This free Information Age Education Newsletter
is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education
project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available online at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
"Two heads are better than
one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to
go wrong in the same direction." (C.S. Lewis; British novelist,
academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, and lay theologian
from Ireland; 1898–1963.)
The co-authors of this IAE Newsletter enjoy bouncing ideas off each
other, learning from each other, and occasionally trying to “one-up”
each other. Professional academic collaboration can be enjoyable and
beneficial, but it can sometimes be quite a challenge.
My (Dave Moursund’s) first book initially had three authors. Our editor
from McGraw Hill told us that in his experience, book co-authors often
ended up hating each other. Eventually one of the authors dropped out
due to illness. After some stressful moments, my name appeared first in
the list of authors, even though it was last alphabetically.
Fortunately, we two authors remained friends.
Since then I have successfully co-authored a number of books with a
variety of people, including several with my wife and doctoral students.
Over our lifetimes, my co-author (Bob Sylwester) of this IAE Newsletter
and I have done a lot of individual writing, and a lot of collaborative
writing. In this newsletter, we offer some advice about collaborative
writing and other collaborative activities.
Collaboration in Academic Endeavors
Situations in which high-level professionals need to collaborate
include team teaching, organizing and running a panel discussion, doing
collaborative research and publishing the findings, co-authoring or
team-authoring grant proposals, and sharing the podium in a
presentation. As C.S. Lewis and many others have pointed out, two heads
can be better than one. Often, however, both heads are very capable and
strong willed. How can two (or more) of such people learn to
Some people find collaboration easier than others. In what follows,
we’ll suggest how you might overcome obstacles and deal with the
challenges effectively and openly. Keep in mind that in collaborative
writing and in other professional academic collaboration, the ultimate
goal is for two or more people working together to produce a better
product, performance, or presentation than what one can do alone.
Your two authors have had many positive and negative experiences with collegial collaboration over the years.
Each person in a collaborative project should bring specialized
knowledge and/or skills to the collaboration that the others don’t
have, so that the collaborating team adequately covers all elements of
the issue. When appropriate, the team should defer to each member’s
special expertise. Leadership thus shifts as the project evolves.
Take collaborative grant writing as an example. Within a team one may
be the strongest in the research literature and research design, one
may be strongest in budgeting and other financial details, one may be
the strongest in developing a detailed plan of action, one may be the
strongest in writing and in pulling the various pieces together, one
may be strongest at dealing with the red tape of submitting a proposal,
and so on.
Once the team decides to collaborate in writing a proposal, they then
need to divide up the tasks. A likely candidate for the overall team
leader is the person who pulls the pieces together and writes them into
a coherent whole. However, any member of the team can be assigned the
task of shepherding the whole project and keeping the individual
members on task to get their pieces done in a timely fashion.
Since research proposals are often written under severe time deadlines,
the whole process can be stressful. Any one member of the team can mess
up the works. A spirit of collaboration—and a nurturing but firm team
leader—are exceedingly important.
Disagreements are inevitable, so during the early discussions about the
project, determine how to resolve disputes that don’t seem to have a
resolution that satisfies everyone. Decide on a senior member who can
settle such disputes if the group is at an impasse. Allow dissenters
the right to edit the text to include their position if the project can
accommodate it. If a disagreement is central to the project, it doesn’t
signal the apocalypse if one of the collaborators withdraws from the
Assuming that the project has a due date, develop a timeline that makes
sense to the collaborators’ other commitments, but also that gets the
elements of the project completed before the due date. Things tend to
get delayed, so allowing for some leeway is a good idea. And it’s also
important for all collaborators to complete their assignment on time.
Not following through with one’s share of the project is a good way to
Select one person to write the final report incorporating what the
others have written, so that it exhibits a consistent writing style.
The others should edit the final text where necessary, but the
principal writer’s style should permeate the document.
Co-authoring books tends to present the same challenges as co-authoring
grant proposals. However, a book project is longer and often does not
have a firm deadline.
In addition, the co-authors need to decide how to split royalties and
the order of the author’ names in the final publication. These two
decisions are often not easy to make in advance of the writing. The
writing of a book is often an organic process. It can well be that one
of the authors will contribute much more than his or her co-authors.
This is what we recommend. Openly discuss the workload, royalties, and
order of author’s names issues at the beginning of the project. A firm
decision can be made at that time, or an agreement can be made that
this will be an open issue to be decided later in the writing process.
The important thing is that these issues be openly discussed in a
“rational, logical” manner rather than in an “emotional” manner.
Guidelines for assigning authorship
vary between institutions and disciplines. They may be formally defined
or simply cultural custom. Incorrect application of authorship rules
occasionally leads to charges of academic misconduct and sanctions for
the violator. A 2002 survey of a large sample of researchers who had
received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health revealed
that 10% of respondents claimed to have inappropriately assigned
authorship credit within the last three years. This was the first large
scale survey concerning such issues. In other fields only limited or no
empirical data is available.
You may find it interesting that different disciplines have developed
different “rules.” As an example, consider the discipline of math.
Quoting from the Wikipedia:
In mathematics, the authors are usually
listed in alphabetical order (this is the so-called Hardy-Littlewood
Rule). [Hardy and Littlewood are two famous mathematicians.] This usage
is described in the Information Statements on the Culture of Research
and Scholarship in Mathematics section of the American Mathematical
Society website, in the 2004 statement: Joint Research and Its Publication.
The order of the authors and the number of authors of a research paper
is sometimes taken into consideration in promotion and tenure cases.
For example, a promotion and tenure committee’s report might include a
statement such as:
Candidate XXX is the author or
co-author of 30 papers. She is the sole author of six of these papers.
In the 24 co-authored papers, she is listed as the first author in
Of course, that note represents an inadequate level of analysis. It may
well be that in some of the co-authored papers an agreement was reached
to list the names alphabetically, and in others that was not part of
the agreement. It may be that candidate XXX’s last name begins with a
letter near the beginning of the alphabet or near the end of the
alphabet. The promotion and tenure committee should probe more deeply
into which author(s) did the most research and/or the most important
research in the co-authored papers.
In some cases, the listing of co-authors has reached ridiculous
extremes. In the summer of 2008, a research paper about the Large
Hadron Collider particle accelerator listed 2,926 authors! Perhaps a
promotion and tenure committee will give each author credit for
1/2926th of a paper?
Team Teaching and Team Conference Presentations
Often the people involved in team teaching of classes or workshops
and/or in team panel discussions and conference talks do not spend
enough time in working out the details. If the presenters and the
presentations are well organized and appropriately integrated, there is
considerable benefit to the audience. If not, the results can be quite
Perhaps the key idea is that each presenter brings unique insights to
the teaching/learning situation. Each is well qualified to do a
self-contained presentation. The challenge is to have productive
interchanges and collaboration among the presenters.
Take (two member) team teaching as an example. While one presenter is
presenting, what does the other presenter do? Can arrangements be made
so that there is ongoing interaction between the two presenters, with
one elaborating on what the other has just said? For example, one
presenter might give a particular way of looking at a situation, and
the second might immediately “pop up” with a different way of looking
at the situation.
Alternatively and/or in addition, how about one team member paying very
careful attention to the audience in order to determine if/when they don’t
seem to be understanding, or when their attention is lagging? This
second team member does an immediate intervention to help clarify the
issue and regain student attention.
In business and industry, a great many people work in team
environments. How much should each member of the team be paid? How does
one adequately measure how much each member of the team contributes to
accomplishing a task?
The same types of questions occur in project-based learning. Research
on project-based learning suggests that it is an effective aid to
learning. However, a teacher is faced by the problem of grading the
members of a team, and the team members are faced with the problem that
some members don’t “carry their load.” The teacher knows—and the
students are taught— that team members have both team and individual
responsibility Teachers who are experienced in assessing student teams
working on projects tend to give one grade to the team as a whole and a
separate grade to each student on a team.
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