Monday, October 27, 2014

Making multi-authored papers work

Collaborative writing is almost unavoidable for ecologists – first author papers are practically a novelty these days, given the dominance of data-sharing, multidisciplinary projects, and large-scale experiments. And frankly, despite the inevitable frustrations of co-authors, collaborative writing tends to make a manuscript better. Co-authors help prevent things from getting too comfortable: too reliant on favourite references, myopic arguments, or slightly inaccurate definitions.

The easiest collaborative writing, I think, involves small numbers of authors. Writing with large groups of people – and for me that’s probably anything over 5 – has unique difficulties and challenges. Collaborative writing with large groups has two types of challenges: first, the problems innate in attempting to find consensus from many competing opinions; second, the logistical constraints and challenges that arise with having many authors attempting to contribute to a single manuscript.

I’ve recently been lead author/wrangler on a manuscript with 15 authors. It seems to be turning out really well, mostly because all of the authors are interested and invested: all 15 have made significant contributions to the text. I’m by no means an expert on the topic of large collaborations, but I wanted to share some of the things I learned (or wish I had known to start with). All of this assumes that the writing process is indeed collaborative; if it is actually one or two main authors and a bunch of non-writing authors this may be much simpler (if prone to its own set of frustrations).

Process: It’s important to determine how things are going to be done early on and keep everyone updated on how that process is going. If parts of the manuscript will be split up, or, if certain figures and analyses will be done by particular people, that should be determined early on and reasonable timelines agreed on. Whoever is managing or leading should keep in touch with all of the authors with updates and timelines, so the project doesn’t fall under the radar. Some thought should really go into what software you will be using, since once you’ve committed it’s difficult to switch. A lot of the time, frankly, you’re limited by the lowest common denominator– programs need to be broadly available (usually free or else very common) and not require a higher level of technical skill than most authors are comfortable with. This is the downside of using LaTex or GitHub, for example. It’s easier (better?) to use an inferior program than to have half of the authors struggle with the learning curve on the program you chose. For that reason, programs that centrally host files, papers, and analysis, like Dropbox, Google Drive or folders hosted on a private server are popular. As with every part of this process, version control, version control, version control. GitHub is the most common choice for version control of software code. Dropbox allows you to revert back to older versions of files, but with limits (unless you’re paying for the pro version, I think).

The more people that are involved, the more variation to expect from your plans: deadlines will be missed, key people will be on holidays, and not everyone will feel the same level of urgency. Note: if you give 10 academics a deadline, 1 person will be early, 7 will finish in the final hours before the deadline, and the rest will want an extension. Consider having explicit deadlines for important milestones, but assume you’ll need to provide some flexibility.

Editing and revising: In the best case scenario, writing with a large number of people is like having an extensive peer review before the paper ever gets published. If you can satisfy each of these experts, the chances of the manuscript making it through peer review unscathed are much higher.

When sending a draft out for edits and revisions from multiple authors it may be helpful to be clear on what you are hoping for from this revision. What should the other authors focus on? Scientific merit, appropriate references, clarity and structure, and/or grammar and style? It may be that any or all opinions are welcome, but getting edits of prose tense or “which” vs. “that” may not be helpful on an early draft.

I’m not sure if there is really a perfect program for collaborative writing/editing that fits the ‘lowest common denominator’ requirement. Optimally a program would be free or very common, require little in the way of installation, allow real time co-authoring, commenting, version-control, and easy import and export. Problems with compatibility between different operating systems, for example, can seem minor with a single user but turn into a nightmare when a document is being opened across many different systems and versions. For smaller papers, I think many academics simply email a copy of the manuscript (often as MS Word or a PDF) around to the authors, and that’s workable for 3 or 4 sets of comments. But dealing with 15 conflicted copies of a manuscript sounds like hell. Using Google Docs/Google Drive was the compromise choice, and it mostly fulfilled our needs, with some irritations. The benefits includes that Google Docs now has different editing modes: 'editing', 'suggesting', and 'viewing'. Only 'editing' allows direct changes to be made to the text. The 'suggesting' mode is more like ‘track changes’ in MS Word, and allows co-authors to comment, add or delete text, in such a way that the main author can later choose to accept or reject each suggestion. The biggest benefits of G.Docs are that co-authors can edit at the same time, in real-time, and so the comments tended to be very conversational, since each co-author can respond to other co-author suggestions. This really helps identify when there is consensus or different opinions among authors. The downside was particularly that some authors prefer being able to edit offline or in general follow the process they are most comfortable with. It seems like restructuring a manuscript is more difficult in shared manuscript, where others might disagree, than on a personal copy. If a few authors dislike collaborative edit, you will still end up with a few conflicting copies, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. There are probably better ways, although I haven’t figured them out yet, and hope someone will comment. For users of LaTex, there is an online collaborative program—writeLaTex—that might be useful. Also, though I’ve never tried it, penflip looks pretty promising as an alternative to Google Docs.

No matter what program you use, you’ll end up with many comments and edits, often conflicting opinions. I think it’s usually good best to defer to the subject matter expert – if a co-author wrote the seminal paper on the topic, consider what they say. That said, without a strong vision, many-authored papers can be unfocused, and trying to make everyone happy almost certainly will make no one happy. After taking into consideration all the comments and expert opinions, in the end the main author has the power :)

Postscript - Authorship order/inclusion/exclusion is always difficult when so many people are involved. Some advice here; also NutNet has some rather well thought out authorship guidelines.

No comments: