Note: This article was first written in Chinese on November 13, 2020 and translated into English in 2022.
This week, a collaborator and I completed a minor “revise & resubmit” in two days; in the last two weeks, another collaborator and I wrote in sprints and finished a high-quality literature review of over 5,000 words. While working on these research projects, I felt sincerely grateful for all my awesome collaborators. Therefore, I couldn't help but write an article to share what I’ve learned from them.
1. Be reliable
I've tried writing sprints this year with several collaborators, and it's pretty cool! Generally speaking, after I finish a draft, I send it to my collaborator, and my collaborator will edit it as soon as possible, and send it back to me, and we repeat the process a couple of times. I found that through this collaborative approach, we were able to complete both the first draft and the final polished draft within a short time.
Sprint writing has a lot of benefits. For example, when working on a project, if my collaborators and I put it on hold for a while, it always takes a while to recall what we did last time and then plan what to do next. However, sprint writing is like running a relay in which collaborators pass the baton to each other and let the ideas flow logically. As a result, we not only efficiently write up an article but also substantially improve the article with multiple rounds of back-and-forth revisions.
If we have to take time off to deal with personal circumstances, such as recovering from sickness or taking care of children, my collaborators and I usually communicate in advance to make sure that both parties are on the same page. For example, they may tell me “I can only make changes up till this part today. I will leave the rest to you, and come back tomorrow to follow up on your edits.” In another instance, I was not productive in a particular week, so my collaborator did her part first and sent it over. The next week, she had other things to do, so she didn’t work on our project. Instead, I revised what she wrote, added the parts I was responsible for writing, and then sent it back to her. Later, she said to me, "How amazing it is to have a coauthor who you can really depend on!! Thanks for pushing the paper forward." Of course, this kind of dependence is not one person's unilateral effort, but everyone's concerted endeavors can develop a synergy.
Sometimes I'm afraid that I would procrastinate and delay things, so I set a deadline for myself. For example, instead of saying "I'll reply to you as soon as possible," I would say, "I'll look at it and reply before Wednesday." I do so because I find that saying "as soon as possible" doesn’t mean the project is on my to-do list and it may end up being put on hold for various reasons. However, if I promise myself a deadline and keep myself accountable by telling my collaborators about my plans, I can make sure that I'm responsible for the project. I also have collaborators who clearly explain their arrangements and plans. For instance, they let me know that they are preoccupied, so they may not be able to participate in a project, and they will join if other opportunities arise in the future.
In short, reliable collaborators inspire us to become more trustworthy and committed members of a research team 😁
2. Be intellectually stimulating
I often ask questions to spark discussions with collaborators, and I am very grateful for their constructive suggestions. Collaboration, in many cases, is being able to discuss with someone when you get stuck or feel uncertain about something. After all, two heads are better than one.
In emails and Word documents, I raise questions if I am unsure about certain things. I appreciate how genuine and sincere my collaborators are in responding to my questions. They share their ideas or potential solutions, and they are usually quick and thoughtful. I always feel more motivated and driven after reading comments and suggestions from my collaborators. Their replies also help me think more deeply to gain a better understanding of our projects. I often feel cheerful because I have acquired new skills from these projects.
In collaborative research projects, intellectually challenging and stimulating dialogues are one of the most enjoyable aspects of collaboration. It is not uncommon that my collaborators disagree with me and challenge me. For instance, they point out that:
Here is what I feel most grateful for: when collaborators express their disagreement, they usually come up with a plan that they think is feasible, and then we would consider it and discuss the next steps together. This kind of back-and-forth questioning and discussion makes research better.
3. Be organized
My collaborators are all very well-organized persons, and I have learned a lot from them. In email exchanges, many of my collaborators give me an outline of what they have done and also tell me what needs to be done next. They are my role models and motivate me to be more organized.
Once, a collaborator sent me a structured email that I still remember to this day (see the image below). When I saw it, I thought, "I need to learn from her!" She laid out very concisely what she did based on our discussion, then pointed out what I needed to do and what I should pay attention to, and also specified what we may need to do together in the next stage. Last, she ended the email with affirmation - "Go, team!" and "Thanks!". After I read the email, I was influenced by her optimism and positive energy.
4. Establishing good authorship practices
Co-first authorship has become increasingly popular in academia, but how to order author names amongst those who contribute equally is a rather awkward topic. While the default practice is normally to list co-first authors alphabetically by last name, it might come off as a little bit unfair to those with last names late in the alphabet. Academics with last names further back in the alphabetical order may find it difficult to voice out their potential concerns about always being the last person on the author list. The situation can be even trickier if there are differences in rank or seniority between the collaborators. If an author with a later alphabet surname is of lower rank or seniority, the author may not know how to voice out their concern without being viewed as aggressive; by contrast, if it is the party of higher rank or seniority who proposes to change the order of names, it might come across as abusing their power. In these situations, it may be a good idea if the party with the first alphabetical surname takes the initiative to propose some solutions that they could accept.
One time, a collaborator took the initiative to tell me, “Yue, this time your name should be listed before mine”. Although his last name technically goes before mine, he said that his name was listed first last time when we worked together, so this time mine should be listed first. I was really moved by his consideration and thoughtfulness 😭
I have seen other mutually agreed-upon practices. If two or more people are long-term collaborators and are co-first authors on multiple papers, it may be reasonable to rotate the order of the names. For example, this time, A is listed first, and next time, B is listed first, even when all the articles indicate that the authors contribute equally. I also know of collaborators who flip a coin to decide whose name appears first on the paper.
Many long-term collaborators put themselves in each other’s shoes, and treat each other as partners and friends. We strive to be fair, friendly, and ethical in handling situations that arise in collaboration.
Well, that's it for today's sharing. Please feel free to leave a comment for discussion😊 I wish you all can connect with trustworthy and reliable collaborators!
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "我从我的合作者身上学到的美好品质." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Ally Cheng for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
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Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia