Five challenges of leading a co-authored paper and how to overcome them

By Johanna Coenen

In this blog post I reflect on some lessons learned of writing a manuscript with 14 co-authors, submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The paper aims to synthesize the results of an interdisciplinary research project, involving 15 individual PhD projects based at 8 different European universities. Here I share my experiences of leading such a collaborative endeavour. This blogpost is targeted at any (potential) lead author, but it can also be insightful to co-authors because it highlights common challenges when working and writing in teams.

Challenge 1: Assume leadership.

Most obviously, the lead author is expected to assume leadership. However, it is not always clear what this means in practices.

Tip 1.1. Choose an author management strategy. 

As a first step, you should decide which author management strategy you wish to use. Do you follow the approach of the “lone wolf”, “dynamic duo”, “board of directors”, “roundtable” or “organized chaos” (see Appendix below)? Jointly reflecting on different modes of collaboration in interdisciplinary research teams can help to clarify roles and responsibilities, secure firm commitments from co-authors and prevent that co-authors hold onto preconceived expectations about the lead authors’ role. Even though it may be desirable to create a leadership collective as it can help to cultivate a particularly caring and inclusive academic culture, individual leadership is still the predominant modus operandi in scientific collaborations. Note that the authorship management strategy can change in the course of the writing process.

Tip 1.2. Discuss concrete proposals rather than open questions.

If you ask 14 authors how to approach or resolve a given issue, you may receive 14 different answers. If these answers are not compatible with one another, you can be left with more questions than answers. Rather than posing open questions, it can be more efficient to discuss concrete suggestions and ideas with co-authors. For example, I found it useful to always prepare a few presentation slides with the main ideas and remaining questions before meetings. Even if your ideas seem very preliminary, they provide a basis for discussion and help you steer the process.

Tip 1.3. Be prepared to make (final) decisions and communicate your decision-making authority with your co-authors.

Sometimes you find yourself in a deadlock where two different co-authors make contrary suggestions. For example, co-author A wishes to start the introduction with the core concept, whereas co-author B suggests to start with an elaboration of the real-world problem. Accommodating both suggestions may not be feasible. Acknowledge that you, as a lead author, are not able to accommodate all co-authors’ views and suggestions to the same extent and that you are entitled and expected to make decisions. Several senior researchers in our team encouraged me to assume this decision-making authority. Their affirmation of my lead role was certainly important for leading the process with more confidence. 

Tip 1.4. Discuss the envisioned audience of the paper.

In interdisciplinary team of authors, who usually target slightly different audiences, it is important to discuss the target audience of the joint paper (and potential journal for submission) in order to align everyone’s expectations. 

Tip 1.5. Make sure that you always feel a clear sense of ownership of the paper.

Even though a co-authored paper presents joint work, it is important that you always feel responsible for both the success and failure of the study. As much as I felt that this piece of work was “our paper”, I considered it to be “my paper” because I not only provided the main intellectual input, but also made sure that I could fully identify with every single argument that was developed. There is the risk that co-authors change the storyline of the paper according to their individual research interests and expertise, which you need to recognize, potentially discuss and carefully adapt to ensure that the paper speaks with one voice despite many different perspectives that informed the writing.

Challenge 2: Determine co-authorship

Tip 2.1. Reflect on the criteria for authorship.

Writing collaborative papers in the realm of larger research projects poses the question who becomes a co-author. It may be desirable to write a paper with all researchers who are involved in the research project because a presumably strong and long list of authors may raise the scientific credibility of the study and demonstrate the interdisciplinarity and inclusiveness of the research project. However, the more authors are involved, the more challenging it gets to ensure that all authors make a substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the study, which is a widely used criterion for authorship (see e.g. guidelines for safeguarding good research practices by the German Research Foundation or the commonly used ICMJE guidelines). For our research project, for example, all members of the project were invited to two synthesis workshops (as further discussed below). While we offered everyone the possibility to become a co-author, we clarified that the mere participation in the workshop was not sufficient to qualify for co-authorship. Co-authors were expected to contribute towards developing, drafting and revising the manuscript; and asked to give final approval before journal submission. Discussing the criteria for authorship early on can help to prevent issues around ghost, guest, orphan or forged authorship.

Tip 2.2. Consider using an authorship agreement.

When you start collaborating, it is important to clarify some fundamental questions: What inputs and how much commitment do you expect from co-authors? How much guidance and instructions do you provide to co-authors? How much time are co-authors expected to attribute to this joint work? Especially as a junior researcher it can be uncomfortable to discuss this topic with senior researchers as there are power differentials. If you wish to formalize your modes of collaboration, you can use an authorship agreement (see example). 

Tip 2.3. Keep track of the individual contributions.

Even if you decide not to fill an authorship agreement from the beginning of your collaboration, it is useful to record the individual contributions transparently. For example, set up a shared document with bullet points or a table, similar to the example of the authorship agreement provided above, and keep track of the individual contributions.

Tip 2.4.: Develop a strategy how to harmonize different writing styles.

If several people write the final manuscript, you need to find ways how to harmonize different writing styles. In our case, co-authors sent me bullet points or text snippets that I adapted and incorporated into the full manuscript. Other approaches to the writing process are of course possible. In any case, it is useful to briefly discuss your approach with the team.

Challenge 3: Manage time.

Tip 3.1. Develop a time schedule and discuss it with the team.

Collaborative paper projects usually take several months or even years. Thus, it is important to identify particular tasks and keep track of the progress made. For example, you can use a Gantt chart to maintain an overview. Add milestones and deadlines and consider when your co-authors are on holidays or not available due to other commitments like conferences or fieldwork.

Tip 3.2. Schedule regular meetings/jour fixes.

It may be difficult to find time for meetings with all authors or a smaller group of authors. Therefore, it is useful to plan regular meetings from the beginning. For example, schedule bi-weekly or monthly meetings for the expected duration of the collaboration. Even if some meetings may seem superfluous because not much progress has been made, briefly discussing any difficulties and the status quo of the paper can be useful to overcome a deadlock and ensures that co-authors remain committed to the joint study. Additional ad-hoc meetings can be scheduled if needed.

Tip 3.3. Always communicate the next steps.

Most, if not all, co-authors work on other projects and tasks next to your joint work. Thus, it is highly important to communicate whether you expect any inputs, and if so, from whom and when. You will more likely receive useful inputs from co-authors if you design small work packages, provide clear instructions and indicate tentative internal deadlines.

Challenge 4: Organize a workshop.

Organizing a workshop can help to create a shared vision of the paper. For our joint paper, we organized two workshops – one online and one in person – which helped to recognize diverging perspectives, develop new ideas, set the focus, and create a sense of shared responsibility for the progress of the study.

Tip 4.1. Communicate the agenda and aims of the workshop in advance.

First, all co-authors should be informed about the agenda and aims of the workshop – either a few days before the workshop or at the beginning. By clearly formulating the goals and desired outputs, you increase the chances of yielding actionable and substantial results.

Tip 4.2. Let others be the note-taker, facilitator and rapporteur during the workshop.

Organizing a workshop and preparing the materials can be time-consuming and intellectually-demanding. Although you may organize the workshop collaboratively, it will require time and energy to decide on the content and program of the workshop. Additionally, you may be overwhelmed by the co-authors’ feedback and inputs you receive during the workshop. Thus, it can be useful to ask other participants to help with taking notes, facilitating the discussion or acting as a rapporteur at the end of the workshop. If you do not assume all these roles yourself, you can better focus on the content-related ideas and challenging questions that will arise during the workshop.

Tip 4.3. Not only discuss the content of the paper, but also the work process.

At our workshops, we focused mainly on the content of the paper, trying to find the common denominator and advancing the main argument. However, it would have been beneficial if we had also discussed the work process. Exchanging about the co-authors’ expectations, commitments, roles and responsibilities can help clarifying the expected work flow and workload. Discussing our experiences from other collaborative studies with interdisciplinary author teams could have contributed to learning from best practices.

Challenge 5: Handle feedback

Tip 5.1.: Give clear instructions on what feedback to expect.

When a full paper draft is ready, co-authors will be involved in revising and editing the manuscript. If you give clear instructions on what feedback you expect, you will receive more targeted suggestions for improvements. For example, ask your co-authors for concrete edits (using track changes) rather than general comments on the text. Additionally, you can set the focus of the internal revisions. For instance, in the final rounds of revisions I indicated that we do not need additional illustrative examples or explanations because we already reached the word count. Rather, I asked the co-authors to focus on revising and modifying the existing text in order to avoid that co-authors add too many additional arguments and examples that we could not accommodate in the manuscript.

Tip 5.2. Learn to dismiss co-authors’ suggestions.

My co-authors’ comments and suggestions for improvements were excellent. However, it was not feasible to integrate all the feedback of our interdisciplinary research team for two main reasons. First, the word count is limited. Second, the paper needs to have a common thread and cannot do justice to all perspectives. Thus, we had to disregard some aspects. It was important to communicate from the beginning that the paper cannot accommodate all perspectives equally. I had to learn to dismiss some suggestions for change, despite highly appreciating co-authors’ inputs and valuing diverse perspectives. At the beginning, I felt obliged to incorporate all suggestions for improvements, but I learned over time that dismissing some suggestions was occasionally necessary and justified in order to keep the work manageable.

In sum…

It has been an extremely enriching experience of leading this work and I very much appreciated the opportunity, privilege and challenge of assuming this task. Of course, not all steps were easy, but I would not want to miss this experience – irrespective of the outcome of the pending review process of our paper. Not only the trustful, respectful and supportive relationships within the team, but also the co-authors’ positive feedback and affirmation of our work offset moments of insecurity and frustration. Good leadership benefits vastly from good teamwork to which all co-authors can contribute. Most importantly, take care of yourself and others during the joint project because you can only sustain your work in the long-term if you respect your own limits, and openly and carefully engage with the divergent needs, expectations and interests of others.

Acknowledgement: I thank Jens Newig for his useful comments and edits of the draft of this blog post.

Appendix

Authorship management strategies developed by Oliver et al.(2018)

Lone wolf“The lead author manages the manuscript tasks, does much of the work on parts of the manuscript, but engages coauthors for  for feedback and brainstorming once materials have been prepared, and is open to revising and altering the approach taken. […] Because the lead author is taking on more of the individual tasks, the group size should be smaller, and the authorship table should be used heavily to maintain appropriate coauthor contributions.” (p. 9)
Dynamic duo“Two clearly defined co-leads manage the manuscript tasks equally and are listed as co-leads in the manuscript author list. […] The same issues of engagement with and feedback from the rest of the coauthors that were raised for the lone wolf approach apply here. This strategy has advantages such as of having two people to keep momentum going on a manuscript when busy periods hit, having individuals who can learn from each other by working together on all aspects of a manuscript closely, and taking advantage of different strengths of individuals.” (p. 9)
Board of directors“A small group (3–5) of coauthors, including the lead author, manage the manuscript tasks by dividing up tasks, and working closely together on the vision for the manuscript. This group interacts frequently to develop the manuscript, tasks are delegated among group members, and then the group engages with other coauthors for feedback and is open to revising based on that feedback. This strategy shares many of the advantages of the dynamic duo, but may be better for collaborations that would benefit from a larger or more diverse leadership group.” (p. 9)
Round table“A group of coauthors that follow a flat or distributed leadership model in which all authors jointly participate in managing the manuscript tasks, in particular related to major decision-making. The role of the first author in this case is to coordinate and keep track of all of the different efforts and monitor the timeline for completion of tasks. This management strategy may be the most unusual for science teams, but can be effective with the right manuscript. For example, manuscripts that have several large tasks that can be completed individually may benefit from this strategy.” (p. 9)
Organized chaos“In this management strategy, the lead author(s) manages the manuscript tasks, but the overall structure to the workflow differs significantly from the first four strategies. The strategy is best suited for manuscripts that include everyone on the project (and sometimes more) as coauthors, often for less common manuscript types, such as data papers or project synthesis papers. Because there are many more tasks than a traditional manuscript, it is often more efficient for the lead author to delegate and coordinate tasks independently rather than collaboratively.” (pp. 9-10)

Oliver, S. K., Fergus, C. E., Skaff, N. K., Wagner, T., Tan, P. N., Cheruvelil, K. S., & Soranno, P. A. (2018). Strategies for effective collaborative manuscript development in interdisciplinary science teams. Ecosphere, 9(4). https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.2206  

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