Information Age Education
   Issue Number 72
August, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available online at

Some readers may be interested in: Two brains are better than one by David Moursund. See

Academic Professional Collaboration

"Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction." (C.S. Lewis; British novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, and lay theologian from Ireland; 1898–1963.)

The co-authors of this IAE Newsletter enjoy bouncing ideas off each other, learning from each other, and occasionally trying to “one-up” each other. Professional academic collaboration can be enjoyable and beneficial, but it can sometimes be quite a challenge.

My (Dave Moursund’s) first book initially had three authors. Our editor from McGraw Hill told us that in his experience, book co-authors often ended up hating each other. Eventually one of the authors dropped out due to illness. After some stressful moments, my name appeared first in the list of authors, even though it was last alphabetically. Fortunately, we two authors remained friends.

Since then I have successfully co-authored a number of books with a variety of people, including several with my wife and doctoral students.

Over our lifetimes, my co-author (Bob Sylwester) of this IAE Newsletter and I have done a lot of individual writing, and a lot of collaborative writing. In this newsletter, we offer some advice about collaborative writing and other collaborative activities.

Collaboration in Academic Endeavors

Situations in which high-level professionals need to collaborate include team teaching, organizing and running a panel discussion, doing collaborative research and publishing the findings, co-authoring or team-authoring grant proposals, and sharing the podium in a presentation. As C.S. Lewis and many others have pointed out, two heads can be better than one. Often, however, both heads are very capable and strong willed.  How can two (or more) of such people learn to effectively collaborate?

Some people find collaboration easier than others. In what follows, we’ll suggest how you might overcome obstacles and deal with the challenges effectively and openly. Keep in mind that in collaborative writing and in other professional academic collaboration, the ultimate goal is for two or more people working together to produce a better product, performance, or presentation than what one can do alone.

Your two authors have had many positive and negative experiences with collegial collaboration over the years.

Each person in a collaborative project should bring specialized knowledge and/or skills to the collaboration that the others don’t have, so that the collaborating team adequately covers all elements of the issue. When appropriate, the team should defer to each member’s special expertise. Leadership thus shifts as the project evolves.

Take collaborative grant writing as an example. Within a team one may be the strongest in the research literature and research design, one may be strongest in budgeting and other financial details, one may be the strongest in developing a detailed plan of action, one may be the strongest in writing and in pulling the various pieces together, one may be strongest at dealing with the red tape of submitting a proposal, and so on.

Once the team decides to collaborate in writing a proposal, they then need to divide up the tasks. A likely candidate for the overall team leader is the person who pulls the pieces together and writes them into a coherent whole. However, any member of the team can be assigned the task of shepherding the whole project and keeping the individual members on task to get their pieces done in a timely fashion.

Since research proposals are often written under severe time deadlines, the whole process can be stressful. Any one member of the team can mess up the works. A spirit of collaboration—and a nurturing but firm team leader—are exceedingly important.

Disagreements are inevitable, so during the early discussions about the project, determine how to resolve disputes that don’t seem to have a resolution that satisfies everyone. Decide on a senior member who can settle such disputes if the group is at an impasse. Allow dissenters the right to edit the text to include their position if the project can accommodate it. If a disagreement is central to the project, it doesn’t signal the apocalypse if one of the collaborators withdraws from the project.

Assuming that the project has a due date, develop a timeline that makes sense to the collaborators’ other commitments, but also that gets the elements of the project completed before the due date. Things tend to get delayed, so allowing for some leeway is a good idea. And it’s also important for all collaborators to complete their assignment on time. Not following through with one’s share of the project is a good way to lose friends.

Select one person to write the final report incorporating what the others have written, so that it exhibits a consistent writing style. The others should edit the final text where necessary, but the principal writer’s style should permeate the document.

Co-authoring Books

Co-authoring books tends to present the same challenges as co-authoring grant proposals. However, a book project is longer and often does not have a firm deadline.

In addition, the co-authors need to decide how to split royalties and the order of the author’ names in the final publication. These two decisions are often not easy to make in advance of the writing. The writing of a book is often an organic process. It can well be that one of the authors will contribute much more than his or her co-authors.

This is what we recommend. Openly discuss the workload, royalties, and order of author’s names issues at the beginning of the project. A firm decision can be made at that time, or an agreement can be made that this will be an open issue to be decided later in the writing process. The important thing is that these issues be openly discussed in a “rational, logical” manner rather than in an “emotional” manner.

Co-authoring Articles

Standard “author’s names” conventions have been developed in various disciplines. See the Academic Authorship Wikipedia article at Quoting from that article:

Guidelines for assigning authorship vary between institutions and disciplines. They may be formally defined or simply cultural custom. Incorrect application of authorship rules occasionally leads to charges of academic misconduct and sanctions for the violator. A 2002 survey of a large sample of researchers who had received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health revealed that 10% of respondents claimed to have inappropriately assigned authorship credit within the last three years. This was the first large scale survey concerning such issues. In other fields only limited or no empirical data is available.

You may find it interesting that different disciplines have developed different “rules.” As an example, consider the discipline of math. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

In mathematics, the authors are usually listed in alphabetical order (this is the so-called Hardy-Littlewood Rule). [Hardy and Littlewood are two famous mathematicians.] This usage is described in the Information Statements on the Culture of Research and Scholarship in Mathematics section of the American Mathematical Society website, in the 2004 statement: Joint Research and Its Publication.

The order of the authors and the number of authors of a research paper is sometimes taken into consideration in promotion and tenure cases. For example, a promotion and tenure committee’s report might include a statement such as:

Candidate XXX is the author or co-author of 30 papers. She is the sole author of six of these papers. In the 24 co-authored papers, she is listed as the first author in eight cases.
Of course, that note represents an inadequate level of analysis. It may well be that in some of the co-authored papers an agreement was reached to list the names alphabetically, and in others that was not part of the agreement. It may be that candidate XXX’s last name begins with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet or near the end of the alphabet. The promotion and tenure committee should probe more deeply into which author(s) did the most research and/or the most important research in the co-authored papers.

In some cases, the listing of co-authors has reached ridiculous extremes. In the summer of 2008, a research paper about the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator listed 2,926 authors! Perhaps a promotion and tenure committee will give each author credit for 1/2926th of a paper?

Team Teaching and Team Conference Presentations

Often the people involved in team teaching of classes or workshops and/or in team panel discussions and conference talks do not spend enough time in working out the details. If the presenters and the presentations are well organized and appropriately integrated, there is considerable benefit to the audience. If not, the results can be quite poor.

Perhaps the key idea is that each presenter brings unique insights to the teaching/learning situation. Each is well qualified to do a self-contained presentation. The challenge is to have productive interchanges and collaboration among the presenters.

Take (two member) team teaching as an example. While one presenter is presenting, what does the other presenter do? Can arrangements be made so that there is ongoing interaction between the two presenters, with one elaborating on what the other has just said? For example, one presenter might give a particular way of looking at a situation, and the second might immediately “pop up” with a different way of looking at the situation.

Alternatively and/or in addition, how about one team member paying very careful attention to the audience in order to determine if/when they don’t seem to be understanding, or when their attention is lagging? This second team member does an immediate intervention to help clarify the issue and regain student attention.

Final Remarks

In business and industry, a great many people work in team environments. How much should each member of the team be paid? How does one adequately measure how much each member of the team contributes to accomplishing a task?

The same types of questions occur in project-based learning. Research on project-based learning suggests that it is an effective aid to learning. However, a teacher is faced by the problem of grading the members of a team, and the team members are faced with the problem that some members don’t “carry their load.” The teacher knows—and the students are taught— that team members have both team and individual responsibility Teachers who are experienced in assessing student teams working on projects tend to give one grade to the team as a whole and a separate grade to each student on a team.

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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