Guest Post Feature: How to Promote Consistency in Collaborative Writing

Guest blog post by Sarah Macfadyen, Scribendi Inc.

In the world of scientific publishing, two heads are often better than one. According to research presented by The Economist, the average number of bylines per paper in Scopus was 4.4 in 2015, up from 3.2 in 1996.

As scientists, doctors, researchers, professors, and students continue to collaborate on academic papers, cultivating a consistent writing style and voice is becoming ever more important. In many cases, your publishing prospects depend on it.

Writing a single, cohesive paper with your peers and colleagues presents a significant challenge; each of you is familiar with the research (sometimes in varying capacities), but each of you also has a unique voice.

It is therefore necessary to be intentional about ensuring your collaborative writing is consistent and cohesive despite its many authors. The following practical tips will help you write a seamless co-authored paper.

Decide on stylistic conventions before you write

When writing for a specific journal or institution, authors are usually expected to follow a prescribed style guide. However, these guidelines often focus on citation conventions and don’t always mention style-related grammar, spelling, and punctuation conventions.

For this reason, it can be helpful to develop a shared style guide that all contributors follow. Decide on general rules as a group before you begin writing, and update the list as stylistic decisions are made during the writing process.

As you develop your style guide, be sure to discuss common gray areas of grammar, punctuation, and formatting, such as the following:

  1. Which acronyms you’ll use
  2. Acronyms that are standard in your field and used more than once in your paper should be defined upon first use and used consistently thereafter. If slightly different versions or definitions of an acronym exist, discuss these with your co-authors and make sure everyone agrees on their meaning and usage.

  3. Which variety of English you’ll use
  4. This will be dictated by the country in which you’re submitting the paper. However, if some collaborators hail from different countries, it is helpful to confirm whether American English, British English, or another variety will be used, as this will help you avoid inconsistencies in spelling (e.g., labor vs. labour) and punctuation (e.g., whether to use single or double quotation marks when directly quoting a source).

  5. Whether to use the serial (or Oxford) comma
  6. In many cases, use of the serial comma (that is, the comma before the word “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items) is dictated by the variety of English being used. British and Australian English tend to omit the serial comma, while American and Canadian English include it. This is not true across the board, though, so you should always adhere to the guidelines of the institution for which you’re writing. If no direction is given, make sure you and your fellow authors are consistent in either using the serial comma or omitting it.

Designate an author to proofread the document after each revision

Ensuring that all authors are on the same page about common stylistic discrepancies is a good first step, but there are bound to be differences in the authors’ tones and writing styles. To eliminate these, designate a single author—either the project’s lead author or the author with the highest language proficiency—to review the entire document at various stages of the writing process and point out inconsistencies so they can be resolved early.

Communicate about content and form

The best way to promote consistency is simply to communicate with your co-authors. In addition to discussing various aspects of grammar and punctuation before writing, you should talk about the tone and format you will use in your paper. This will help you foster a consistent feel throughout the article and avoid duplicate content within the piece.

Look at comparable research in your field (e.g., other articles recently published in your target journal) to get an idea of how formal you must be, how much description to provide, and what sections to include. Share these example articles with all members of the group to enable the collaborators to cultivate a unified vision for the final paper.

Account for individual strengths and weaknesses

If you are working with authors who have varying levels of linguistic proficiency (e.g., a native English speaker who loves grammar versus someone who is learning English as a second language), it’s important to be open and thoughtful and to discuss how this will affect the final product. If one of your co-authors struggles with grammar, consider having another author who excels in this area work with that person to ensure that the meaning comes across clearly and accurately.

It’s important to establish the precedent that no author will significantly edit another author’s work without permission but will instead suggest changes and discuss concerns with the original author, using comments. A balance must be struck between keeping a consistent voice and preserving the integrity of each writer’s contribution. Enlisting a professional editing service such as Scribendi (which is listed in the Journals and Services sections of Overleaf) can help you and your co-authors strike this balance.

Image showing Scribendi listed in Overleaf's Journals and Services section.

Assign an author to oversee citation

Inconsistencies can abound in bibliographies and in-text citations. The journal or institution to which you’re submitting the paper will likely provide specific style conventions you must follow when citing your sources. To make sure all authors have adhered to the style guide, assign one author to review citations in the entire document and check for accuracy and consistency.

Citation can become complicated, but don’t be tempted to cut corners or take risks. Even if it’s accidental, a missed or improperly cited source leaves you open to accusations of plagiarism. Citing your sources properly and consistently is the only way to avoid plagiarism.

When collaborating, insist on consistency

Writing with a group of people presents a significant challenge, as each author brings a unique style, voice, and skill set to the equation. Writing an academic document is even more difficult, as you are working with complex language and ideas while attempting to share your research in a way that is compelling and accurate. Establishing open and constant communication between authors is the best way to promote consistency. Through this approach, you can ensure that the final product will not only be unified in tone, grammar, and format but will also be a sound piece of writing of which you and your collaborators can be proud.