On writing together

This post is inspired by a statement by Rani Lil Anjum and Stephen Mumford and a recent Twitter discussion it provoked. I think academic collaboration is worth exploring some more.

I’ll declare my hand – my first reaction to the statement was one of, shall I say, hesitation. Very quickly, however, I thought it was a wise document (it would take a separate post to explain, but I will not write it). It also got me to think about writing collaboration I have, or haven’t, experienced over the years. And I thrive on collaboration; I love discussing ideas, working out new ones, being shown new perspectives. For me collaboration means that instead of an internal dialogue, you can have a real one.

Let me start with a story. Many years ago, a good friend of mine and I decided to do some research. Our competences complemented each other perfectly. He was into quantitative media research, I looked at media from a qualitative point of view. A veritable dream team. And so, we started talking about applying for research funding and quickly afterwards started discussing an application. And yet, when we started talking shop, it turned out that we differed in just about everything. The way we worked, we discussed, hours we worked. For example, he started his day at 10 pm and finished in the small hours, which meant we were never online together. Or I was interested in pressing ahead, while he wanted to discuss everything umpteen times, always posing a new (largely irrelevant) philosophical problem, as if we lived in a world without deadlines and as if I had not responded to the previous conundrum he had posed. Basically, the process became a series of frustrations both for him and for me. After a few weeks, we met, talked, and decided that in order to preserve our friendship, we had to stop collaborating. We never applied for anything, we never wrote anything, but we still talk to each other.

This failed collaboration taught me a very important lesson. It turned out that I could not work with anyone, even if that anyone was a good friend of mine. With years, I worked with many people, with some I wrote one or two things, with some I never wrote anything. With some I could not wait for another writing project, with others I could not wait for the project to end. So, here is my guide to collaboration. Needless to say, I focus on collaboration as I know it. I don’t understand writing an article with 1500 co-authors; collaboration means something very different in such groups. And I am not writing about it.

1. Trust. For me the backbone of collaboration is trust. It’s essential, without it, there is no collaboration, especially, if it is to survive into the next project. If I am to share my ideas with you, I must feel safe to do so. And no, it’s not only about the wonder of an idea that will stun the world and the solar system, it’s also about the stupid idea which suggests I might be a complete idiot. I must trust you both not to run away with the former and not laugh at me about the latter.

Our relationship must also mean that we trust each other to consider our ideas (this is what Mumford mentioned in the Twitter discussion). I recently vetoed a grant application. We were not ready. It was a difficult conversation, to make matters worse, on the phone. But to my relief, the person I talked to accepted what I said. We talked about it later and they knew I had our best interest at heart. And yes, I had.

Finally, collaboration/writing involves baring of the (academic) soul. I must trust you enough to do it. To a considerable extent, this is the bottom line. Not much more is needed.

2. Friendship. I’m going to be controversial here. I think that you must, wait for it, get on with your writing partner. Most people I have written with also became friends. We liked each other’s company and collaborating/writing was simply fun. The idea that I would think: “Bloody hell, I need to meet X, because we’re writing this this article” is just silly. Why torture yourself? I want to look forward to working with you.

3. Imbalance. When we work together, you must understand that I am a real person. I am not an android who simply works all the time. Sometimes, I’ll need you to understand that I’ve not managed to finish, to complete, to send….Collaborating means understanding that we are not perfect, that there is life. And life sometimes means imbalance. And accepting that balance.

Yes, in my many collaborative projects, I wrote an entire paper on my own and put the name of my writing partner on it. And I will never ever tell anyone which text it was. I did it because this is what it took. We talked about it a little, we wanted to write together, but it was not to be. So, I wrote it and I don’t care. It might (it will?) also happen to me. And you’ll have my back. I hope.


I’m sure you will have noticed that the three points above are all, shall I say, personal. Because finding someone you agree with is easy, finding someone you can actually sit down with, talk and continue doing it is considerably more difficult in my view. Over the years, I have been told I am not worthy of being the first author, I haven’t got a single original idea, I am too aggressive, I am to be ashamed of. I have been told my (potential) co-author hasn’t got the time or doesn’t care or that I can go and (bleep) myself. What have I said over the years? Well, let’s not talk about. But I have also learnt to expect less, especially at the beginning. Collaboration takes time. Writing an article is easy, writing two takes considerably more, writing a series takes a relationship, one which needs to be worked at.

So, here is a personal account of research collaboration. Despite all, I am still up for it, I’m game. I still think that working with someone offers rewards that compensate for earlier disappointments. But there is a sort of ulterior motive in this post. It’s that collaboration cannot be decreed. You cannot say: Go collaborate. It’s because whether you like it or not, collaboration is personal. It takes trust.


PS. 3 March. On a Polish discussion forum, one of the participants (@flamengista) suggested adding patience and humility. I think it’s a very good idea. Yes, sometimes, you need to wait and yes, sometimes you need to accept that it’s the other person who has a much better idea. And so, collaboration involves:

  1. Trust
  2. Friendship
  3. Imbalance
  4. Humility
  5. Patience.


Loading ...