Collaborative Writing

collaborative writingYesterday I came to the end of my first ever writing partnership with a proper academic. We began collaborating in May 2012, and decided we would work together for a year with the aim of producing two journal articles in that time. We ended up writing together for almost four years and produced one working paper, one journal article, and a book chapter (finally finished yesterday, and due to be published by Policy Press in an edited collection later this year).

I learned a lot from this collaboration, not least that co-writing can take longer than you think, especially when you’re working on conceptually difficult topics. My co-writer and I worked really well together, and the publications we produced were definitely richer and meatier than either of us could have produced alone. I also received some very useful mentoring in the process, with invaluable tips on how to optimise journal articles for acceptance, and useful insights into the workings of academia. My collaborator was even generous enough to start by presenting me with several areas she was interested in exploring, and letting me choose the one I preferred for us to work on.

For the first year of our collaboration, we were both based in the UK; after that, my collaborator moved to Sweden. But that didn’t matter; we’d had a few face-to-face meetings and got to know each other in that first year, and email and Skype supported our collaboration thereafter.

We were fairly compatible as co-writers, with one major exception: we had very different attitudes to deadlines. I don’t work at all well under deadline pressure, so I tend to meet my commitments ahead of time. My collaborator worked best under deadline pressure – and, at times, did particularly good work some time after the deadline had gone whooshing past. I found this quite nerve-racking and frustrating, and I suspect she found my timeliness annoying. But we navigated through this difficulty quite effectively, as our outputs show.

I also learned, from this experience, that I really like writing collaboratively. So now I’m working on one journal article with one co-writer, another with another; co-editing a special issue of one journal, and writing an article for another special issue in which the article is sole-authored but there is also a collaborative, dialogic component. And I’m doing another book chapter for an edited collection, despite having sworn I never would.

This is too much! I can do it, and I will, but after these are done I’ll be scaling down the academic journal articles and book chapters. I’m going to aim for two a year from 2017 onwards. No more. I do love writing journal articles and book chapters, and I love collaborating. But I do all this in my own time, and I need to focus more on work that pays.

Costing A Research Project


currency-signs-33431_960_720Following on from my last post about funding, I thought it might be useful to explain a few things about how I cost a research project. There are two parts to this process: setting a day rate, and working out how long the project will take.

My day rate is flexible, depending on the nature of the commissioning or funding body and the size and nature of the project. For example, I will charge less for a small project for a local charity than for a large project for a Government department. I will charge less per day for a long project that offers months of financial security, or for a project where the application is not onerous. And I will always negotiate on rates – at least, up to a point.

When it comes to working out how long the project will take, I break it down into individual elements. Let’s say a national client tells me they want a three-month project to include a focused literature review, 20 interviews with key people, presentation of draft findings at a meeting in London, and a written report with an executive summary (and let’s say I agree this is a suitable approach to the work – which is not always the case). We will also need a project initiation meeting, and I’d need to build in time for correspondence and administration: my rule of thumb here is half a day per month.

The first thing I need to do is a quick check of the literature, as a ‘focused literature review’ takes different lengths of time depending on whether the key search terms yield three items or 300,000. If it’s the former, I start thinking more laterally about potential search terms. If there are lots of hits, I start thinking about how to narrow down the search: I usually start by restricting the date range on Google Scholar and then take it from there. I am always mindful that a client’s budget is limited, and that they are unlikely to want to fund six months of my time to review the literature in detail. In fact, I’m lucky if I get six days. So I need to come up with a search strategy that will work for quite a limited review – and it does no harm to point out to the client that I can only read, on average, 10 documents a day. (Of course the exact number depends on the length of each document, but I work on the basis of a 15-page average, i.e. 150 pages/day or 20 pages per hour (7.5 hours per working day) or one page every three minutes.)

Then I need to think about the interviews. If they’re with professionals, I can probably do them by phone or Skype; if with service users, they would need to be face-to-face. And if those service users are scattered around the country, there are huge implications for travel time and cost. Plus I need to factor in time for setting up the interviews, and rearranging the inevitable ones where I call or turn up and the person I’m due to interview isn’t there. I also need to have a first go at drafting the interview questions, to get a sense of how long the interviews themselves might be. That is impossible to predict entirely, as some people are much more talkative than others, but I have another rule of thumb: for a shorter set of questions (say, nine or fewer) I’ll schedule an interview every 45 minutes, for a longer set I’ll allow an hour per interview. (Unless I’m interviewing school teachers, who are ninja level question answerers, in which case I’ll allow 30 minutes however many questions I have.) Occasionally people are willing to talk for longer than 45-60 minutes but if I’ve got someone really chatty, I’ll start drawing their attention to that within the first 15-20 minutes of the interview to help us both to manage the time.

It’s also important to think about recording and, if necessary, transcription time – which is usually calculated at four hours for each hour of talk. Indie researchers often outsource transcription, to make it cheaper for clients, though you need to be sure the service you use will yield good quality transcripts.

Then I have to work out how long it will take me to code and analyse data (I reckon to code 10 interview transcripts per day, but then I’ve been doing it for a long time), draft reports, and prepare for meetings. So, assuming the interviews can be done by telephone, and the project will take three months, my time allocation for this fictional project might look something like:

  • Project initiation meeting in London (including preparation and travel) – one day
  • Focused literature review – six days
  • 20 telephone interviews (including set-up time etc) – four days
  • Data coding – two days
  • Data analysis – one day
  • Drafting report – two days
  • Preparing for presentation meeting – 0.5 day
  • Presentation meeting in London – one day
  • Finishing report and executive summary – one day
  • Correspondence and administration (0.5 day/month) – 1.5 days

That gives a total of 20 days. I multiply that by the day rate I’ve decided to offer this client, which produces a rate I can quote for the job.