Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I've learned something extremely important about collaborations. It is something that people have often tried to tell me but I didn't have the experience to understand fully. Please note this is not a knock on any of my collaborators but simply a general observation:

You must set hard deadlines for the completion of papers.

I think at first this statement can seem either obvious or irrelevant to many people, but I'll explain why it is certainly not irrelevant.

First of all, it doesn't matter how good your work is if you don't communicate that work to the outside world efficiently. You won't be able to continue your good work because you won't be supported. And if you are in a collaboration your work depends on others, and you must consider others in order to produce efficiently.

This has been really hard for me to accept, because internally my motivation is to follow my interests, and that is it. This is true for most scientists I think, especially after they finish graduate school.

But when you join a collaboration most people are interested in lots projects but they themselves are the lead on at most one or two of those projects. But they have excellent ideas concerning all of the projects. This is where the fundamental problem arises: how do you get people to contribute work to your project on your timescale?

What usually happens is you think of a project and start working on it. You tell your collaborators about it. You think of all the most important issues right away and deal with them. Then you start thinking of not so obvious issues and work on them. Then the work starts to feel like it's ready to share with the larger community. You must do this in order to be supported. You write it up and send it off to collaborators. For the first time, your collaborators start to really think about the project, and they have many good ideas. Most of them you already thought of but there are some ideas you have yet to address. Addressing these new issues often requires work from you, but it often requires a fair amount of work from the individual collaborator because only they fully understand it. So you end up delaying publication for a while, sometimes a long while.

If only everyone involved knew from the beginning that the paper would be released on an exact day, with no possible delay, they would have been forced to think about the project from it's inception in order to contribute. They would have realized that some input was needed from them up front. They would have done this work while you were working. Most of these issues would have been dealt with by the time the first draft was written.

Collaborating is worth while because I learn so much by seeing other people's perspectives. And everyone has such varied skills that the work is always better for it. The theory is that a deadline is an impersonal rule that once established should help to keep the ideas and work flowing more naturally and efficiently.



tamarastro said...

Hear hear! I totally agree. Now that we are working in larger and larger collaborations I find that often papers are written by an individual (or a few people) and shared with the collaboration too late for the collaboration to be of use.... or when the collaborator's comments do arrive the lead author has already expended so much effort to get the paper in its current form they are rarely amenable to major suggestions.

I like your proposal of a hard deadline.... but it seems to me that sometimes collaborations treat deadlines in much the same way as Douglas Adams, who I believe once said something along the lines of
"I love deadlines, especially the whooshing sound they make as they go rushing past".

Erin Sheldon said...

I agree it won't be easy.

My feeling is that the two phenomena, the one I described and the one Adams described, are really two different aspects of the same tendency.

So the new proposal is really the *hard* part of the deadline. I think it is possible if you give enough lead time, but I haven't tried it yet.

What I'm hoping is that after the first time it will become easier. There are some other techniques people have used to overcome human nature, that were difficult at first but are now becoming accepted simply because people are getting used to them, such as blind analyses.

Thanks for the comment! I've been so caught up in the job market the last few months I haven't been posting. I'm going to start again today