I recently led a discussion on ECRchat about working collaboratively. A lot of the discussion was about how you find people to work with and what you need to do to set it up. Of course not everyone wants to work collaboratively and it seems less expected in some disciplines than others. However, certainly in the UK, it is increasingly the way to actually realize research projects, to get funding, to generate publications and to manage public engagement.
In our new book, Writing for peer reviewed journals: strategies for getting published, Barbara Kamler and I write about long term writing and research partnerships like ours. We interviewed a number of our colleagues about their collaborations. There was not one that did not extend well beyond the professional. Long-term writing and research partners talked about each other as family, as life long friends, as being more and different together than separate.
Some of the things that the interviewees said were important in these relationships were:
• a shared world-view
• deep respect for each other’s knowledge and skills
• the same basic commitment to an axiological and epistemological position
• mutual enthusiasm for a broad intellectual agenda
• they had invented a process for developing a similar writing ‘voice’ (and we detail these in our chapter 8)
• a great deal of humour
• tolerance of each other’s idiosyncrasies and preparedness to give and take
• the capacity to have time apart and to pick things up again as if there had been no break
We were interested to see how often these professional relationships were almost instantaneous. People read each other’s work, or had an initial conversation, did a presentation or one paper together and knew that the relationship would work.
Barbara and I got together in just this way. I gave a talk at a conference about writing my thesis, we had a chat afterwards and then decided to do a joint conference paper. We had such a good time together – we found we not only had a shared view of writing, despite our disciplinary differences, but also thought the same things were funny, were both closet foodies and frequented the same kinds of shops. We just wanted to keep going and so we invented a work programme that would allow this to happen.
Not all collaborations are like this of course, and there are no rules about how to form deep and ongoing collaboration. But there are obvious things to do at the outset of any joint work – frank and open discussions of work habits and practices, discussion of particular responses that could get in the way of work proceeding, agreement about who will do what when, developing a protocol on authorship.
However there was a something involved in these long-term writing and research partnerships, some kind of je ne sais quoi, which was really hard for us to pin down. We were struck by how people spoke of each other with genuine affection and when they talked together, we witnessed the level of intimacy they had developed. Indeed, many of them did finish each other’s sentences! This was more than simply liking people, but a kind of ‘best friend’ relationship which operated across blurred professional and personal boundaries.
I am lucky to have more than one of these kinds of long term collaborations and I can really recommend them as a way to make the production of academic work a pleasure, as well as work. It seems though that these long term working relationships are things that you stumble over rather than necessarily find if you go looking. You just have to be prepared and open to them when the opportunity presents and take things further if they look promising.