Collaboration is critical to conducting good research and designing good education or innovations. In any discipline, it is a rare situation where an individual has all the knowledge, skills and perspectives required to identify a good idea and develop it to completion and dissemination (1,2). An individual cannot manage all tasks in an efficient or short amount of time.
Critically, health professions education is a rich, multidisciplinary environment that requires collaboration across diverse professions, epistemologies and identities. A scientist may not be able to appreciate the nuances of clinical practice if they do not collaborate to understand the key issues. A clinician educator may not have the capacity to translate all aspects of education science without the support of a researcher. Simply put, we all have gaps in our ability to understand the unique education challenges that we are interested in exploring and can rely on various kinds of experts to supplement our knowledge.
This form of collaboration can create a richer, more complete understanding, but can also be more efficient as experts are much faster than novices at handling tasks within their scope.
By the end of this chapter the learner should be able to:
- Describe the importance of teamwork for research
- Identify the priorities when setting up a new research team
- Recognize the challenges for collaboration with novel research teams or team members
Samir decided to talk to his supervisor about the challenge he perceived regarding getting such a diverse team to successfully coordinate their schedules and write together. She suggested that he apply his expert organizational skills to create the writing plan, but then involve the others on the team to complete some of the tasks. She also suggested that he take advantage of available online applications, like Google Docs and Microsoft Teams to create shared space for idea generation, without the need for synchronous meetings.
Deeper Dive into this Concept
Organization and clarity are key to the collaborative writing process. Whether you are writing collaboratively to produce an academic manuscript, or to design new learning objectives and activities for a new curriculum, there are some key principles that can help keep you on track.
First, it helps to identify a leader – not everyone can steer a ship all at the same time – so pick a captain who will be responsible for keeping everyone on task. It is also the leader’s responsibility to make sure there is a shared model of the goal, that everyone on the team understands how they can contribute to the goal and that everyone agrees on the key timeline and checkpoints. Although it can be a challenge managing multiple busy schedules, attempt to start with one synchronous group meeting to create a shared model of the goal. Online applications like Doodle (3) polls or When2meet (4) can be useful in achieving this goal. Also consider holding the meeting online in Zoom (5) or Microsoft Teams (6) as this will allow you to easily record the meeting discussion, which can be transcribed for future review by the group or individuals who could not attend.
Second, be clear on roles and authorship. Review the ICMJE authorship criteria so everyone understands the standards for authorship (7). For academic manuscripts, it is conventional to list all contributors’ names in the order of their level of contribution. The key author positions that are often important for those who write in academic medicine are: first author (the team leader), second (the second-in-command), and senior (the supervisor and/or mentor of the first author and/or the person responsible for a broader program of research). It helps to be clear on these positions at the start of a project, although circumstances may require flexibility over time. The first author is most likely to create the first draft or outline. Ideally, the first author is also the team leader, however this may not be the case for every team. Sometimes, the person elected to manage timelines and expectations is someone in the middle or the senior author.
Third, explain the writing process to everyone on the team and assign roles accordingly. It may seem like common sense, but all writing starts with the first and worst draft. The team members take turns editing it to a better version. Ideally, one person is responsible for the final edit in a consistent voice and style. Moreover, supplementary roles that may be required are a content expert – perhaps someone leading the field who can offer consultation. This person may already be on the team, or can be invited at a later stage of writing to consult. Because this consultant would not meet authorship criteria (see ICMJE criteria), they can be mentioned in the acknowledgments.
Fourth, collaborative writing can be highly efficient with the support of various online applications. A common application is Google Docs (8) which allows multiple team members to log in simultaneously, or asynchronously, to edit a single document. It is worth your time to learn how to track edits using the version history and make suggestions (i.e., tracking changes style of annotated suggestions). Google Docs also allow using third party citation managers. Zotero is one free and open source tool that fully integrates with Google Docs and provides citation management in a document (9). The table (4.2.1) below, taken from Yilmaz et al. identifies several online resources that can be used in an asynchronous fashion to facilitate collaborative writing, without having to schedule group meetings to write together (10).
|Function||Tools||Applications for your Collaborative Writing||Best Practices|
|Whiteboard for brainstorming||Google Jamboard
MiroZoom “Whiteboard” feature
|Use the sticky note technique to share and to organize thoughts.
Sticky notes can facilitate organizing themes and components to discuss with team members.
“Brain dumping” on each sticky note allows free flow of thoughts; the team can subsequently eliminate those they decide to exclude.
|Convert sticky notes to an outline to build a manuscript’s story.
Each sticky note should contain a single idea to allow for easy organization.
Colour coding sticky notes can facilitate organization. For instance, green can signify positive, yellow can signify neutral and red can signify contradictory ideas and opinions. Alternatively, colour codes can correspond to different authors, representing assignments or ideas.
Create grids or columns to organize sticky notes.
|File sharing & organization||Google Drive
|A project may have multiple files. Storing documents and versions on the cloud allows team members to access them ubiquitously and instantly without sending through email or any other way. This prevents losing files from emails or a computer’s local drive.
The cloud providers have extensions to synchronize the files with the computer’s local drive which allows local work and synchronizes the files cloud automatically.
Creating and hosting figures and tables in separate documents when they cannot be integrated with a writing canvas.
Additionally, dataset, analysis results and other project-related documents can be synchronized throughout the team members
|Maintain appropriate privacy and security settings for datasets and sensitive non-anonymized content through password-protection where applicable and use of the appropriate platform. Ensure IRB approval for storage practices. In some instances, the use of your institution’s designated cloud storage platform may be required to meet data security and privacy standards. (e.g., macdrive.mcmaster.ca).
Utilize version history for retrieval of deleted content.
Although Google docs allow for simultaneous editing of the same file version by multiple collaborators, other cloud storage platforms that save files as MS Word documents can generate multiple copies when collaborators edit them simultaneously. Multiple exports may disrupt version control and require authors to manually merge different versions. Let your collaborators know when you actively work on the file. Some platforms allow authors to “lock” a file when actively editing it.
Save files with version suffix (e.g., “name of the file _ V2.docx”) and append your initials to the file name that you let others that you reviewed and/or edited the file (e.g., “name of the file _ V2_YY_TC.docx”).
|The writing canvas||Google Docs,
Microsoft Word Office 365
|Online documents that support synchronous writing on the same document with team members.
Perform simultaneous edits and writing.
When utilizing a mode that tracks changes, perform regular ‘change acceptances’ to make the document easier to follow. First or last author may lead on integrating changes and suggestions with the document.
Version history and version naming provides quick access to the snapshots of the document’s status at a given moment. This also provides a record of changes made by specific team members.
|Enable document change notifications. This will motivate and inform other team members that a team member is working on the document. This feature will “nudge” other team members to write.
Commenting on the document by highlighting specific text enables further discussion. Team leaders or specific authors mentioned in the comment can “resolve” comments once they address them.
Create a general template with specific article headlines and use when starting a new project (e.g. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1AAaViuLF-hY1E3_aAoyBISghHCL6nLG336g_0pQO28k)
Use headline styling to create a table of contents; this allows for efficient navigation to specific sections of a manuscript using the navigation pane.
|Asynchronous communications facilitate project completion, particularly for individuals operating in different time zones and on different schedules. Although most asynchronous communication has traditionally occurred via email, chat-based platforms allow for more natural “conversation” and enhanced organization and storage of project files and discussion in a central location.||Ask, share and help the progress via asynchronous communication
Tag specific co-authors for whom you have specific questions in order to generate an alert/notification to them.
Continued engagement and idea creation foster virtual communities of practice.
|Allows for an initial brainstorming session during which to create a shared mental model with regard to project goals, outline, target journal, authorship order, timeline, roles and responsibilities.
Synchronous check-ins allow authors to maintain accountability, identify and address barriers to project completion, and clarify points of confusion among the team.
|Conduct synchronous meetings at the beginning, middle, and end.
Use synchronous communication for sensitive and/or nuanced conversations such as “the academic prenup”: the potentially uncomfortable conversation about authorship order and expectations for the first, second and last authors.
Discuss goals and timelines early and check in often. Dissect out the “pieces” of the paper into manageable, discrete tasks, and delineate each step in a timeline.
|A few citation managers work with an online writing canvas for easy citation on online documents.
While there are common formats for citation styles (e.g., AMA, APA, Vancouver), some journals require specific formats which one cannot incorporate into the citation managers easily. In this case, finding the right style using Citation Style Language (CSL: https://csl.mendeley.com/about/ ) makes the citation experience seamlessly easy. Using the visual designer, you can find the most similar format to your needs and even you can further add custom edits.
|Use group features of citation managers to edit bibliographic information of publications.
If your team is less tech-savvy, assign a citation management role to one team member. This way will not need group features for citation.
Zotero allows from Google Docs to Microsoft Word conversion without losing the citations already cited within the manuscript.
Use comment bubbles for citation information and put DOI, bibliographic information or the URL of the article to make it easier to cite later when you cannot work with the citation manager at that time which also makes writing quicker.
|Meeting scheduling software||Doodle
|Coordinate times for synchronous meetings among groups of authors with varying schedules||Specify the time zone of the meeting times when working with others in varying geographic locations.
Be mindful of work-life balance; recognize team members may wish to avoid early morning, evening or weekend meeting times unless absolutely necessary.
Provide several options and allow participants adequate lead time before the first meeting option to enter their availability.
Provide a deadline for poll completion and send reminders to complete the poll as necessary.
For smaller groups, deciding the next meeting time in real-time at the end of a synchronous meeting may represent a more efficient approach than utilizing meeting software.
|Calendar management software||Gmail
|Schedule synchronous meetings.
Add deadline reminders to the team members by inviting multiple calendar invitations.
|Send calendar invitations with embedded links to video-conferencing software and relevant cloud-based documents to officially reserve them on team members’ calendars.|
In summary, when approaching a collaborative activity, whether research design, curriculum design or innovation, always be clear about individual and group expectations.
- Sharing – Create shared accessible material that helps everyone track progress and understand their role.
- Be Explicit – Identify key tasks and connect them explicitly with individuals and deadlines.
- Structure – Ensure that there is a transparent structure to your project. Whether you are building a research team or writing a paper, it is vital to spend time and effort making sure everyone on the team understands the goals, deadlines and their role within the team.
- Support – Encourage psychological safety within your team so that when team members encounter barriers or challenges they can ask for help. Establish checkpoints to make sure everyone can celebrate their progress or can ask for help with their tasks
- Flexibility – Be prepared to change the plan when necessary. As clear as the plan is at the beginning, there is always a chance that new data will lead you to reconsider your original goals or research questions.
- Walker DHT, Davis PR, Stevenson A. Coping with uncertainty and ambiguity through team collaboration in infrastructure projects. Int J Proj Manag. 2017;35(2):180-190. doi: 10.1016/j.ijproman.2016.11.001
- Bennett LM, Gadlin H. Collaboration and Team Science: From Theory to Practice. J Investig Med. 2012;60(5):768-775. doi:10.2310/JIM.0b013e318250871d
- Doodle. Doodle: Explore features for the world’s favorite scheduling tool. Accessed November 18, 2021. https://doodle.com/en/features/
- When2meet. When2meet. Accessed November 18, 2021. https://www.when2meet.com/
- Zoom. Video Conferencing, Web Conferencing, Webinars, Screen Sharing. Zoom Video. Accessed March 31, 2020. https://zoom.us/
- Video Conferencing, Meetings, Calling | Microsoft Teams. Accessed November 18, 2021. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-teams/group-chat-software
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. ICMJE | Recommendations | Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors. Accessed March 25, 2021. http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html
- Google Docs: Free Online Document Editor | Google Workspace. Accessed November 18, 2021. https://www.google.ca/docs/about/
- Zotero | Your personal research assistant. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://www.zotero.org/
- Yilmaz Y, Gottlieb M, Calderone Haas MR, Thoma B, Chan TM. Remote Collaborative Writing A Guide to Writing within a Virtual Community of Practice. Manuscript submitted.
Other suggested resources
The above hyperlink leads you to a template that you can use to kickstart your team’s writing. It has the ICMJE criteria listed as well as a grid for scaffolding your initial co-authorship discussions as well.
2. MacPFD Scholarly Secrets – Collaborative Writing – Part 1: Overview of Google docs & Zotero (38 mins)
2. MacPFD Scholarly Secrets – Collaborative Writing – Part 2: The Benefits of Collaborative Writing & Tips (35 mins)
3. MacPFD Scholarly Secrets – Collaborative Writing – Part 3: Timelines, Coordination & Outlines (15 mins)