Writing Collaborative Reports

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Do you need to write a joint research paper or project report, perhaps with several overseas colleagues? Here are some tips to help the process run smoothly. 

1. Choose an editor

The project team should choose someone to be editor of the report. 

Ideally, this person should be a mother-tongue or very-fluent English-speaker. Unless you have a very unusual research project, they don’t need to know the difference between entomology and etymology, but they should know the difference between there / their / they’re, principal / principle and complimentary / complementary.

The editor must have sufficient time to spend on this task. Don’t choose the biggest ‘research name’ as editor; he or she is likely to be very busy and to feel that other tasks are higher priority.

If you get the chance early in your career to be a report editor, do take it. The more experienced researchers on the team will appreciate your doing the work, and it also gives you a great opportunity to ask them for more information on their research.

2. Agree a report structure

Well ahead of the due date, the team should agree a draft structure for the report, ideally at a project meeting rather than by email. This will not necessarily be the final structure, but should include the major experimental method, results, and conclusions sections.

When agreeing a draft structure, it may also be possible to agree – at least in outline – major diagrams to include in the report. 

3. Agree responsibilities for each section

Each member of the project should draft an assigned section – ideally one for which they have volunteered. For most reports, the ‘results’ section will be subdivided into different areas, with different authors writing each subsection.

The editor is responsible for writing the ‘boring bits’ – such as the abstract, acknowledgements and references – so, to balance the workloads across the team, the editor would often be excused from writing major parts of the results section.

4. Agree deadlines for various stages

It is very important to agree a deadline by which each author should submit ‘first drafts’ to the editor. Failure to do this can lead to the report being completed as a ‘rush job’ at the last minute. It can also lead to bad feeling between those contributors who have met the deadline and those who haven’t.

5. When writing a section… 

…be on time with your contribution 

…think about possible diagrams and tables to accompany your text 

…note references at key points in the text; remember to supply the references themselves to the editor 

…if you are writing a long part of the results section, give your co-authors a separate note of the main points of your section. This may help them to produce their sections in a way that links well to your section. 

…do provide constructive comments on sections written by your co-authors. 

…if the editor is American, include as many cricket metaphors as possible in your draft text. It keeps them amused and helps to improve their English. On the other hand, perhaps that idea should be hit for six before you find yourself batting on a sticky wicket? Sporting and other culture-specific metaphors don’t always work in international collaborative reports.

6. If you are the editor… 

…remember you are editing, not re-writing, the document. You are entitled to edit where you feel appropriate, but the important test of any draft text is ‘Is it clear, understandable, and correct?’. If it is, leave it alone. The test is not ‘Would I have written it differently?’. 

…similarly, if you are editing text submitted by people who are not native English-speakers, do resist the temptation to re-write it in perfect English. Otherwise you will spend all your time re-writing drafts for your fellow contributors. 

…after the first draft has been assembled and circulated, when your co-authors send in comments on each other’s sections, do try to take note of all the comments if possible. It can be frustrating for colleagues to submit constructive comments and have them ignored by the editor.

…remember that not all typing errors are identified by spell-checkers, especially when the error produces a legitimate word. Insurance company proof-readers have nightmares trying to spot the difference between ‘you are now covered’ and ‘you are not covered’. Do read carefully – and ask a colleague to check the text as well.

…if your project team has a habit of putting informal comments in draft text, do make sure they are removed from the final document. There is - allegedly – an official international telecoms standards document which includes the line ‘Graham if you find this sentence we will buy you a drink’. The editor missed it when reviewing a large section of dense – and, it should be said, very boring – text.

7. Agree a ‘release date’ and distribution policy

When the final report is complete, agree with colleagues how it should be sent, perhaps by email or perhaps as a printed document with a covering letter, to the key recipients. It would be frustrating, and would appear unprofessional, for sponsors to receive multiple copies of the document from different sources.

Related articles: 

Report-Writing: Some Questions And Answers

Publish or Perish? Top Tips For Getting Your Journal Articles In Print

Freelancing Academics: Raise Your Profile and Income Through Writing



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