Collaboration

I received a graduate degree working on the oxidative decarboxylation of uronic acids. I am unaware of a single person who published in my department as a single author. Instead two, but often three, four and sometimes many more would contribute to an article. When one can divide the work up between the mass spectrometrist, geneticist, laboratory chemists and whatever else you happen to need, it is readily evident how the number of people involved in an intellectual pursuit can swiftly expand. With history, however, it is a very different story.

As Mark Ashurst-McGee once quipped, “more often than not the historian is a lone wolf stalking its prey.” Four years ago I first started working on publishing academic history. Both Kris and I wrote for By Common Consent and when I had business (my profession as a chemist) close to her home, I met her and her husband for dinner, the first of many.

We were both interested in similar topics and perhaps due to my previous training, it seemed natural to work together. Over a period of months and with the kind advice of some folks at the Church Archives and across the proverbial academy (hi Matt B., Sam, Justin, Turner, and Jill et al.), we set out a plan of what to do, where to present and what to write. Without question, it has been a thoroughly enriching process. To work closely with someone in history requires a significant amount of effort. Still, being able to bounce ideas off each other, exult in the latest archival discovery, and share an insight derived in the most random of circumstances – it is just plain fun. And I believe the result is better than anything we could have produced separately.

But what if you disagree about a certain phrase, or bit of analysis, or entire section of the collaborator’s writing? Well, you dig in and communicate and debate and come to consensus. Kris and I typically divide up a manuscript into sections and we each write them and then put them together. Then we each go through and edit the whole thing separately and together…several times. With modern technology it is easy to track changes in a document and then debate around a specific section in sequential drafts.

Kris and I are almost done with our third project together, the culmination of that first dinner. I have another manuscript that I am working on with Sam and I just finished my first manuscript as a sole author. I am a better historian because of this collaboration; Kris is a wonderful scholar. I will always look back on this project with reverence and fondness. And I hope that it is only the beginning.

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Comments

  1. And how do you recommend finding collaborators, J.?

    Despite my rather extensive network of clients and contacts, including students, professors, professional historians, church personnel, librarians and archivists at BYU, the church, and the U, editors, MHA staff, people I’ve worked with on professional committees, those I’ve come to know through the blogs, colleagues I chat with on historical topics on a near-daily basis, museum curators, strangers I chat up when I meet them in the library, practically everyone involved in Mormon Studies from Richard Bushman and Marlin Jensen down to family historians who contact me because of something in my Trib column, I have been unable to find anyone else working in my areas of interest even to propose a joint session at MHA, much less to collaborate on an article.

  2. Ardis, you make a good point about areas of interest. And what is more, of all that I know you are doing, I don’t know what you would like to pursue for yourself. I’ll tell you what though, if it were even remotely close to what I was interested in, I would consider it an honor to work with you!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve been working with a collaborator on my current project, someone who had the same research interest I did and found me through the blog. I had always done the lone wolf thing in the past. It turned out to be a great experience. Even though we’ve never actually met in person, the result is definitely better than either of us could have accomplished on our own.

  4. Steve Fleming says:

    Perhaps someone could use a blog site where people could list out research interests or potential article and book ideas they would like to collaborate on.

  5. Steve, we had talked about this previously but never massed the staffing for it. I think a research message board or equivalent could be very useful; many medical schools have a searchable database of research interests of faculty. Perhaps MHA could support that kind of a database.

  6. J., your narrative is so convincingly positive, I found myself nodding my head. But how do you handle some of the other obstacles (besides the very obvious one mentioned by Ardis), like the tedium that must come from drafting and re-drafting “as a committee”; or concerns over pride of ownership?

  7. In my experience, there are some difficult obstacles to overcome in doing collaborative work in history. Because a research project generally starts out with a very general question, there is a variety of routes that it could progress along. Based on the evidence that develops as research progresses, one person may want to take it in one direction, while the other wants to take it in another direction. Neither direction is necessarily better or more valid than the other, and it’s often not a disagreement of interpretation of sources; rather, it’s usually just a matter of personal interests.

    That said, I’ve had very positive experiences doing collaborative work, and hope to have more, for the many reasons you bring up in your post, J.

    I think Steve brings up a great idea for some sort of database for finding interested collaborators, and like Sam’s idea of an MHA-backed research message board for such purposes. At the student reception at MHA, we received word that an H-Mormon listserv is in the works, which would probably serve such needs as well.

  8. John Hamer says:

    I’ve had great experiences collaborating in Mormon studies. I’ve personally found people in the field to be incredibly open about sharing their own research. Likewise, people always seem to be willing to pitch in and write articles for a volume or to present papers at a symposium. I was very lucky to collaborate with Newell Bringhurst on the Scattering of the Saints volume; and now with the Strangite volume I’m currently working on, Vickie Speek has been a wonderful collaborative partner.

  9. Natalie B. says:

    I can’t say enough about the value of collaboration. While I was working away as a lone, solitary scholar in my decidedly non-collaborative field, my husband was busy collaborating with his colleagues in the sciences. While I felt lost, alienated from people, and without mentorship, he was working on interdisciplinary problems, working with people in several different countries, and being far more productive in his output. While I recognize that there are times when single authorship is the best route, I think a collaborative system is much better at training new scholars and fostering conversations about a topic.

  10. Natalie B. says:

    #6 – In my experience, what typically happens is that different authors are responsible for different sections of the draft. Both during the process and once all the work is done, lots of editing ocurrs. Typically, the questions discussed in editing are really important, and the co-authors raise questions that make the paper stronger. So, I think it is a net gain.

    As for pride of authorship, there is still pride to be had in collaborative settings, albeit it is often also pride for the team. I actually think that it is more honest to acknowledge as authors all of the people who helped with a report than to write a single-authored paper that doesn’t. Plus, in the age of blogging, ownership over what I write is becoming less important to me.

  11. It’s good to hear about successful collaborations. I think one reason I hesitate to endorse collaboration in the humanities is because the only such projects I have ever been a part of (not counting providing materials to others for a good will or a fee, where there were definite lines between editorial control and hired-gun researcher) were way back in high school. Who wasn’t part of a team where everybody earned the same grade (comparable to equal recognition on a publication’s title page) but where one person did the lion’s share of the work while others were along for the ride?

    #2: I have personal projects that are THIS close [holding thumb and forefinger millimeters apart] to being publishable if not for the lack of perspective and input from someone who can complement my own work with expertise in:

    * American (non-Mormon) utopian/communitarian societies
    * willingness to track down and survey and interpret the papers of some 19th century eastern politicians
    * military organization and history (you might think it’s odd that I need such an expert given my years of working with Bill MacK, but his interest is almost exclusively in federal troops, whereas my two projects concern Mormon militiamen and soldiers beyond their being a foil for federal actions)
    * early 20th century cultural (artistic) concerns
    * late 19th/early 20th century outmigration from Utah, particularly the Mormon colonies established in Washington, Boston, New York, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles
    * the administrative and organizational questions involved in Mormon migration 1850-1900
    * questions of minority ethnic identity in the Mormon/American west, to help with a study of a particular group of French-speaking converts

    But if I were to collaborate, it would have to be a true partnership. I don’t want to turn over my research files for someone else to use for his own project while I’m relegated to research support, and I don’t want to take on somebody who would be like those high school collaborators, riding along on my coattails for an easy publication since I’ve already done so much work on all these projects.

    Anybody with an expertise and interest in exploring collaboration on a project in the above listed areas?

  12. Great post. Besides increased creativity, someone to bounce ideas off of and discuss developing theories with, and the other benefits of collaboration, I see an additional one for “independent scholars” who do not have school/work related deadlines to meet: accountability. I have multiple projects that are “this close” to being submitted for publication–but life gets in the way. Finally, in addition to the idea about an MHA backed research board, I think it would be beneficial to have a similar option for reading/swapping drafts of papers in similar interest areas. Without formally being in the academy at this time, it is more difficult to find critical readers of my work. I would be happy to return the favor.

    Incidentally, Ardis, are you interested at all in the Social Advisory Committee and surrounding social change groups in Utah in the 1920s-ish?

  13. KateB, I’m not at all familiar with them, except for some activities of the general Relief Society. It sounds like something I could be interested in, but it would be wiser to complete some longstanding work before diving into anything new.

  14. Researcher says:

    I just spent a fascinating hour listening to my husband’s observations on publishing and the order in which authors are listed on a research paper.

    In his field of research biochemistry in the United States, it would generally be accepted that the two most important authors are listed first and last. The first would have done the bulk of the research and may have come up with the ideas. The last would have provided the framework for the research and probably came up with the funding. The other listed authors would have done varying amounts of work. They would be listed in descending order based on the amount they contributed to the project. A second listed author would have contributed more, a subsequent, but not last, listed author may have provided only a small percent of the effort of the entire project.

    The listing of authors can be rather political. Examples were given of negotiations to be listed as an author on a paper due to weeks spent editing and rewriting for a non-native-English speaker, or helping with key data.

    Some labs and researchers may choose to list more authors, some may choose to list fewer.

    Here’s an example of a recently published paper in a medical area that I follow. (It is not my husband’s area of research.)

    Licht DJ, Shera DM, Clancy RR, Wernovsky G, Montenegro LM, Nicolson SC, Zimmerman RA, Spray TL, Gaynor JW, Vossough A. Brain maturation is delayed in infants with complex congenital heart defects. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2009 Mar;137(3):529-36.

    Licht and Clancy are neurologists at the children’s hospital where the research was done. Shera is a biostatistician. Wernovsky is a cardiologist with a particular interest in developmental issues. Nicolson is the head of anesthesiology and Montenegro is also an anesthesiologist. Zimmerman and Vossough are radiologists. Spray and Gaynor are heart surgeons. (And as a personal note, I owe my youngest child’s life to at least two of the people in that list.)

    The listing of the authors is clearly different in this area of science than in my husband’s area. Certain of the authors would have done the bulk of the work, together with their various assistants. Other authors, such as Nicolson and Spray may be listed as a courtesy because they are the heads of the departments involved in the research and would have been involved in a broad sense. The participants in this research study could have been assisted by dozens of professionals who are not listed as authors.

    My point: if the field of history were to develop a more collaborative model, which it undoubtedly should, it would need to develop its own model for listing authors and a recognized strategy for knowing what the lists of authors meant.

  15. Obviously, I agree with this. Now I’m feeling guilty that I mentioned only Jonathan in my “MHA with Darius Part 3″ post and didn’t even give a squeak-out to Kris. That whole session was wonderful.

  16. There is a lot to discuss here. Working from the bottom up:

    Margaret, you are from my perspective a great example of collaborative work with Darius. I was pleased with the entire session; Kathleen Flake was excellent as well.

    Researcher, I was unaware of the first and last author convention; but all my scientific papers were dual author and that is a bit easier to work with, though I think there will be politics whenever there are multiple individuals involved. On the several patents I worked on, there were a lot more people and it was typically in some general decent of participation. I’d be interested, for example, in seeing how Walker, Turley and Leonard worked together on the Mountain Meadows volume.

    KateB, the sort of article review exchange is tremendously helpful. Where do you live and what do you work on? In Utah, for example, there is the Working Papers in Mormon Studies group.

    Ardis, I think you are right that one needs trustworthy collaborators. I think that you are in a peculiar situation having so much done already. There are a couple of projects there that I think would be great fun; but it would require that someone like me almost start from scratch, and that may not be what you are looking for. The communal studies piece, I especially think is exciting.

    Natalie, similar to your husband, I was able to write and work with someone who is considered perhaps the greatest researcher in field. That was extremely formative for me.

    Christopher, your point about research direction is important. I think that researchers define the project clearly and have healthy communication, such disparities are surmountable.

    Kevin and Hamer, I look forward to your collaboratively produce fruits!

    Steve, the challenge I see is that maintaining such services is a drag. Perhaps as Sam says, this is something the professional organizations could facilitate.

  17. Steve Fleming says:

    Ardis, why not have a link to that list on your blog as a way to advertise your projects. Collaborative work certainly has its challenges but it no doubt allows you to accomplish a lot more. As I envision the writing I want to do in the future, I’m hoping to work on Mormonism almost entirely through collaborative efforts.

  18. Jonathan,

    Thanks for this post, not only because you are kind in your assessment of me as a research partner, but also in laying out the advantages and challenges of collaborative writing. I would be interested in the “how” of other people’s projects.

  19. Sam Brown says:

    I discovered in engineering that the last author is “the guy who got the coffee and donuts” although in most of biomedicine the last author is the “senior author” or the grand jefe. (This is how noted biomedical scientists have 300-500 papers published–they mentor scores of primary investigators and get final author on the papers).
    It can be quite political as you note, and everything takes careful negotiation.

  20. It’s focused on the Humanities, but [url=http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/examples-of-collaborative-digital-humanities-projects/]this post on collaborative digital humanities projects[/url] has a lot of excellent examples and ideas that those looking to do collaborative work in the field of Mormon Studies may find useful.

  21. I saw this excerpt in a book I am currently reading that seemed appropriate:

    A meta-analysis of 265 studies over fifty-six years found there was almost no task on which competitive or individualistic efforts were more effective than collaborative efforts. The rare exceptions were physical tasks that required little thought and no collaboration.

    Egonomics: what makes our ego our greatest asset (or most expensive liability)
    by David Marcum & Steven Smith
    page 22

  22. This is belated, but I’m in the DC area. I know I should just find a way to con Matt into reading my work… or convince him to re-start his Friday evening discussion groups. A few article length papers I need to get out the door are on immigrant assimilation in the Brigham City Cooperatives, a biography of sorts on a post-manifesto polygamous woman, and several on social changes in Utah/within the church in the 1910s and 20s…

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