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Friday, May 18, 2012

Best Practices for Coauthoring Legal Scholarship

I am coauthoring two of my current works in progress, which has caused me to do some thinking about the process of coauthoring.  Obviously every project is different, but I am interested to know whether others think that there are universal best practices for successfully coauthoring legal scholarship.  I'm also interested in insights about coauthoring in other fields, although legal scholarship has certain unique conventions of structure and citation that might differentiate it from other areas.

Others have written on this topic on PrawfsBlawg before.  I'll add a few tentative thoughts of my own:

I think it's important to identify a project that will work well as a coauthored endeavor.  I tend to think that the most successful coauthored projects are those that none of the authors could have written (or written as well) on her own.  I'm currently collaborating with Professor Charlotte Garden (Seattle) on a project about the ways in which the interests of labor unions and racial minorities converge, and how leaders in both movements might harness that coalition of interests to facilitate social change.  It's obvious that the collaboration makes sense:  it builds on both Professor Garden's previous scholarship regarding labor unions and the political process (here and here) and my previous work regarding racial equality (here and here).  More importantly, though, this isn't a paper I could write nearly as well alone, because I don't have the breadth and depth of knowledge regarding labor law and unions to make the most of the parallels to racial equality interests.

Relatedly, in my view it's important to have a relatively clear division of labor.  In this collaboration, we've both read in one another's fields in preparation for writing the paper and passed an outline back and forth to make sure we have a meeting of the minds on the contours of the argument.  But in terms of the initial drafting, we've mostly divided the piece so that we're each writing the sections that fall within our own areas of expertise.  Part of this is pure efficiency, and part of it is the recognition that we're each more fluent within our own field.

Finally, I'd argue that the paper should read as a unified, organic work of scholarship.  One issue I've observed in certain coauthored pieces is that it's relatively easy to tell which author wrote which sections.  While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, I think true coauthorship should involve exchanging and editing one another's work so that the piece presents a unified vision and speaks with a unified voice.  Ideally the piece should simultaneously sound like both of you.  I think this is much more easily said than done, but it's certainly something to aspire to.

I also have a few thoughts about coauthoring specifically with students (see here for additional thoughts on the issue).  I think that this sort of coauthoring relationship can be uniquely valuable.  It often presents an opportunity to work on a project that for some reason isn't feasible to do singlehandedly.  For example, I recently published an article called The Persistent Gender Disparity in Student Note Publication with my former student Jennifer Mullins (American), who now teaches legal writing.  The paper involved accumulation and analysis of a database of nearly six thousand student notes published at fifty schools over the course of a decade, as well as qualitative surveys of law review editors and student note authors.  It would have been very difficult for me to gather and organize the data alone, and my coauthor was incredibly helpful in managing and making sense of a huge amount of information.  Also, given our topic, I felt it was particularly helpful to work with someone who had been a member of a student-run journal more recently than I had.  And while I don't want to speak for my coauthor, I hope that the publication of the article was of some professional value to her as well as of some value in terms of learning about the writing and submissions process.

I'm currently continuing the endeavor of coauthoring with students, having begun work with my wonderful student Kira Suyeishi on an article regarding the use of written consent forms for Fourth Amendment searches.  Kira has already made a unique contribution to the project by undertaking a fifty-state empirical survey of the use of consent forms.

In general, I highly recommend collaborating with students.  It provides an opportunity for mentorship; it allows you to undertake a project you otherwise might not; it earns the student a credential that may be useful in their future endeavors; it allows you to share your knowledge about the process of creating and publishing scholarship, and even more importantly, your enthusiasm about that process; and it's also rewarding and fun.

Finally, a few logistical thoughts.  With students in particular (but with other coauthors as well) I think it's often useful to map out a schedule with rough deadlines for completing and swapping sections.  This helps both parties balance the collaboration with their other commitments.  For instance, I have a shared google calendar with each of my current coauthors in which we've plotted tentative deadlines for various aspects of the project.  And in terms of document control, I highly recommend Dropbox, which allows easy file sharing and editing.

I welcome others' thoughts and advice about coauthoring.

Posted by Nancy Leong on May 18, 2012 at 02:09 PM | Permalink


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Re: “on a project about the ways in which the interests of labor unions and racial minorities converge, and how leaders in both movements might harness that coalition of interests to facilitate social change.”

I realize that this is not in reference to the subject of your post but I want to simply express appreciation that two law professors can work together on such a meaningful project as the aforementioned “convergence of interests” (a bit antiseptic in formulation for my tastes, but it’s in keeping the argot of contemporary political discourse). The late Manning Marable once wrote, quoting Lenin I believe, that “Bourgeois democracy in every form—classical, liberal, Keynesian liberal, Social Democratic—is a ‘dictatorship’ of capital over labour, Blacks, most women, and the poor [bourgeois democracy being only one particular form of class dictatorship].’” We can readily replace “Blacks” here with “racial minorities.” And while we might judge this as rhetorically excessive, I think it captures an important truth that helps us better understand why “the interests of labor unions and racial minorities [might] converge.” Elites from both Black and Latino communities in this country have generally eschewed any systemic criticism of capitalism, the sort of criticism one does find (even if perhaps only hesitant or in genesis) now and again, in the labor movement.

The seeds were sown in this country for a convergence of interests on the national level with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, such seeds found, for example, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where “Local 1397 of the United Steelworkers bucked their national leadership by endorsing Jackson,” and in New York state, where “almost one third of all union members voted for Jackson” in the 1984 presidential campaign. And of course we should not forget why King was in Memphis, where he was assassinated, in March and April of 1968: to support the black sanitation workers on strike who were seeking to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733. Earlier King was one of the civil rights leaders planning the “poor people’s campaign,” for Washington in the spring of that year. The demonstrations did take place, commencing on May 12, when “demonstrators began a two-week protest in Washington, D.C.. The same month thousands of poor people of all races set up a shantytown known as ‘Resurrection City.’ The city was closed down in mid-June,” although an envisaged “economic bill of rights was never passed,” and the Poor People’s Campaign proceeded onward to the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Finally, the life and work of one rather remarkable human being, Asa Philip Randolph (April 15, 1889 – May 16, 1979), an exception to the generalization made above, could justly be said to historically incarnate a courageous and exemplary political appreciation of the meaning of this “convergence of interests.”

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 20, 2012 9:33:13 AM

A friend recently asked for my advice about co-authoring articles. I recently co-authored two articles with some success. (For those class action fans, see Adam S. Zimmerman & David M. Jaros, The Criminal Class Action, 159 U. Pa. 1385 (2011) and Michael D. Sant'Ambrogio & Adam S. Zimmerman, The Agency Class Action, 112 Colum. L. Rev. _ (forthcoming 2012)). For what it's worth, here were my recommendations, some of which overlap substantially with Nancy's.

First, set out a day to just meet and talk about the piece over coffee or lunch. Plan for a long talk, to discuss not only the idea, but the potential counter-arguments and objections one might raise to the idea.

Second, as you talk, it may be helpful to bring a pad of notebook paper – or, if you have an office and a whiteboard, a big marker – just to sketch out how the arguments and counter arguments would flow in a paper. You don’t need to formally outline your argument in that first talk, it’s very early, but it’s important to get a sense about what kinds of topics your article will cover and to refine some of those ideas together.

Third, one or both of you should go home and within a day or two, try to reduce those ideas to an outline of an argument. It need only be a rough sketch, so that when you next talk, you can discuss the kinds of topics each of you plan to research, prefer to write about and so on. You, for example, might like to take on the history portion of your piece, your friend the theory, and both of you might want to break up the counter arguments. But you need that outline first, to make sure both of you have a game plan for moving ahead.

Fourth, meet again over coffee, or if you are working at a long distance, over Skype. The face-to-face interaction helps. Work over that outline together. Sketch out in more detail the narrative arch of the paper.

Fifth, having settled on that outline, lay out a realistic schedule for talking about the research that you uncover for each respective section of the piece. Talking through the research, I find, is really nice. You can set a schedule to talk about your progress once or twice a week. You also will find that, together, you will identify needed sources faster, and you may each identify friends who can identify other research avenues early on. Email them for help. Some of those friends may be good readers for you down the road, so it’s nice to get into contact with them early.

Sixth, try not to research for too long before beginning your writing—you’re going to end up continuing to research as you write anyway and research can easily lapse into procrastination and lost momentum between two parties—and lay out a plan for writing sections out and exchanging your writing. (I like to write a substantial subsection – say 6 pages or so – every other week.) Use deadlines with each other to keep each other on target. Working together, a working draft of an article on this schedule is not only really manageable, but something that can be put together more quickly than you'd imagine.

Seventh, once you have that working draft, take time to each read the piece as a whole to smooth out any differences in writing style, typos, awkward constructions, or unclear ideas. We would typically read the papers apart for a few days, then get together in an office, and line-edit the piece together to speed things along. I actually liked writing in the same room, or over Skype, but I know everyone has their own style for this. I agree that it's important to make a piece sound like it’s written in a univocal way and to smooth out the rough transitions that inevitably can occur with a second author. Take no more than a few days to make cosmetic changes. Should you discover there are some substantive points, or holes exist in the paper – and you will because two heads are better than one about these things – make a point to set clear boundaries and deadlines for any follow up writing or work.

Eighth, don’t spend more than a short amount of time on number six, before sending out your article to readers. Make a list between the two of you of who you know and want to read the paper, and who you hope will read your paper. Then, break out the work of emailing it out. In an ideal setting, you would send out your article by early to mid-July, if you wanted to do a September 1 submission. Otherwise, no rush for the Spring. But send it, even if you both still think there’s more work to be done. Your readers will likely identify more research avenues for you both to consider anyway.

That's all I have. In sum, I have really enjoyed co-authoring pieces, in part, because the writing moves along much faster and because you can work through difficult concepts with a reliable audience—your writing partner. It’s also less lonesome and more fun talking through ideas with a partner who shares your enthusiasm for the project.

Posted by: Adam Zimmerman | May 18, 2012 8:10:24 PM

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