Triple co-authoring

Ah, rainy mornings at the mountain cabin, when you can’t work outside, are perfect for blogging.

A few years ago, my colleague Anders Rasmussen and I co-wrote and published an article on the the Lincoln Administration and the potential colonization of St. Croix with freed slaves.  Co-authoring, I learned, has its advantages, especially when both authors are hard-working team players. A greater advantage still came with the time zone difference between Anders and I.  Every morning, I’d wake up to find in my inbox his contributions and edits to the paper. And every day, I’d send my revised version of the article back to him. In this way, we were like a well-oiled assembly line, with little down-time in the production process. If I remember correctly, we went from zero to published in about 2 months.

Now, Anders and I have teamed up with another scholar, Robert Faith, to triple co-author an article on the impressment of foreign-born soldiers in the Union army during the Civil War. The article was long in the works. We actually began work on it more than 3 years ago, but for all of us, it was a back-burner project.  Things changed in the past few months, as we all cleared off our plates to make room for this paper. The results have been outstanding, both in terms of our productive capacity, and in our research finds. I’m confident this is now the best article I’ve written (having already published 14 peer-reviewed articles in the past 7 years).

Triple co-authorship presents problems as well as solutions. First of all, it can be difficult to know who is working on what part of the article, and when to expect their contributions to be made.  It can also be difficult to know who has the most updated, or master file of the article at any given moment. Now, you might suggest that we work together on a single google doc, but I find that less user-friendly than a regular word doc, and if you ever lose an internet connection (as tends to happen in the mountains), you can’t make any progress at all.  One solution to this problem is to save the article under its name and date, and save it anew every day with a modified date in its name. This prevents confusion about what version is most up to date. Second, I have found that it is important to communicate often with your co-authors and establish likely times that we will be working on the article.  For example, we might agree that one of us is in command until the end of the next day, and is responsible for getting a new version to the group by then. Constantly establishing short deadlines for contributors to finish paragraphs, sections, etc., provides incentives to maintain progress.

Triple co-authoring, more than regular two-person co-authoring, requires a clear leader on the project, otherwise debates about the direction of the project can get out of hand. It is important to agree at the outset on who is the main author, and what the rank of the authors will be. This is not necessarily determined by professional rank, but by who will be captaining the ship. The captain, however, must not merely yell directions, but also needs to do the work of adjusting the sails.

There are significant advantages to working on a team project.  One advantage is that you can have almost real-time comments and edits on the paper. Because we are passing the paper back and forth nearly every day, the total number of times that the paper is read over before submission to a journal will be much greater than if I were the sole author. The discourse that develops in comments in the right-hand margin of the paper helps us work through problems of grammar, style, and organization.  Together, Anders, Rob, and I, batted around word choice in a particular sentence: should it be “pedigree” , “legacy” or “lineage.”   By getting the correct word at this stage, we avoided complaints from reviewers.

Co-authorship requires sacrifice – by which I mean sacrificing some your own written sections when others disagree with them or find them redundant or non-contributory. Again, though, this makes the paper stronger. You might as well have somebody tell you to fix it at this stage, than at a later stage.

Co-authorship, especially among historians, greatly increases the number of relevant sources that go into the research. Working across language lines (Anders speaks Danish, I’ve got Dutch and German), increases the number of sources in one way, but knowledge of different search databases and methods of finding information help in another way.

I have heard it said when looking over a CV., a search committee will not discount co-authored publications by considering them worth only half of a regular publication, but will generally consider them about 2/3rds of a publication. This means that co-authoring is like shooting 3-pointers in basketball: it is simply more efficient, and if done right, you produce more in a shorter time than by writing papers on your own.

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