schedule time specifically for this activity.  
  • Identify one next step or a change to improve your project and/or your work dynamic.
  • Celebrate your successes!



Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson, and Edythe Johnson Holubec.Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina: Interaction Book, 1991. Print.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Co-authoring: Shared Work ≠ Less Work

by Shannon Lucky
Library Systems & Information Technology, University of Saskatchewan

Writing is hard.
Collaborative writing is really hard.
image by nicmcphee

I recently co-authored a paper with two colleagues based on a library project we had worked on together. It made perfect sense to collaborate on a paper about the project. We brought our different roles and perspectives to the writing process and were each able to contribute in our area of expertise while letting the others complete the full picture. Personally, I couldn’t imagine writing about the project alone. It doesn’t belong to me and I felt would have been presumptuous to speak for the group. Because we had successfully worked on the project as a group I imagined it would be a breeze to write it up.

I was wrong.

I wasn’t wrong because any of us were controlling, egotistic, lazy, or unwilling to compromise. Far from it. I was wrong because we were all intellectually (and perhaps a bit emotionally) invested in the work. We each had our own clear (in our own minds) interpretation of what the article should look like, but we didn’t want to dictate it to the group.

In the end, I learned a lot and I am proud of our project. It isn’t the article that I would have written on my own, and that is a good thing. It’s about a collaborative project and the article benefited from the diverse perspectives of the team. However, there are some things I will do differently the next time I work on a co-authored project.

  1. Communicate early, communicate often. Having discussions about author order, citation managers, file naming standards, sharing notes or drafts, and timelines are not my favourite parts of researching on a team. However, making assumptions about these basic issues can create tension if you don’t talk about it early on. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth it to spell this stuff out – particularly if one person isn’t taking on the task of pulling everything together into a final draft.
    If your paper is being written by consensus, have these discussions right away.
    If your paper isn’t being written by consensus, have these discussions right away. Maybe we should develop a checklist for co-authors (like a pre-marital counselling checklist)?
  2. Writing styles are like snowflakes – no two are alike and too many piled up will make you miserable.
    image by timo
    Disciplinary differences in style are to be expected in library groups. Most of us come from another academic discipline prior to librarianship or serve users in a particular academic discipline as a liaison. We all use different citations styles, vocabularies, and writing styles depending on our own areas of expertise, and an interdisciplinary team is almost certain to have some stylistic conflict. Writing style is subjective but it can really slow down a project if there are big differences of opinion. If you and your co-authors don’t have compatible styles it might be easier to pick one person to put the paper together. Have everyone write sections but hand it over to the editor to make it flow. Swallow your pride and pick the person with the most appropriate writing style for the journal you are targeting.
  3. Realize that technology will (probably) cause trouble. Decide on how you are going to write and share your work (Google Docs, spreadsheets, Dropbox, a shared drive, emailing drafts, telekinesis, whatever) and if you want to use a citation manager. Make sure everyone has access to whatever technology you pick and is comfortable with it. There are so many options out there, but using a bunch of non-compatible systems is a recipe for disaster and data loss. Also, back up your work and use a versioning system – good advice for life.
  4. Meet face-to-face. This is something we did right from the beginning and I think it helped us deal with the issues that did come up before they became serious problems. Meeting every other week, even just to check in briefly, gave us the opportunity to talk through ideas we had, change the flow of the paper when necessary, and keep everyone on the same page. It also helped to hold us to our timeline because we knew we needed to do something for the next meeting, even if it was the night before. It was during these in person meetings that we addressed the problems we had and worked out our best solutions.
  5. Get an independent and impartial third party to read your final draft. You likely have a lot of eyes on the paper, which is great, but having someone unfamiliar with the material read it is important. After working over the content repeatedly it can take a fresh perspective to see that you accidentally edited out some critical information somewhere between version 12 and 13.

In the weeks since we submitted the article I have had many conversations with people about their experiences co-authoring (good and bad) and read some entertaining articles about co-authoring gone wrong. I am curious to see if the Brain-Work readers have advice, success stories, or cautionary tales to share.