Note: This article was first written in Chinese on June 5, 2019 and translated into English in 2022.
I have always wanted to write an article on collaboration. I often joke with my friends in academia that finding a good collaborator is not in any way easier than finding a life partner. If we are lucky enough to meet good collaborators, we should never let them go.
Last month when I was attending a conference in the US, a fellow in academia pointed out to me, “you seem to collaborate a lot in your papers”. Indeed, I love collaborating with others. In “how to manage your time, emotion, and research progress as pre-tenure faculty members?,” I mentioned that writing sole-authored papers was lonely (at least this is how I felt). I had no one to talk to for advice with regards to the details of the project. No one could motivate or encourage me to actively continue my research. On the contrary, with a collaborator, we can keep each other accountable and discuss any possible questions, which in turn makes us feel much less isolated.
I have grown a lot from collaborating with other people and learned to become a better researcher and better person in general. l I would love to share my experience with all of you. Specifically, I am highlighting peer collaboration in my examples below. On the flip side, if it were a collaboration between a junior researcher and a more experienced, senior scholar, it would look more like a mentor-mentee relationship and the interactional dynamic might be different.
Providing constructive feedback
At the very start of my career, one of my collaborators said something that impacted me a lot. As the first author of our paper, she wrote the first draft. I then reviewed it and put down questions that I had for her writing. Later, when she was giving me feedback, she told me being a collaborator is more than raising questions and finding flaws. “What I wrote on the paper”, she said, “is undoubtedly the best of what I could think of at the moment. If you think there are limitations, could you please also provide potential solutions?” Until now, her words still stick with me and it’s something I live by. Indeed, good collaborators work together to identify problems and figure out solutions; if someone is only raising questions without following up on how to improve the paper, they would be more like a reviewer.
From then on, whenever I am collaborating with someone and editing their work, I always make sure that I point out the imperfections, reasonings, and possible resolution to the problem, which could help us further discuss. As I understand how much effort it takes to edit and give doable advice to academic work, I make sure that I take pieces of advice seriously and respectfully. To be a good collaborator, we cannot be reluctant to consider others’ opinions and suggestions. If we only focus on our ideas and think that they are the best, there is no point in having collaborators.
Establishing a clear division of labor
Establishing a clear division of labor is especially important in academia. Authors’ contribution to a paper and the authorship are crucial to building the scholarly identity and affect tenure and promotion.
For example, one of my long-term collaborators and I have a very clear division of labor. The first author is usually responsible for analyzing data, writing the first draft of the paper, and leading revisions. If the analysis has to use multiple datasets or models and the second author is familiar with a certain dataset or model involved, the second author would be responsible for those parts of the analysis as well. If the literature in a certain part of the paper is in the field of the second author, the second author would write that too. Certainly, the idea for the paper, the conceptualization of the analysis, and the direction of the revisions often are the product of discussions between both authors. Every time before we start a new project, we would make sure to reach a consensus on who is going to be the lead author for the project, each person's responsibilities, and the general timeline. We would then update each other regularly on the research progress. We will try to have an agreement regarding when we could finish our parts and by what time we would send it over to the other person.
In my opinion, to maintain a long-term collaboration relationship, we need to reach a consensus about how to allocate authorship fairly (i.e., in proportion to contribution). Reaching a well-balanced division of labor between collaborators requires communication and similar moral values.
A one-time experience of collaborating with a friend made me recognize the importance of respect in collaborations. When reading through her first draft, I upset her by sending her emails like text messages (without addressing her nor signing off my name). To make it worse, I did not send all of my opinions in one email, but I sent an email whenever I thought of something as I was looking through the draft. My collaborator later sent me an email confronting me and saying that what I did made her uncomfortable. We were collaborators, but not in an advisor-advisee relationship. The way I sent her emails and told her that we had to edit here and there put on an accusatory tone and made her feel disrespected.
When I was reflecting on the matter, I recognized what I did was wrong. I apologized to my collaborator sincerely and explained that I didn’t mean to disrespect her. But I should have done a better job of communicating by reading through the whole work, organizing my thoughts, and sending her my feedback. She then told me that she chose to confront me because she wanted me to know and understand her feelings and she did not want this experience to harm our friendship.
This incident has had a substantial impact on me. After this, whenever I work with people, I pay more attention to my manner: Is there an accusatory tone in my emails? Am I expressing appreciation for the work of my collaborators? Am I sending too many emails at once that would overwhelm people? These small details may also significantly affect the relationship between collaborators.
Lifting each other up
Cheering for each other is so crucial. Once, a paper that my collaborator and I put together was desk rejected three times. As the first author, I doubted myself so badly. But my collaborator affirmed me and told me: "I think our article is very good, and it will be accepted." The assurance from my collaborator helped and encouraged me, and later, the article was indeed accepted by a good journal. Looking back, after three desk rejections, if my collaborator were to say "I don't like this article, and maybe we should give up," I might not be able to hold on and would’ve given up.
In my opinion, lifting each other up between collaborators is more than encouraging each other after our project receives rejections. It also means that we have a positive evaluation of each other and feel optimistic about the research topic and progress. For example, many of my collaborators and I act as cheerleaders for each other. We would sincerely say: "This idea is great! We will put it together!" "Wow, you have edited it so well! The article is now so much better!" "Come on, we're almost done!"
The research process is already long and winding. If collaborators are pessimistic, discouraging, or feeling hopeless about the research, the whole process may be overwhelmingly difficult.
Cultivating long-term collaboration
Some people may easily find new collaborators. Depending on the needs of a research project, it would be great if new collaborators with complementary expertise could always be found. But if you are fortunate enough to find a collaborator who is compatible with your intellectual capability, work style, research interest, and professional ethics, you must cherish it; if two of you can collaborate for a long time, it is one of the best things we could ask for.
Collaboration does not just happen. Some people say that you have to put in work to maintain an intimate relationship, and I think the same holds for collaborative partnerships too. My long-term collaborators and I will try to ensure that there are always ongoing and active projects. For instance, we will start the brainstorming process when a project is about to end, to see what we can do next. Sometimes we would even create an "idea bucket" which is filled with exciting new ideas for our future projects, and we discuss which one we should work on first.
These are my sharing for now, and I welcome you to share your experience and thoughts.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "找靠谱的合作者比找对象还难：How to collaborate?." 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