Collaborative Writing: Lessons from Multi-Authored Scientific Research

Daniel Emery

Among the many reasons to assign collaborative or team-based writing to students is that it models the collaborative and team-oriented academic fields and workplace contexts where they hope to work. Three Minnesota researchers in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and colleagues from four other institutions recently described work in their discipline to promote meaningful authorship in massively multi-authored scientific papers. This blog post examines how researchers build predictive and fair research practices by encouraging effective collaboration and how those lessons may be taught to students at all levels.

Why engage in massive collaboration?

A flock of geese taking off in flight from a body of water and a beach

In their paper in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, Elizabeth Boyer et al. note that large collaborations add significant complexity to the already challenging writing process. Three key drivers are making massive collaborations possible and valuable. First, research in multiple fields demonstrates that diverse groups produce better results than smaller, homogeneous ones. Second, the inclusion of multiple sites and participants affords opportunities of scale that can limit the generalizability of research conducted in a single location or lab. Finally, the authors suggest that large collaborations produce “synergistic opportunities for new questions to emerge, facilitating methodologically and analytically intensive research efforts”  (Boyer et al., p. 2).

A four-stage model of collaboration

The team identified five key roles in the production of a scientific manuscript: Linking broadly to research literature, ensuring analytical accuracy and methodological consistency, contributing to coherence and clarity in argumentation, clarifying the visual display of information, and housekeeping details related to the formatting and presentation of the finished project.

Laying the groundwork: the phase in which one or more authors propose(s) a potential analytical approach to a common dataset or idea for inquiry. The authors provide some preliminary information and ideas and extend an invitation to opt-in on a publication to the wider community of researchers.

First communication: In this crucial phase, members who have opted in construct the paper using a storyboard structure, composing an initial abstract and outline, identifying data sites and contributors, and beginning the literature review process with key background readings. Each author must self-identify two roles they intend to play in the writing process and enter their  goals, products, and deadlines in a shared spreadsheet.

Ongoing communication and execution: Members who have identified elements of the work they intend to complete stay in contact, report on their input and changes to the overall manuscript, and identify key benchmarks and deadlines in the process. These processes can repeat through drafting, initial team feedback, and even reviewer feedback on the manuscript.

Editorial work on the completed manuscript: In the final stage, comments and edits are collected for the manuscript on an accompanying spreadsheet, facilitating their examination by all participants and avoiding the challenges of multiple commenters on a single document.

The authors note that their evolving process as part of the “Nutrient Network” has resulted in over 100 collaboratively authored papers. Sixty-three percent of the lead authors of this set were untenured faculty at the time of publication.

Lessons in collaborative authorship

Students can experience the same kinds of meaningful authorship as faculty when collaborative writing projects include the features outlined in the article: Transparency, Roles and Tasks, and Openness to Feedback.


Making your expectations as explicit as you can is one example of transparency. While spelling out expectations and providing models is always a good teaching practice, the instructional value of explicitness multiplies for writing teams. For one, student examples, professional models, and specific requirements provide common points of reference for teammates who are tasked with pursuing shared goals. Teams benefit from diverse perspectives—but not random ones—so transparency about what you’re asking students to achieve together supports their productivity by providing a basis for comparing ideas.  

Transparency also helps students understand what you mean by, for example, clear, logical, meaningful, original, or any terms you might use to describe effective writing. Being transparent helps students distinguish what you mean from what instructors across the curriculum mean by the same terms, which may go undefined or are defined differently by each instructor.

Other forms of transparency include tools for making thinking visible among teammates: shared documents, use of the comments function in MS Word or Google Docs, suggesting mode (track changes), spreadsheets, and Google Docs version history all help teammates work together productively.

Roles and tasks

The Methods in Ecology and Evolution paper explains how a lead author might give specific assignments to collaborators to avoid duplicated effort and to focus contributors’ attention. Similarly, assigning specific roles to student teammates during peer review, for example, and specific tasks to perform when writing collaboratively helps to focus teammates’ attention productively.

Examples of peer review role assignments might be for one teammate to review for achievement in research tasks you assign (e.g., citations, synthesis, and emphasis on cause and effect). Another might review with critical thinking criteria in mind (defining key terms, for example, or use of counterarguments). And another might check for effective, accurate, ethical use of visual elements (charts and graphs, for example).

Openness to feedback

Being specific about what valuable feedback looks like in your courses helps focus students’ attention on high-priority writing goals. Even a short list of feedback suggestions gives peer reviewers words to use when responding to teammates’ work. Teammates are more open to receiving—and acting on—peer feedback when they know suggestions are congruent with instructor expectations.

Achieving openness to giving and receiving feedback takes time and practice. Some students don’t feel qualified to suggest changes in others’ writing. Some students aren’t receptive to feedback from peers. Unlike professional writers who have long grown used to giving and receiving feedback from experienced members of their academic communities, some students have some barriers to overcome. Your peer review criteria and sample responses increase student confidence that their remarks are relevant and worth acting on.

Do you have a comment?

Do you assign group projects with assigned roles and tasks? How do you balance offering students structure and allowing room for discovery and creativity? Please offer your comments below.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages or teaching resources. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. Click here to schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation.