Writing for and in HPSR: the challenges and rewards of collective writing
As young academics and early-career researchers, the pressure of publishing to secure your post, status or promotion can be daunting. One way of overcoming this pressure is to write collaboratively with your supervisor, senior colleagues or fellow researchers. Collaborative writing can be very attractive and easy to initiate, but it can also be frustrating.
This blog reflects on our collaborative writing experience as CHESAI post-doctoral fellows in Health Policy and Systems Research (HPSR). It is a reflection that derives from the various collaborative writing opportunities - together as fellows and with other senior HPSR researchers - that we have had and continue to enjoy. Many of these came about through engagement in CHESAI research and other activities, including participation in CHESAI writing retreats and workshops.
HPSR is a multi-disciplinary field with particular interest in promoting policy analysis and health systems strengthening. HPSR practitioners and researchers hail from very diverse backgrounds, ranging from anthropology to public health. Our attempt to write collaboratively was confronted by the plurality of thinking and writing deriving from colleagues' backgrounds in education, management, natural sciences, development studies, social policy and psychology.
The multi-disciplinary nature of HPSR brings with it many different, rich perspectives on tackling health and systems issues. However, working collaboratively in HPSR also requires you to practically negotiate these multiple disciplinary perspectives, which significantly influence colleagues’ mindsets, sense of value, arguments and writing styles.
Beyond an intellectual appreciation and understanding of HPSR as a multi-disciplinary field, this characteristic of the field has without doubt been compounded by our lived reality; our very own experience of practice as we have, and continue to, find our way through the complexity, rewards and challenges of collaborative writing.
For us, it has been mostly empowering. First, we were able to forge common interest through consistent dialogue that encouraged diverse ideas and that allowed us to engage collectively – muddling through the terrain of HPSR as an emerging field. One very useful method that we have regularly used is to clearly outline the next steps in our writing together. This often results in every member of the writing group sharing written ideas on a common subject, which are then synthesized through several rounds of meetings. It is this same common interest that saw us drawing from each other’s body of work and in a well-negotiated manner gave voice to our various pieces of work, creating space and legitimacy for it in HPSR.
Like most joint ventures, however, our effort to write collaboratively had its own challenges. While some collaborators were committed to the writing process, others tended to place low priority on the collaborative work in the face of competing priorities, particularly when they were not the first author. Therefore, they often seemed unwilling to invest time and effort beyond their stipulated task or failed to participate beyond giving verbal comments and approvals. Another key challenge was managing multiple perspectives and experiences, characters, capacities, skills, knowledge and individual responsiveness towards the process; while understanding the strength and weaknesses of working with each other as a team.
Managing these challenges most definitely required a special set of skills that was only possible to acquire through practice. These include positive persuasion, diplomacy, patience, and open-mindedness infused with the right notch of judgement.
Negotiating a different idea to that proposed by your peer can be tricky; as such it is always worth acknowledging and stating first your understanding and appreciation of such an idea before presenting an alternative to it. In so doing one is able to positively persuade and advance, in a diplomatic way, a different idea while also managing peer perceptions and engagement. At the same time, colleagues writing together must appreciate that they may not always be at same level of knowledge and understanding, especially when writing across disciplines – this requires all to exercise patience and open-mindedness to other colleagues’ thoughts, ideas and questions that may be raised as one seeks clarity.
Agreeing on a topic of interest to all and ensuring members had an adequate contribution to make was a useful way of sustaining interest in collaborative writing. Further common strategies to ensure participation included breaking the writing up into sections and assigning roles and responsibilities, working with adequate and clear instructions, as well as negotiating deadlines suitable for all members. However, the difficulty associated with this strategy is synthesizing the different parts into a coherent article in terms of thoughts, presentations of arguments and language.
Having a ‘date buster’ who constantly reminded members of upcoming deadlines, encouraging each other, and providing compliments and critique were other strategies we used to sustain interest. Sustaining interest and participation and ensuring a rewarding collaborative writing experience can also be supported by giving each member a turn to be the first author.
The joys and benefits of working with colleagues stem from the fact that you can negotiate and demand participation, as well as learn from each other - it can be useful due to a largely shared sense of aim, power, participation and progression in the group. You can also support each other in the process, monitor your own growth and form a series of working groups subsequently, based on shared interest and goals.
Dintle Molosiwa and Gina Teddy
CHESAI Post-Doctoral Fellows, University of Cape Town