Let’s talk about how we write.
The primary output of astronomers are papers and proposals — we have to obtain data & money, publish results, and repeat. Here, I’m going to argue that we should write some of those words more collaboratively.
Our default method of writing was invented when colleagues communicated by postal mail with week-long reply time. Does that approach still makes sense in all cases?
Here’s the standard workflow for writing a telescope proposal. The PI consults with collaborators to work out technical details and the broad themes of the justification; tasks co-Is to generate analyses or to write subsections; circulates a draft 1-2 weeks before the proposal deadline; gets feedback from co-Is; and iterates until submission. Paper-writing is surprisingly similar. While data reduction and scientific analysis are often highly interactive, writing up the results usually follows the proposal workflow, with the lead author writing most of the words.
But we no longer must wait a week to receive letters from colleagues. Ours is an era of instant global communication, with free/cheap tools to collaborate.* So I pose a question: To what extent should we adopt more collaborative writing strategies? Or, as Kelle provocatively asked me, have we reached the end of the era where the first author writes almost all the words?
Before opening this up for discussion, let me justify what I view as the three key benefits of interactive, collaborative editing:
- It’s more efficient. Instead of one author who acts as a gatekeeper, there can be multiple simultaneous writers, without stepped-on toes. This multiplexing is during proposal season. I can write the introduction while my colleague inserts figures, and another colleague cuts & pastes the references. As a result, nobody’s standing around waiting for their colleague to finish writing a section and circulate an updated draft. Also (this is KEY), instead of sending send rounds of emails (“In Section 3, 3rd paragraph, 2nd sentence, do you mean the rms error or the error in the mean?”), you can simply write your question directly in the draft.
- Faster turnaround. As the lead authors proofread the draft, they can simply fix typos themselves, and mark bigger problems as inline queries, tagged with the name of the author they think could best solve them. On a recent paper, when we got comments from our later co-authors, the lead author posted the comments as a text file, so that the first four authors could work through them comment-by-comment. This distributed the tedious work of fixing commas and such across multiple authors, and shortened the time between a circulatable draft and a submittable paper.
- It’s more fun. Science can be isolating, especially on a project where your collaborators are external. Collaborative writing is one technique to draw your team together, especially if you’re geographically separate.
In an upcoming post, we’ll summarize results from experimenting with several different collaborative-writing tools, and seek your feedback about what tools y’all are using to get those proposals and papers written.
But for now, let’s ignore tools, and instead talk theory. What are your thoughts? To what extent do you find collaborative editing helpful? Are there hidden dangers? What strengths & weaknesses have I left out?
*(Getting your collaborators to respond is another story.)