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.


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).  

The Journal of Cleaner Production tolerates plagiarism

By Johanna Coenen, Jens Newig, Patrick Meyfroidt, Simon Bager and Edward Challies

In the past months, we have tried to solve a case of plagiarism, but without success. The process has brought the sobering revelation that plagiarism is deliberately ignored in a high-ranking journal like the Journal of Cleaner Production, which is published by Elsevier.

In August 2021, we noticed that a large text segment of the article entitled “Mapping socio-ecological resilience along the seven economic corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative”, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production (JCLP), has essentially been taken from our publication entitled “Environmental Governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative”, published in the journal Environmental Policy and Governance (EPG) with some minor modifications and no reference to our article (see below).

We contacted the Editors of JCLP and asked them to review this issue. After sending several reminders, we received a response in October, saying: “Our similarity check report shows that only 1% of similarity rate for these two articles. Therefore, we do not think there is possible plagiarism for the JCLP paper. However, there is indeed inappropriate citation, we will contact the authors and make a correction accordingly” [E-mail October 21, 2021].

Yet, the journal editors took no actions. We sent a reminder e-mail and received the following response in December: “After our editorial team’s internal discussion, we do not think there is any potential plagiarism regarding the article […]. “Although the JCLP article clearly uses the EPG paragraph (order and references), the JCLP paper is not using “their ideas or results,””.” [E-mail from December 10, 2021]

Indeed, a similarity rate of 1% seems very little. However, our text has only partly been copied literally, and partly been paraphrased, which is more difficult to detect with a plagiarism software than longer passages of literal copying. The problem is that the entire paragraph is organized around exactly the same references, in the same order, to make the same points (and still takes over parts verbatim). In other words, what is plagiarized here is only partly the specific words; it is the intellectual content that is expressed in organizing these thoughts and in identifying, compiling, organizing and synthesizing these references. Any reader will acknowledge that it is entirely impossible that independently, these authors came up with exactly the same list of works compiled in the same order to make the same points. It is thus indisputable that these authors drew inspiration from our paper without citation.

Elsevier’s policies explicitly recognize that even paraphrasing is a form of plagiarism: “Copying may take place without reproducing the exact words used in the original work, i.e. without literal or substantial copying. This type of copying is known as paraphrasing, and it can be the most difficult type of plagiarism to detect (…)”.1

We responded to the Editors of JCLP by seriously questioning their position and inaction. We requested that the authors should add an appropriate citation to our article, such as “This paragraph is drawn from Coenen et al. (2021)” or similar. We never requested a retraction of the article, but merely an Erratum to simply acknowledge our work from which these authors drew. However, we did not receive a response.

As a next step, we contacted the authors, presented them this comparison and asked them to issue an Erratum in order to include an appropriate citation. The authors apologized, announced that they would cite us in their next publication (we note that this announcement has, in our view, no relevance to the matter in question here), but did not take any actions in the present case.

As a last step, we sent a complaint to Elsevier. We presented our case, asked them to review the issue and pointed to what in our view is an irresponsible journal editorship at JCLP. The case was forwarded to the editorial manager of JCLP. Then, we received a response from the JCLP editorial team, saying that “Upon a second check, the editorial team still don’t find real plagia-rism issue even according to the strictest ethical standard.”. They went on and explained: “To illustrate the editors’ point of view, the editorial team have checked your EPG paper. We also could find the same issues in it, which recorded 25% similarity. Being strict, even if you cite the source, you cannot use the same text.” [E-mail from February 28, 2022]. They added a hardly readable compilation of screenshots which shows text segments with a high degree of similarity with our article. This plagiarism assessment revealed similarities between our EPG article and short phrases of sources that we cite, the entry of the very same paper on ResearchGate (which explains the high degree of similarity), and even another sentence that the authors of the aforementioned plagiarized text segment have seemingly taken from our article.

We suddenly found ourselves in the position of needing to defend our own article. Any scientific article is based on previous literature and rephrases existing studies to some extent. Thus, finding some degree of similarity is neither surprising, nor problematic when appropriate citation is used. The mentions of similarity/plagiarism that the JCLP editorial team identified on our article in EPG are single sentences that directly cite the paper to which they refer. As the compilation shows, several works pick the same point from specific papers, and use the formulation of the original authors to remain as true as possible to their originally-intended meaning. With adequate citation that just follows this sentence, this is not plagiarism.

On top of this, the JCLP editorial team accused us of “a substantial amount of self-plagiarism” [E-mail from February 28, 2022], which is clearly unjustified, as the texts they identified do not refer to different works, but simply the upload of the same paper on ResearchGate and our own blog post discussing it.

What started out as a genuine attempt to correct an omission has become an eye-opening and worrying experience about research ethics and publishing practices. The apparent reluctancy to take actions against plagiarism undermines the credibility of the journal and, most importantly, its scientific integrity. We are unfortunately not the only researchers who report about editors’ deliberate ignorance of plagiarism. David A. Sanders highlighted in a related blogpost: “By not taking firm action on articles that contain plagiarized text, editors are encouraging misconduct”.2 We hope that publicizing our case contributes towards raising awareness about violations of good research practices and responsible journal management.

1 See

2 See

Online visualization tools to communicate research results

By Johanna Coenen and Gabi Sonderegger

Communicating our research results to fellow scientists, but also policy makers, practitioners, journalists and the general public, is a core task in science. It is particularly important if we aim to facilitate evidence-based decision-making and aspire to have a real-world impact with our research.

Visualizations play a powerful role in science communication. They help to attract attention, summarize data and make information easily accessible (see also this blog post and recent publication about telecoupling visualizations). Animated and interactive visuals in particular can be highly appealing and effective means for communicating results via websites, blog posts, social media posts and conference presentations. Yet, many scientists seem to lack the time and/or technical capacities to generate appealing visuals that speak to their target audience.

In recent years, a range of visualizations tools has been developed that aim to facilitate the transformation of data into attractive visuals. Often, they are simple to use and do not require sophisticated data visualization skills. In the table below, we present a selection of such visualization tools, which may help us to translate our research results into beautiful visuals.

Type of visualizationsWeblinkCostsExamples
Various static chart types (e.g. Sankey diagrams)RAWGraphsFreeExamples on the RAWGraphs website
Various static and responsive chart typesDatawrapperFree (with extended paid versions)Examples on the Datawrapper website
Animated charts, flow charts, story maps, and much moreFlourishFree version for public data/projects (with extended paid versions)Examples on the Flourish website Just 7 Commodities Replaced an Area of Forest Twice the Size of Germany Between 2001 and 2015 / World Resources Institute
Social network graphs, stakeholder maps and causal loop diagramsKumuFree version for public data/projects (with extended paid versions)Dynamics of concussion / Erin Kenzie / PSU Systems Science, Portland State University
Storytelling with mapsArcGIS StoryMapsTo use ArcGIS StoryMaps, you need full access to the Essential Apps Bundle by purchasing an ArcGIS Creator or GIS Professional user type.Many universities and organizations are already using ArcGIS, so you may be able to get access to ArcGIS via the organization or university you work for.Global interests collide in Madagascar / Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern “Hungry mills” and their role in Indonesia’s palm oil industry / Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern
InfographicsCanvaBasic features are for free (with extended paid versions)The Global Carbon Budget / World Resources Institute
Interactive world mapsMapHubFreeMap of our COUPLED project at the bottom of our website
Geographic flow mapsflowmap.blueFreeExamples on the website

Click here to find an example of a network graph which shows the interlinkages between climate initiatives and the Sustainable Development Goals (created with

This post first appeared at on April 21, 2021.

Building a green Belt and Road Initiative? First steps on a long road ahead.

By Johanna Coenen and Simon Bager

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a young, yet fast developing framework of activities aimed at improving regional and trans-continental cooperation and connectivity through investments, trade, and infrastructure projects. In fall 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which has become known as BRI. The global initiative takes its name from the ancient “Silk Road”, which connected Asian and European cities through trade in goods, mainly silk and spices. The newly announced BRI goes along and beyond the route of the historic Silk Road. More than 130 countries have joined the initiative so far (figure 1). Road, rail, maritime and energy infrastructure projects form a key part of the BRI, which will likely facilitate increased trade and economic development along the route. Apart from advancing geopolitical and economic objectives, the initiative is also projected to increase cultural and scientific exchanges across the countries engaged in the BRI.


Figure 1. As of January 2020, 138 countries have signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with China.

The BRI poses both opportunities and risks for sustainable development. By promoting investments in renewable energy and green technology, it can contribute towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. At the same time, concerns about its actual and potential negative environmental impacts are rising. For example, China continues to invest in fossil fuel energy projects abroad. Infrastructure projects may cut across biodiversity hotspots and expose ecologically sensitive areas to development pressures.

In the last few years, several Chinese ministries collectively issued policies on the “green Belt and Road”. China’s endeavor to build hard infrastructure (e.g. rail, road, power plants, seaports) across the world is increasingly accompanied by efforts to develop the necessary soft infrastructure (e.g. policies, guidelines, cooperation platforms), to provide governance structures to coordinate and implement BRI activities. Since the BRI is still expanding and an official registry of BRI projects does not exist, it remains challenging to pinpoint the geographical scope and full number of BRI projects.

Due to the size and complexity of the BRI, scholars and civil society organizations have begun to analyze the potential impacts of the project across various dimensions. To date, most literature on the BRI has focused either on its geopolitical implications or the economic impacts. Yet, literature on the BRI with reference to environmental or sustainability issues is also slowly growing (Figure 2). In our recent study that is a result of the COUPLED project, we outline the key actors, policies and initiatives involved in developing the “green BRI”. Our analysis is based on a review of official government documents, published peer-reviewed literature, media articles, reports, and working papers. We do not only look at formal policies and guidelines, but also at newly established international and transnational cooperation initiatives, and the role of governance institutions in BRI host countries. Our insights contribute to telecoupling research by illustrating how growing interdependencies between distant places provide both challenges and opportunities for environmental outcomes. Effective environmental governance is needed to address the environmental implications of long-distance flows of capital, labour, energy and materials and economic activities that will likely expand and intensify under the BRI.


Figure 2. Number of publications on the BRI in general (blue; 1799 documents in total) and with reference to environmental or sustainability issues (red, 449 documents in total) between 2013 and 2019. [1]

What did we find?
In the few years since the inception of the BRI in 2013, the environmental governance architecture of the “green BRI” has developed into a fragmented patchwork of national, regional, transnational, and international institutions of various forms—initiatives, guidelines, agreements, and programs. China builds its “green BRI” upon existing international and transnational institutions, while also establishing new ones. The flagship organization of the “green BRI” is the newly established BRI International Green Development Coalition.

Overall, the development of the institutional landscape for the “green BRI” mirrors major trends in global environmental governance toward increasing reliance on transnational multi-actor governance and the use of soft law. The Chinese government plays a key role in initiating voluntary and cooperative programs and networks of public, private, and civil society actors and institutions for the environmental governance of the BRI. Numerous Chinese policies strongly urge Chinese companies to adhere to host countries’ environmental laws and regulations. This means that the legislative framework in the host countries become important determinants of the environmental outcome of BRI projects. For example, if the BRI partner country does not have legal requirements – or very lax requirements – for environmental impact assessments, this is reflected in the potential environmental risks and mitigation efforts of the project.

Thus, the environmental sustainability of the BRI not only hinges on the environmental governance efforts of Chinese actors, but largely on the effective implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations in BRI host countries. Increasing trade and investment flows between BRI countries may affect public and private environmental standards in multiple ways (figure 3). An important task for future research is to empirically investigate whether and how China’s “green BRI” influences environmental governance in BRI countries. Will the BRI drive a “race to the bottom” among partner countries in search of investment or will China actually become an exporter of stricter environmental regulations and norms? Will exporters apply lower or higher environmental and social standards if they shift to markets with lower or higher standards (Shanghai or California effect)?


Figure 3. Potential effects of investments (left) and trade (right) on public and private environmental standards (see publication for more details and examples).

In short, the BRI is a multifaceted long-term development strategy in the fields of infrastructure connectivity, economic and trade cooperation, industrial development, resource development, financial cooperation, cultural exchanges, maritime cooperation and environmental protection. According to Chinese decision makers, the initiative aims at advancing “win-win cooperation” among BRI countries. Yet, the relative gains of the initiative may not be distributed equally among participants – both within and between the involved countries. If not governed effectively, economic development projects can come at a high social, financial or environmental cost. For instance, building coal-fired power plants may advance social and economic development objectives in the short and middle-term, but compromise our chances to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C. China has made many high-level political commitments to ensure the BRI’s orientation towards sustainability, yet translating these commitments to actions on the ground will be another challenging task on the long (belt and) road ahead.

Read the publication

Coenen J, Bager S, Meyfroidt P, Newig J, Challies E. Environmental Governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Env Pol Gov. 2020;1–15. 10.1002/eet.1901

[1] Scopus search conducted on June 29, 2020. Search string for blue line: TITLE-ABS-KEY ( “belt and road” OR “one belt one road” OR “new silk road” ). Search string for red line: TITLE-ABS-KEY ( “belt and road” OR “one belt one road” OR “new silk road” AND “environment*” OR “sustainab*” OR “ecologic*” ).

Originally posted at the COUPLED blog on August 5, 2020.

10 tips for future PhD students: What I have learned in my first year

By Johanna Coenen

A full year has passed since I started my PhD. Now it’s time to reflect on some experiences and lessons learned. Here are 10 practical tips, I would have liked to know from day one of my PhD journey. They can be useful for anybody currently doing a PhD or planning to do so.

1. Use a reference manager.
It’s obvious that doing a PhD requires a lot of reading. Yet, we easily lose track of what we have read in the past, or what we are planning to read in the future. Using a reference management software can support you in maintaining an overview of your literature. Personally, I use Mendeley. It forms the backbone of all my work. But many other reference management tools are available, such as Zotero, Citavi, or Endnote. The choice is yours.
A reference manager allows you to quickly add references to Word documents, but more importantly, you can save, group, tag, and annotate your literature. You can also share literature folders with colleagues. A particularly useful function is “watch folder”, which is an easy way to import new articles into your personal library.

2. Take notes.
This tip seems simple and self-evident. However, when searching the literature for particular information, we regularly come across concepts or definitions that we didn’t look for in the first place, but might find relevant for future work. For example, some articles provide a very good and precise overview of a certain field of literature. Other articles describe difficult concepts or methodologies very well. Or you find comprehensive figures or graphs. To remember valuable articles or text passages, set up a note-taking system that allows you to save these insights for later. Even though you might only use a fraction of all your notes, it can save valuable time when searching for relevant descriptions of theories, methods and cases. For this purpose, I started using Evernote, which works like a flashcard system or glossary. A simple notebook or other programs like OneNote might also do the job.
For example, I collected a multitude of different definitions of telecoupling or governance over time. Now I can always select the most appropriate one for presentations or texts. Taking notes simply protects you from the false assumption that “I will remember this argument or article later on”. If you’re like me and don’t have an extraordinary memory, make sure that you take notes on the wide variety of relevant concepts, theories, and ideas that you will discover during your PhD.

3. Use networks to get a general overview of the literature.
As a newcomer to the world of research, it is challenging to acquire a good overview of different streams of literature. Sometimes we search for influential scholars in a given field of research, and at other times, we try to understand how various research areas are connected.
A practical approach to addressing some of these questions can be the use of bibliometric analyses. Recently, I learned about a free and easy to use software that allows you to quickly construct bibliometric networks based on a Scopus search. You simply need to conduct a Scopus search with keywords of your choice, download the results in a CSV-file and import the file to the software called VosViewer. Examples from my research can be seen in two figures below. Within 15 minutes you will be able to better explore your field of research using network graphs.


Co-occurrence of keywords in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019; minimum number of occurrences of a keyword is 3).TC_co-authorship_408
Co-authorship in telecoupling literature (based on 108 publications that use the term “telecoupling” in their title, abstract or keywords according to Scopus search conducted on October 2, 2019)

4. Set up email alerts for newly published literature.
How to keep track of articles published in your area of interest? One way is to make use of email alert services which will inform you about the publication of new literature on a regular basis. For example, you can set up email notifications in Google Scholar or Scopus for particular keywords, such as “telecoupling”, “sustainability”, or whatever topic or theory is of interest to you. This way, you ensure that you stay up do date about scholarly discussions and trends.

5. Ask your colleagues for newsletter recommendations.
We not only want to stay informed about newly published literature, we are also interested in staying up-to-date about the announcement of special issues, conferences, and workshops. In later phases of our PhD, we might be interested in jobs and funding opportunities. Since there are useful newsletters on these issues in any field of work, I recommend browsing the web or asking colleagues for recommendations regarding valuable newsletter subscriptions.

6. Make sure other people can find out what you are working on.
As PhDs, we usually sit quietly in our office and conduct research. In comparison to our supervisors and senior colleagues, we don’t have a well-established network and are not widely recognized for our work. Thus, it is very important that you create some visibility of your research activities to the world that lies outside your office door. You can either use the website of your research institution, ResearchGate, LinkedIn or any other channel to ensure that other people can get a glimpse of your research interests and can potentially connect with you, while Twitter is the preferred communication and announcement platform of many academics.

7. Keep track of how much you work.
It’s not a secret that many PhD students work (too) much. Sometimes I ask myself where all the time has gone. At other times, I leave the office with a bad conscience if I have not managed to finish my tasks as planned – either because I procrastinated, assumed ever new tasks, encountered unexpected difficulties, chatted too much with colleagues, or was trapped in long meetings. In order to keep track of time, I write down how many hours I work every day, and I summarize what I did that day in 3-4 keywords. It only takes a few minutes and the primary goal is not excessive self-maximization or self-control. Instead, it’s a simple way to help you recognize when your work-life balance is seriously upset. It also allows you to shut down your computer on a Friday evening without asking yourself all weekend long whether you should maybe finish some more tasks and duties.

8. Engage in peer-reviews and writing retreats.
I think one of the greatest learning resources are not dusty books or lengthy publications, but our peers and colleagues. They can provide highly valuable feedback. Exchanging manuscript drafts with other PhD students, who work on related topics, and commenting on each other’s work can be a very fruitful and inspiring exercise. Besides making use of peer-reviews, you can also draw on peer pressure to keep you focused and motivated during a writing retreat. Find a quiet location, close your email program, and immerse yourself in some productive hours of writing.

9. Attend PhD defenses.
At some point in time, we will hopefully all defend our dissertations. One way to prepare for that day is to attend other PhD defenses. These occasions provide a precious opportunity to learn how to structure and compose a coherent dissertation. In addition, you get to know what kind of questions are posed by the jury. After attending several defenses, you may realize that in your field, certain types of questions are posed at almost every defense.

10. Check these miscellaneous websites

  • We often try to visualize our data for presentations and publications, but don’t know which type of visualization works best for our particular purpose. On this website, you can explore examples of a wide range of different visualizations.
  • If you want to print a website without useless ads and junk, or save it as a PDF file, you can use Printfriendly.
  • ResearchGate is a widely used social network for researchers, which allows you to connect with other scientists, follow their activities and projects, and access publications.
  • If you’re not a native English speaker, you will probably find yourself constantly searching for correct formulations, and the right use of prepositions and adverbs. If you want to check how certain words or phrases are generally used, you can visit the website Linguee, which provides you not only with bilingual translations, but also with a list of examples how the word or phrase has been used in other (con-)texts.

Originally published at on 18 October 2019.