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Collaborators physically distanced: How do they do it?


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I haven't taken "Article Writing 101" yet, but I am curious and I hope you folks could provide some insight into the process. I've been perusing some academic articles from journals in my field and I often notice that the multiple authors involved are not associated with the same univeristy.

For example:

Mary Somebody

University of State A

Thomas Otherguy

University of State B on the Other Side of the Country

My question is, how do such collaborations happen? Sometimes it seems each author contributes their own individual data to the article, but if they are nowhere near each other physically, how did they put the article together? (The wonders of technology?) How did they find each other to begin with? (Academic networking?)

Any elucidating responses would be much appreciated!

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One of my undergrad professors collaborated on an article with someone from a university in Canada. On paper, it seems like they were distanced, but they actually worked on the project and wrote the paper while they were in England together. That probably isn't the norm, but it's one way.

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Sometimes the connection is an old one. For example, a recent PhD from University A might be currently at University B as a post-doc but they still have a couple of papers to finish up with their supervisor from A. But since they are now funded by B, and perhaps using resources (computing, library, or otherwise) from B, their affiliation might be listed as B. 


Other times, especially for students, the connection is through the faculty members. My MSc supervisor has introduced me to many different people and I have started working with some of them, at different places. Like laura_b said, conferences/meetings are a good place to meet face-to-face. I think a lot of multiple-institution collaborations start with well connected faculty members.


But for newbies like us, conferences are also a good place to start these collaborations. You might learn about some interesting research related to what you're doing so instead of trying to duplicate each others' work, you get together. In addition, senior grad students / new PhDs and postdocs might give a lot of talks at different departments across the country. This is a good way of getting your research out there so people know about you and want to work with you.


And sometimes you might just notice a great paper, maybe with a great method, that you want to apply to your problem. So, you might get in touch with the authors and propose that they work with you to develop their method to fit your problem. 


Similarly, (although this may happen in the sciences more often), co-authorship might just be an acknowledgement of funding or other technical support. For example, if Prof. X has access to an instrument or dataset that is not yet publicly available and Prof Y. wants to use it, the two of them might collaborate. It's basically saying "you can use my data that I worked for years to get if I am a coauthor" but it's not as bad as it sounds. Usually the reason why the data (or instrument) is so hard to get/use is that it requires a great deal of expertise to interpret/use correctly. But the main research (and paper) might be completed by Prof Y. 


As to how to write these papers together, it might depend on the group. In one experience, for a paper with 28 authors at something like a dozen schools, we had weekly teleconferences to discuss the science/analysis but there was a core group that was responsible for writing the paper. After they are happy with a draft, it's emailed to the rest of the collaboration for comments, they are debated over telecon and then the process repeats a few times until we sent it to the journal, get referee reports, and repeat it all over again. I think it took over a year before that paper was published! In another case, for a much smaller collaboration, the first author was the main writer and she emailed the drafts out to everyone for comments. We would email back the small notes (e.g. spelling, formatting etc.) but discuss the scientific parts over Skype. We also used conferences as a place to get face-to-face meeting and we actually made a lot of progress! I think it's pretty common for an existing collaboration to take one morning/afternoon/evening out of the conference schedule to sit down and discuss their paper.


Sometimes each collaboration has its own internal policies (in the most extreme case with the 28 authors, we had to sign a contract to avoid misunderstandings). Usually each set of comments were due by a certain date to avoid making the process drag out. Sometimes there are disagreements (especially when so many people/groups are involved) so there might be policies to handle that too. Usually the first author is the "leader" and has the final say in what goes where but it's their job as the leader to keep everyone happy too.


With "modern" technology, there are even easier ways to work together now. There are dropbox-like services where coauthors can now make comments (and sometimes revisions) that are immediately synchronized with everyone else. This saves emailing back and forth a lot of files repeatedly (and worrying about whether or not you're reading the latest version). However, I have not used anything like this for a collaboration yet! The main struggle seems to be getting everyone on board with the same software etc. 

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