Leading Team Projects and Papers: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
I recently tweeted a form that helps with organizing and writing papers from the brilliant website by Hugh Kearns (http://www.ithinkwell.com.au). The site has excellent forms, checklists, timelines, and other helpful information for graduate students and those doing long-term research projects. A Twitter colleague (@jillian_Swaine) asked if someone could write up details on how to lead team papers. I thought I would describe the detailed process that we use in my lab.
I am a professor in a professional training program. The students in the program will almost all go into professional practice in psychology. The result is that students are extremely competent, they appreciate the value of research, but only a few have plans to be professional researchers. Too bad because my field is one of the few with a shortage of academics. Moreover, our graduate program has extensive coursework requirements and has an emphasis on developing professional skills as a psychologist in schools, hospitals, and clinic settings. And finally, our research takes place in school settings that requires coordination in developing relationships with school boards. Just to add an extra degree of difficulty, I have always felt that self-report data or surveys are of minimal use for most important research questions (no offense — I know, I know, much of psychological research is based on these methods) and I prefer to use outcome data. Bottom line: projects are challenging, require a lot of planning, and student responsibilities are divided.
There are also some lab rules and expectations that are relevant. Each student is expected to be a co-author on at least two submitted papers per calendar year to receive a satisfactory annual evaluation. Publications are also critically important because over 75% of students in my lab receive multi year funding from the provincial or federal government. However, this funding is highly competitive and the primary criteria for success is number and quality of refereed scientific publications. Masters and doctoral theses are priorities for all data collection projects. All lab members are expected to help one another with data collection, data entry, sharing expertise, and supervising undergraduate research assistants. We all do better when we all do better.
I typically develop at least one major team manuscript per year. This is often a literature review, meta-analysis, theoretical paper, big book chapter, or some other major project. Currently, our lab has developed a new theoretical and methodological model of research that requires multiple large literature reviews and theoretical papers. I have recently been invited to write a chapter for a major textbook in the field and have been given an extraordinarily short deadline. This textbook chapter will use the team process.
For nearly all projects, preparation for the completion of the project; which includes building foundational knowledge, supporting improving writing skills, motivation for project completion, development of a trusting and coherent team, and clarity of the proposed project; are typically the differences between a successful and unsuccessful team project or paper.
The goals of team projects are to provide opportunities for students to improve their writing skills, scientific reasoning and logic abilities, understand the process of manuscript preparation, and have experience navigating the journal review process.
The Team Process
The team process for developing projects is variable and can be adjusted to meet the needs of a project and the needs of the individuals working on the project. In cases with an experienced team, the team-developed paper can be quick and efficient because all the duties are shared. In other cases, the team develop project is slower and less efficient than a solo publication or a project with a single co-author. However, efficiency is not the most important goal in these cases. Extra time is spent on writing instruction and development of the manuscript. Time invested in instruction using a team development approach will hopefully result in a more efficient and well-written doctoral thesis.
The pre-stage task for the Project Director is to know exactly what you want project to be, the intended audience, and three outlets (i.e., scientific journals or funding sources) that are ranked in order of desirability. Sometimes a student comes to me with a good idea that may be best served through the team process. But know what you want to do and why you want to do it.
Stage I — deadlines. The most important lesson that I learned as a graduate student is that the difference between a professional and amateur writer is deadlines. Deadlines may be self-imposed or externally imposed (i.e., grants, editor established, publisher established). Knowing when a project is due is always the first step. Before starting the process, knowing the end date will allow you to work backwards to work through each stage. Surprisingly, my experience is that stages 2 through 7 tend to take equal amounts of time (i.e., 10 days to two weeks).
Stage II — team development. Team development has three major steps: who will be on the team, what is the proposed order of authorship, and what will the role and function of each team member be. This issue is clearly dependent on the field of study. In psychology and education there is not typically any problems with having multiple authors. Practically, I find that having more than four co-authors becomes unwieldy and difficult to manage for theoretical or literature review papers. I invite members of the lab to participate on projects with a level of strategy. I like to have at least one member of the team who is experienced and I know I can count on to set a good example. Another member of the team is typically conducting their own research on a related area and I want to ensure that they have a head start on reading all the relevant research literature and is making substantive contributions to literature before their data collection begins. The third member is usually a first-year student who needs the experience and is typically following the more experienced members. Authorship is based upon responsibility and is negotiated ahead of time. Sometimes I have a student serve as Project Director and they lead the rest of the team through the process. That student is the first author. In those cases, I am typically the last author. About half of the time I am the first author and am just seeking some help. I also let each member know why they are on the team and what I expect them to contribute in terms of participating in the process, reasoning and developing ideas, reading and mastering the literature, and approximate number of words to be written.
Stage III — big picture and brainstorm. Stage III is an in-person meeting of the team for a freewheeling discussion. The project director is expected to have much of the basic information and a paper outline prepared ahead of time. This meeting has four major goals: communicate the theme and tone of the project, create paragraph level outlines with approximate word count for each paragraph, discussion of new ideas and negotiation of specific tasks, and assign core readings and concepts to be considered.
Stage IV — the walk-through. This stage is like a table read of a new play. Each person has had time to develop some ideas about their sections of the paper that were first described in the big picture and brainstorming session of stage III. Each person takes turns talking through their section of the paper to ensure that all the pieces flow together. Quite often, readers can easily tell who wrote which section of the paper by differences in tone and clumsy transitions from one section to the next. There are some tools that can help smooth differences among authors. Each section, major paragraph, or table can be described on an individual slide in a PowerPoint presentation. The cork board feature of Scrivener can also be helpful. Any clunky passages or transitions can be discussed. This section seems like an extra meeting, but it saves time by ensuring that everyone has a clear set of tasks as their ideas have been vetted through the entire team. The final section is to develop a specific deadline for each section.
Stage V — the drafts. The section is when each person goes to write their own components of the paper based on the information shared in stages three and four. Sometimes, sections may sound great during the brainstorming and walk-through phases, but when the actual writing takes place; sections may not work out well. Any time that the drafting of the sections of the paper deviate from that agreed to directions in stage IV than this contributor needs to consult with the Project Director to assure that these deviations do not detract from the entire paper.
Stage VI — the shared edit. The project director compiles all of the sections and posts the manuscript on Google Docs so that the entire team can read the manuscript. Any member of the team can make edits, comments, and suggestions. It is also helpful that the references are stored in a common reference management system such as a project folder in EndNote, Zotero, or Mendalay.
Stage VII — final revisions and copy edits. The Project Director is then responsible for smoothing out all the sections of the manuscript and incorporating edits and revisions from stage VI.
Stage VIII – public submission of the manuscript. Submitting a manuscript for publication has become an incredibly complex event. Each journal has a different set of requirements and sometimes the websites can be daunting. Little components such as writing a cover letter are challenging for students. It is helpful to have a team meeting with the screen projected so that everybody can see the journal manuscript submission interface as the process is completed. Because everyone is together, this is also not a bad time to have a celebratory sparkling adult beverage after submission.
Stage IX — debriefing. At the debriefing, the project director gives feedback to each member of the team. The golden rule of group feedback remains: praise publicly and criticize privately. The goal of this feedback is to improve the process so that the next opportunity will be smoother. In addition, a plan will be put in place for the inevitable revisions and contingency plans made for secondary journal or funding source should there be a rejection. Making plans for a rejected paper helps to ease the feelings of disappointment because most papers and projects receive an initial rejection.
Stage X — revisions and follow-up. The project director is usually the corresponding author. Among the responsibilities are to keep the team informed of the manuscript status. Upon receipt of the decision and reviews, the project director should share the editor’s comments and then recycle through the stage system as needed. Monitor behaviour of the team because some members may get discouraged with rejection or especially harsh critiques. The mindset needs to be that rejection is simply one step on the way to success. It is much easier to have this mindset when it is shared amongst the team
This 10 stage approach is enormously complex and time-consuming. All of these stages are investments of time to improve the clarity and quality of the manuscript writing process. The more detailed the support system, the easier writing becomes. The purpose to this team approach is to teach members how to be effective writers of scientific projects, work as a team, and produce high quality literature reviews and research proposals.