Science is increasingly done in large teams , making it more likely that papers
will be written by several authors from different institutes, disciplines, and cultural
backgrounds. A small number of “Ten simple rules” papers have been written on collaboration
[2, 3] and on writing [4, 5] but not on combining the two. Collaborative writing with
multiple authors has additional challenges, including varied levels of engagement
of coauthors, provision of fair credit through authorship or acknowledgements, acceptance
of a diversity of work styles, and the need for clear communication. Miscommunication,
a lack of leadership, and inappropriate tools or writing approaches can lead to frustration,
delay of publication, or even the termination of a project.
To provide insight into collaborative writing, we use our experience from the Global
Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON)  to frame 10 simple rules for collaboratively
writing a multi-authored paper. We consider a collaborative multi-authored paper to
have three or more people from at least two different institutions. A multi-authored
paper can be a result of a single discrete research project or the outcome of a larger
research program that includes other papers based on common data or methods. The writing
of a multi-authored paper is embedded within a broader context of planning and collaboration
among team members. Our recommended rules include elements of both the planning and
writing of a paper, and they can be iterative, although we have listed them in numerical
order. It will help to revisit the rules frequently throughout the writing process.
With the 10 rules outlined below, we aim to provide a foundation for writing multi-authored
papers and conducting exciting and influential science.
Rule 1: Build your writing team wisely
The writing team is formed at the beginning of the writing process. This can happen
at different stages of a research project. Your writing team should be built upon
the expertise and interest of your coauthors. A good way to start is to review the
initial goal of the research project and to gather everyone’s expectations for the
paper, allowing all team members to decide whether they want to be involved in the
writing. This step is normally initiated by the research project leader(s). When appointing
the writing team, ensure that the team has the collective expertise required to write
the paper and stay open to bringing in new people if required. If you need to add
a coauthor at a later stage, discuss this first with the team (Rule 8) and be clear
as to how the person can contribute to the paper and qualify as a coauthor (Rules
4 and 10). When in doubt about selecting coauthors, in general we suggest to opt for
being inclusive. A shared list with contact information and the contribution of all
active coauthors is useful for keeping track of who is involved throughout the writing
In order to share the workload and increase the involvement of all coauthors during
the writing process, you can distribute specific roles within the team (e.g., a team
leader and a facilitator [see Rule 2] and a note taker [see Rule 8]).
Rule 2: If you take the lead, provide leadership
Leadership is critical for a multi-authored paper to be written in a timely and satisfactory
manner. This is especially true for large, joint projects. The leader of the writing
process and first author typically are the same person, but they don’t have to be.
The leader is the contact person for the group, keeps the writing moving forward,
and generally should manage the writing process through to publication. It is key
that the leader provides strong communication and feedback and acknowledges contributions
from the group. The leader should incorporate flexibility with respect to timelines
and group decisions. For different leadership styles, refer to [7, 8].
When developing collaborative multi-authored papers, the leader should allow time
for all voices to be heard. In general, we recommend leading multi-authored papers
through consensus building and not hierarchically because the manuscript should represent
the views of all authors (Rule 9). At the same time, the leader needs to be able to
make difficult decisions about manuscript structure, content, and author contributions
by maintaining oversight of the project as a whole.
Finally, a good leader must know when to delegate tasks and share the workload, e.g.,
by delegating facilitators for a meeting or assigning responsibilities and subleaders
for sections of a manuscript. At times, this may include recognizing that something
has changed, e.g., a change in work commitments by a coauthor or a shift in the paper’s
focus. In such a case, it may be timely for someone else to step in as leader and
possibly also as first author, while the previous leader’s work is acknowledged in
the manuscript or as a coauthor (Rule 4).
Rule 3: Create a data management plan
If not already implemented at the start of the research project, we recommend that
you implement a data management plan (DMP) that is circulated at an early stage of
the writing process and agreed upon by all coauthors (see also  and https://dmptool.org/;
https://dmponline.dcc.ac.uk/). The DMP should outline how project data will be shared,
versioned, stored, and curated and also details of who within the team will have access
to the (raw) data during and post publication.
Multi-authored papers often use and/or produce large datasets originating from a variety
of sources or data contributors. Each of these sources may have different demands
about how data and code are used and shared during analysis and writing and after
publication. Previous articles published in the “Ten simple rules” series provide
guidance on the ethics of big-data research , how to enable multi-site collaborations
through open data sharing , how to store data , and how to curate data .
As many journals now require datasets to be shared through an open access platform
as a prerequisite to paper publication, the DMP should include detail on how this
will be achieved and what data (including metadata) will be included in the final
Your DMP should not be a complicated, detailed document and can often be summarized
in a couple of paragraphs. Once your DMP is finalized, all data providers and coauthors
should confirm that they agree with the plan and that their institutional and/or funding
agency obligations are met. It is our experience within GLEON that these obligations
vary widely across the research community, particularly at an intercontinental scale.
Rule 4: Jointly decide on authorship guidelines
Defining authorship and author order are longstanding issues in science . In order
to avoid conflict, you should be clear early on in the research project what level
of participation is required for authorship. You can do this by creating a set of
guidelines to define the contributions and tasks worthy of authorship. For an authorship
policy template, see  and check your institute’s and the journal’s authorship
guidelines. For example, generating ideas, funding acquisition, data collection or
provision, analyses, drafting figures and tables, and writing sections of text are
discrete tasks that can constitute contributions for authorship (see, e.g., the CRediT
system: http://docs.casrai.org/CRediT ). All authors are expected to participate
in multiple tasks, in addition to editing and approving the final document. It is
debated whether merely providing data does qualify for coauthorship. If data provision
is not felt to be grounds for coauthorship, you should acknowledge the data provider
in the Acknowledgments .
Your authorship guidelines can also increase transparency and help to clarify author
order. If coauthors have contributed to the paper at different levels, task-tracking
and indicating author activity on various tasks can help establish author order, with
the person who contributed most in the front. Other options include groupings based
on level of activity  or having the core group in the front and all other authors
listed alphabetically. If every coauthor contributed equally, you can use alphabetical
order  or randomly assigned order . Joint first authorship should be considered
when appropriate. We encourage you to make a statement about author order (e.g., )
and to generate authorship attribution statements; many journals will include these
as part of the Acknowledgments if a separate statement is not formally required. For
those who do not meet expectations for authorship, an alternative to authorship is
to list contributors in the Acknowledgments . Be aware of coauthors’ expectations
and disciplinary, cultural, and other norms in what constitutes author order. For
example, in some disciplines, the last author is used to indicate the academic advisor
or team leader. We recommend revisiting definitions of authorship and author order
frequently because roles and responsibilities may change during the writing process.
Rule 5: Decide on a writing strategy
The writing strategy should be adapted according to the needs of the team (white shapes
in Fig 1) and based on the framework given through external factors (gray shapes in
Fig 1). For example, a research paper that uses wide-ranging data might have several
coauthors but one principal writer (e.g., a PhD candidate) who was conducting the
analysis, whereas a comment or review in a specific research field might be written
jointly by all coauthors based on parallel discussion. In most cases, the approach
that everyone writes on everything is not possible and is very inefficient. Most commonly,
the paper is split into sub-sections based on what aspects of the research the coauthors
have been responsible for or based on expertise and interest of the coauthors. Regardless
of which writing strategy you choose, the importance of engaging all team members
in defining the narrative, format, and structure of the paper cannot be overstated;
this will preempt having to rewrite or delete sections later.
Decision chart for writing strategy.
Different writing strategies ranging from very inclusive to minimally inclusive: group
writing = everyone writes on everything; subgroup writing = document is split up into
expertise areas, each individual contributes to a subsection; core writing group =
a subgroup of a few coauthors writes the paper; scribe writing = one person writes
based on previous group discussions; principal writer = one person drafts and writes
the paper (writing styles adapted from ). Which writing strategy you choose depends
on external factors (filled, gray shapes), such as the interdisciplinarity of the
study or the time pressure of the paper to be published, and affects the payback (dashed,
white shapes). An increasing height of the shape indicates an increasing quantity
of the decision criteria, such as the interdisciplinarity, diversity, feasibility,
For an efficient writing process, try to use the active voice in suggestions and make
direct edits rather than simply stating that a section needs revision. For all writing
strategies, the lead author(s) has to ensure that the completed text is cohesive.
Rule 6: Choose digital tools to suit your needs
A suitable technology for writing your multi-authored paper depends upon your chosen
writing approach (Rule 5). For projects in which the whole group writes together,
synchronous technologies such as Google Docs or Overleaf work well by allowing for
interactive writing that facilitates version control (see also ). In contrast,
papers written sequentially, in parallel by subsections, or by only one author may
allow for using conventional programs such as Microsoft Word or LibreOffice. In any
case, you should create a plan early on for version control, comments, and tracking
changes. Regularly mark the version of the document, e.g., by including the current
date in the file name. When working offline and distributing the document, add initials
in the file name to indicate the progress and most recent editor.
High-quality communication is important for efficient discussion on the paper’s content.
When picking a virtual meeting technology, consider the number of participants permitted
in a single group call, ability to record the meeting, audio and visual quality, and
the need for additional features such as screencasting or real-time notes. Especially
for large groups, it can be helpful for people who are not currently speaking to mute
their microphones (blocking background noise), to use the video for nonverbal communication
(e.g., to show approval or rejection and to help nonnative speakers), or to switch
off the video when internet speeds are slow. More guidelines for effective virtual
meetings are available in Hampton and colleagues .
In between virtual meetings, virtual technologies can help to streamline communication
(e.g., https://slack.com) and can facilitate the writing process through shared to-do
lists and task boards including calendar features (e.g., http://trello.com).
With all technologies, accessibility, ease of use, and cost are important decision
criteria. Note that some coauthors will be very comfortable with new technologies,
whereas others may not be. Both should be ready to compromise in order to be as efficient
and inclusive as possible. Basic training in unfamiliar technologies will likely pay
off in the long term.
Rule 7: Set clear timelines and adhere to them
As for the overall research project, setting realistic and effective deadlines maintains
the group’s momentum and facilitates on-schedule paper completion . Before deciding
to become a coauthor, consider your own time commitments. As a coauthor, commit to
set deadlines, recognize the importance of meeting them, and notify the group early
on if you realize that you will not be able to meet a deadline or attend a meeting.
Building consensus around deadlines will ensure that internally imposed deadlines
are reasonably timed  and will increase the likelihood that they are met. Keeping
to deadlines and staying on task require developing a positive culture of encouragement
within the team . You should respect people’s time by being punctual for meetings,
sending out drafts and the meeting agenda on schedule, and ending meetings on time.
To develop a timeline, we recommend starting by defining the “final” deadline. Occasionally,
this date will be set “externally” (e.g., by an editorial request), but in most cases,
you can set an internal consensus deadline. Thereafter, define intermediate milestones
with clearly defined tasks and the time required to fulfill them. Look for and prioritize
strategies that allow multiple tasks to be completed simultaneously because this allows
for a more efficient timeline. Keep in mind that “however long you give yourself to
complete a task is how long it will take”  and that group scheduling will vary
depending on the selected writing strategy (Rule 5). Generally, collaborative manuscripts
need more draft and revision rounds than a “solo” article.
Rule 8: Be transparent throughout the process
This rule is important for the overall research project but becomes especially important
when it comes to publishing and coauthorship. Being as open as possible about deadlines
(Rule 7) and expectations (including authorship, Rule 4) helps to avoid misunderstandings
and conflict. Be clear about the consequences if someone does not follow the group’s
rules but also be open to rediscuss rules if needed. Potential consequences of not
following the group’s rules include a change in author order or removing authorship.
It should also be clear that a coauthor’s edits might not be included in the final
text if s/he does not contribute on time. Bad experience from past collaboration can
lead to exclusion from further research projects.
As for collaboration , communication is key. During meetings, decide on a note
taker who keeps track of the group’s discussions and decisions in meeting notes. This
will help coauthors who could not attend the meeting as well as help the whole group
follow up on decisions later on. Encourage everyone to provide feedback and be sincere
and clear if something is not working—writing a multi-authored paper is a learning
process. If you feel someone is frustrated, try to address the issue promptly within
the group rather than waiting and letting the problem escalate. When resolving a conflict,
it is important to actively listen and focus the conversation on how to reach a solution
that benefits the group as a whole . Democratic decisions can often help to resolve
Rule 9: Cultivate equity, diversity, and inclusion
Multi-authored papers will likely have a team of coauthors with diverse demographics
and cultural values, which usually broadens the scope of knowledge, experience, and
background. While the benefit of a diverse team is clear , successfully integrating
diversity in a collaborative team effort requires increased awareness of differences
and proactive conflict management . You can cultivate diversity by holding members
accountable to equity, diversity, and inclusivity guidelines (e.g., https://www.ryerson.ca/edistem/).
If working across cultures, you will need to select the working language (both for
verbal and written communications); this is most commonly the publication language.
When team members are not native speakers in the working language, you should always
speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and avoid local expressions and acronyms, as well
as listen closely and ask questions if you do not understand. Besides language, be
empathetic when listening to others’ opinions in order to genuinely understand your
coauthors’ points of view .
When giving verbal or written feedback, be constructive but also be aware of how different
cultures receive and react to feedback . Inclusive writing and speaking provide
engagement, e.g., “we could do that,” and acknowledge input between peers. In addition,
you can create opportunities for expression of different personalities and opinions
by adopting a participatory group model (e.g., ).
Rule 10: Consider the ethical implications of your coauthorship
Being a coauthor is both a benefit and a responsibility: having your name on a publication
implies that you have contributed substantially, that you are familiar with the content
of the paper, and that you have checked the accuracy of the content as best you can.
To conduct a self-assessment as to whether your contributions merit coauthorship,
start by revisiting authorship guidelines for your group (Rule 4).
Be sure to verify the scientific accuracy of your contributions; e.g., if you contributed
data, it is your responsibility that the data are correct, or if you performed laboratory
or data analyses, it is your responsibility that the analyses are correct. If an author
is accused of scientific misconduct, there are likely to be consequences for all the
coauthors. Although there are currently no clear rules for coauthor responsibility
, be aware of your responsibility and find a balance between trust and control.
One of the final steps before submission of a multi-authored paper is for all coauthors
to confirm that they have contributed to the paper, agree upon the final text, and
support its submission. This final confirmation, initiated by the lead author, will
ensure that all coauthors have considered their role in the work and can affirm contributions.
It is important that you repeat the confirmation step each time the paper is revised
and resubmitted. Set deadlines for the confirmation steps and make clear that coauthorship
cannot be guaranteed if confirmations are not done.
When writing collaborative multi-authored papers, communication is more complex, and
consensus can be more difficult to achieve. Our experience shows that structured approaches
can help to promote optimal solutions and resolve problems around authorship as well
as data ownership and curation. Clear structures are vital to establish a safe and
positive environment that generates trust and confidence among the coauthors .
The latter is especially challenging when collaborating over large distances and not
Since there is no single “right approach,” our rules can serve as a starting point
that can be modified specifically to your own team and project needs. You should revisit
these rules frequently and progressively adapt what works best for your team and the
We believe that the benefits of working in diverse groups outweigh the transaction
costs of coordinating many people, resulting in greater diversity of approaches, novel
scientific outputs, and ultimately better papers. If you bring curiosity, patience,
and openness to team science projects and act with consideration and empathy, especially
when writing, the experience will be fun, productive, and rewarding.