Dr. Ahmad Zaheer Qureshi specializes in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and currently works in Saudi Arabia. He shares his experience of collaborative writing with new and experienced authors.
During the recent lockdown situation, I had a chance to complete most of the researches that had been piling up for over a year. This arrangement worked very well and led to completion of 13 manuscripts by the end of third quarter of 2020. I looked back and figured out that collaborations were carried out with 36 authors from six different disciplines, across 10 institutes and three countries. None of the authors were native English speakers except one. Our work involved around 1000 study participants and various article types. On a deeper thought in retrospect, I realized that this experience provided a learning opportunity for me and other authors in many different ways. When it comes to writing and getting a paper published, there are various challenges involved in coordination among authors. Here I am sharing my perspective on lessons learnt on only the writing aspects of research for AuthorAID readers.
1) Removing the language barrier: One of the ideas of collaborative writing is to have creative waves from different brains of variable frequencies merge onto a nexus. Hence, it needs to be handled differently with new authors as compared to the experienced ones. In the projects we did this year, more than 75% of the authors had less than five publications, with residents and interns involved in nearly 40% of researches. In the initial draft, what mattered the most to me were the ideas; rather than how the ideas were documented. So, one of my recommendations to authors new to writing was to simply convey the idea, no matter what. It could be written even in native language within the draft or could be relayed to the lead authors by a telephone call if finding it hard to describe something. I observed that it brings the new authors at ease and builds up their confidence as they feel adding value to the project by liberating themselves from the chains of scientific language. Later, the language part can be improved through feedback in revisions.
2) Different brains, different ideas: In almost every manuscript preparation, there was unique intellectual input from other authors which I had not thought of. Probably, such ideas would not have crossed my mind if I had decided to write a particular section of draft only by myself. Such ideas not only came from subject specialists or experienced authors, but also authors new to writing or with less clinical experience. Sometimes, the ideas may not be grammatically well written; however, that was not the point. Cognitive attention of different authors on the same subject helps to unlock the intellectual potential of team, which I believe is more important than improving the writing skills.
3) Comparing initial inputs with final draft: Writing up a manuscript is comparatively easier when only experienced authors team up on a project. Creating opportunities for new investigators and authors requires extra effort, patience and pursuance. To me, it was gratifying to see improvements overtime. A close liaison with new authors facilitated them to acquire basic level of writing skills. In this process the new authors were asked to do a self-appraisal by comparing their initial contribution with the final version of draft. They were able to enlist the differences and discuss it with lead authors. I believe that this exercise is often missed out. Some of new authors have reached to a point where they would be able to write letters to editors at their own with minimal help.
4) The role of experienced authors in important sections of manuscript: Methodology and limitations are two important sections of a draft, where experienced authors can play an important role. Even though the lead investigators are in the best position to know the details of these two sections, appropriate description of methodology and limitations in the final manuscript remains crucial. The balance between these two sections of research is given high importance in the review process. It is best to focus on research design in the initial phase of research; however, it is not an uncommon occurrence when poorly designed studies are initiated by new investigators. In such circumstances, it becomes more important to get the initial draft on these two sections reviewed by experienced authors. One may realize that it is probably a bit late to undo some mistakes after completion of a research project because some methodological limitations may only surface during the writing process. The lessons learnt out of such reviews always help in better designing of future researches. One also learns to be open about identifying and acknowledging the limitations of research and importance of documenting them in the manuscript. If an outstanding methodological limitation is identified and one has to go back and recollect data or repeat the analysis, this cumbersome experience brings vigilance to pay utmost attention to research design in future.
5) Your own manuscript is your best teacher: After some time, your vocabulary for scientific writing starts revolving around the same words and phrases. Once you have input from experienced authors, there is always a phrase or two that you specifically like writing Such vocabulary may not be learned during routine reading of research articles, as you are not connecting with those articles in the same manner as you would when writing up your own article. I always found it beneficial for me.
6) Simpler the better: Even though, it is routinely recommended by journals in their instructions to authors, I am more convinced now that simplest writing is the best writing. Sometimes authors, especially authors new to writing, may tend to use some word intensifiers and jargon in the manuscript in attempt to claim merit to the work. There needs to be balance while justifying value of an idea or work while writing a manuscript. This develops over time. Short and simple sentences can help a lot to convey complex information. This should be emphasized when new authors team up.
7) What is important but not relevant: When co-authors suggest removal of certain content in the draft I wrote ambitiously, it helped me to process things differently. So, I would weigh in the inclusion of certain content more cautiously in the future. It helped me to develop the sense of chalking out between “what is important” and “what is important but not relevant”.
8) Templates and lay outs making it easier for authors new to writing: Authors new to writing usually are unaware of the meticulous requirements of submission to journals and are blinded to the struggles that will follow. Also, it is difficult for them to weigh in the quality of article and appropriate journal selection. Since I had gone through similar struggles while uncovering the challenges mainly by self-learning, I made my own templates that we used in our previous submissions and shared it with new team members or corresponding authors. These templates include samples of “Title page”, “Cover Letter”, “References” “Acknowledgements” “Disclosures” “Keywords” “Response to reviewers’ comments” with some instructions on how to set them up based on journal requirements. Some general tips on editorial requirements which are largely acceptable to most journals including font, page and line numbering, spacing, and some ideas on setting up tables and dpi of figures. If a new author is involved; I would write them a layout for a particular section of manuscript relevant to the subject of study, so they can map things by themselves. Their feedback was encouraging. Overtime, I noticed that I had layouts for similar articles which even made it easy for me as well. One long term benefit of such templates and layouts is that they can be used for future researches as well. For example, if I have done more than one article on stroke, I would know what are the usual demographics and basic stroke related variables to be included in a study.
9) Importance of timelines and clarify of roles: Experienced authors may have their own way of carrying out manuscript preparation, which can be quite different from the others. Therefore, it is best to define the process, timelines and roles very clearly.
10) Authors have their own strengths: I have learnt that the revisions are best carried out as a collaborative effort. It is not easy for one author to respond to reviewers’ comments. Authors have their own strengths and revisions can be best carried out accordingly.
Carrying out a research from scratch to acquire a publication is not an easy journey. The worth can only be felt and acknowledged once a researcher has travelled the complete journey by him or herself. This can be accomplished once health care providers carry out at least one research project from the beginning to the very end and at least once in their career or lifetime. It would help them to connect with journal articles at a different level. They would be able to appreciate the effort behind an article and can relate to the process of building up evidence. Similarly, critical reading plays an important role in developing writing skills. For new authors, the ability to critically appraise an article is nearly as important as writing one. There is another important aspect of facilitation and mentoring which has to be balanced off carefully. Sometimes the investigators may tend to acquire more reliance on other authors experienced in writing and may deprive themselves of many opportunities. This needs to be self-recognized by a conscious effort at an early stage.
I am thankful to all the researchers and teams that I worked with. It has also helped me to be a better learner as a student of science.