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Collaborative writing at a distance by Melanie Boeckmann

800px-Teamwork_(5893295462)Melanie Boeckmann, M.A. works as Research Fellow at the University of Bremen and pursues a PhD in Public Health at the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology – BIPS in Germany. You can find her on twitter @m_boeckmann.

Sometimes, you are just really really lucky. You get funding to go to an international conference, you network and all of a sudden you and a colleague (or several colleagues even) email about this great idea you have for a project. Yes, you think, we should write this article together. The caveat: You are at your institution, and your colleague is on a different continent in an inconveniently shifted time zone. The only solution: collaborating online.

Research thrives from exchange. So does writing: thinking and writing both profit from telling somebody about your thoughts, to receive input or (constructive!) criticism. In addition, collaborative work can lead to research that is beyond your original field of expertise, or in a subfield, and just in general allows you to broaden your horizon.  Collaborative writing, then, is work requiring a tool box rather than a single tool.

Whether you are toying with the idea of suggesting a joint project to the colleagues you met at that (inter-)national conference, or are a pro at juggling time zones and document versions, here’s how a colleague and I successfully cooperated on an article that we are submitting:

1.    Set a realistic goal
Ideally, we wanted to pump out a bunch of articles and apply for a huge grant. And we can, eventually. But the first step was to identify one area that interested us both, and to formulate a specific research question that we could actually achieve in one year.

2.    Divide the tasks
Especially with interdisciplinary collaboration, one or several persons will be experts at different topics or methods. This way the splitting up tasks is fairly straightforward. If you are all from similar fields, maybe you can negotiate the sections and chores you are most interested in? And everybody should contribute to the tedious tasks, too!

3.    Use interactive platforms
Options include mailing each other the documents, syncing devices like Dropbox or Spideroak, working on a google document together, or sharing the writing through other tools like github. The Profhacker blog over at the Chronicle of Higher Education usually has great introductory posts to software and tools such as these.

4.    Version control
Sometimes you send something and you wait for feedback, but then you also have a great idea and you change some sections around in the document. Of course you can just send the document again with track changes and hope the other persons have not added many changes themselves yet. Nicer would it be to have everyone work on the same document without danger of erasing what the other person has just written. This works with google docs, but for the next project I hope to learn how to use github, because I hear their version control is excellent: one worry less!

5.    Keep in touch!
I found this to be one of the most important aspects of our collaboration. Obviously don’t over-do it, but checking in once in a while, especially if you don’t have fixed deadlines, is helpful.

What about you? Do you have any online collaboration success stories to tell?

Coming up soon, Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel will show you how they work together using collaborative tools across continents and time zones!


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