Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "Old Maid" Scientist

Myths and prejudices about science are strongly influenced by mass media depictions of scientists in fictional film and in reporting of scientific issues. Why is this important to us, women in science? Female scientists are less frequently depicted in important scientific roles in film and when they are, their roles differ substantially from those of their male counterparts. Those roles typically marginalize or sexualize the fictional woman scientist. Such fictional depictions are absorbed into the social consciousness where they influence reality. Mass media have a powerful influence, especially on young, impressionable viewers. The fictional characters seen by girls and young women can reinforce stereotypes (especially when there are no female role models in real life).

In the previous post, I described the cliché of the male scientist: hard-working, in charge, and dedicated, if somewhat absent-minded and a bit odd. For female scientists, there are six stereotypes that can be found in feature films (as identified and described by Eva Flicker, author of “Between Brains and Breasts—Women Scientists in Fiction Film: On the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence”). See initial post on stereotyping of female scientists.

The first stereotype is the “Old Maid”, and an example would be the psychoanalyst, Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergmann) in the film “Spellbound”. Another example might be Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), a psychiatrist and author in “House of Games”, a psychological thriller about a strong (but cold-blooded) woman who outwits a bunch of male grifters. This type of female scientist is professionally competent, but is obviously single and emotionally and socially stunted. Typically, a male character draws her into a love relationship, but she pays for her vulnerability with a loss (or threatened loss) of her professional status. An interesting twist on this theme occurs in “House of Games”. When Margaret seems on the verge of disaster, she recovers and even gets revenge after resuming her cold, emotionless behavior. Intelligent/competent and emotional/feminine are thus incompatible characteristics in a female scientist.

The “Old Maid” stereotype sends a chilling message about what happens to women who are rational, intelligent, and successful. Faced with the choice of professional success vs. an emotionally-fulfilling life, most women would choose the latter. Heck no, I don’t want to be a scientist if the price is to end up as a lonely, bitter old maid!

Fortunately, the old maid scientist seems to have faded from feature films and TV. However, other stereotypes of women scientists still persist. Next up, “the male woman” scientist.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Dinosaurs Eat Man….Woman Inherits Earth"

The title of this blog is a quote by a female character in Jurassic Park: Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and is her clever reply to the annoyingly brilliant Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) who states, “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.”

Another great quote from Dr. Sattler is when John Hammond (the wealthy creator of Jurassic Park) objects to Sattler’s volunteering to do something dangerous: “Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back…”

And there’s even a budding female scientist (Lex) who helps save the group from the velociraptors by using her knowledge of computers. See clip here.

Where do most people get their impressions of scientists and what scientists do? From the movies and TV, of course. Few people meet, much less get to know a scientist. Consequently, the public understanding (or skepticism) of science is strongly influenced by how its practitioners are portrayed by the media. Film can depict the realities of careers in science and technology while telling a story about the characters who are scientists. Conversely, film is important in influencing the public’s image of scientists and even in developing and perpetuating society’s perceptions (myths) of scientists. Public perceptions of other careers (police, doctors, lawyers, firefighters) are colored by film depictions also, but not to the same extent because more people come into contact with these professions than with scientists who tend to stay in their ivory towers.

An example of the way movies or TV fiction can influence people's interest in science (as a career) is CSI. The huge popularity of the show has prompted more students to consider forensic science as a career. Of course, CSI is highly dramatized and does not reflect the reality of forensics. But it has clearly shaped the public's perception of the field and the people who are in this career.

I think the reason film and cinema are so effective in this regard is the moving pictures used to tell the story. We are sucked into the story and vicariously experience what the characters are going through. We become more emotionally involved than if we are just told the story or read it in a book. The emotional impact fixes the images and impressions in memory. Think of your favorite movies. You can see in your mind’s eye particular scenes that you will always remember in surprising detail.

What is the classic clichéd image of the male scientist? Generally, he is hard working, but absent-minded and often odd—sometimes to the point of madness. Some scientists are so obsessed with their research that they experiment on themselves (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or ignore ethical considerations (Frankenstein).

What about female scientists? I came across a paper that summarizes the different “roles” women play as scientists in film. This article is entitled “Between Brains and Breasts—Women Scientists in Fiction Film: On the Marginalization and Sexualization of Scientific Competence”. The author, Eva Flicker, lists the following female scientist types and give examples from films:

1. The old maid: Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergmann) in Spellbound
2. The male woman: Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) in The Andromeda Strain
3. The naïve expert: Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) in The Lost World-Jurassic Park
4. The evil plotter: Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) in Indiana Jones—The Last Crusade)
5. The daughter or assistant: Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) in Jurassic Park
6. The lonely heroine: Dr. Eleanore Arroway (Jodie Foster) in Contact

Can you think of other examples of these types or any additional types? In the coming posts, I’ll talk about the characteristics of these types and how this contributes to the public perception of women scientists.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Thoughts on Seminar Etiquette

A pet peeve of mine is speakers who stand up and hover while being introduced. While not a grievous transgression, hovering makes the speaker look either nervous or too eager to take the stage. Hovering also draws the attention of the audience, who stare at the speaker instead of listening to the host's introduction. I try to sit in the front row a few steps from the podium, so that I can quickly move into position when the introduction is finished. My first comments are to thank the host for the invitation and say something about the privilege of speaking to the audience.

Another peeve is when a host delivers an atrocious introduction, or worse, no introduction at all. In my experience, good introductions are rarer than bad ones. The rambling statements made by hosts are usually because they have neglected to prepare beforehand and are just winging it--probably thinking that it's not really important. However, introductions are very important, because they set the stage for the talk. If someone is introduced offhandedly, it sends the message to the audience that the speaker is not very important or that what they have to say is not of great import. Poor hosts usually fail in their introductions, not out of spite, but because they simply don't know any better.

I once was invited to give a seminar, and the person who invited me was not there. Someone else who was apparently in charge of the seminar series simply said, "Here is our seminar speaker for today" and nodded in my direction. I got up and introduced myself and gave a brief summary of my background. No one seemed to find anything amiss with this behavior.

On the other hand, I've experienced excellent introductions. It makes a huge difference in my attitude to have a host who clearly respects me and conveys this respect to the audience in their comments. A good introduction puts me at ease and boosts my confidence--both important when facing a crowd of strangers.

If you have to introduce someone, take the time to get some background on the speaker--either from the speaker prior to the seminar or from their website. A few words about their academic background and their current affiliation are a minimum. If you know them personally, you could say something about how long you've known them or worked with them. If they've published some important work, a few words about its significance might be stated. Mention of awards or honors that the speaker has received is also appropriate.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Seminar Manners

The reason I’ve not been blogging this past week is because I was away giving an invited seminar. I give several seminars each year, usually at universities, and am typically invited by a colleague. Visiting a new place, talking with strangers, and making a presentation to a roomful of people can be somewhat daunting, even for an experienced scientist. However, it is good experience and also can lead to useful contacts, potential students, or new collaborators.

The first few times I gave a seminar at another institution, I was quite nervous and felt very out of place. People were generally very friendly and welcoming, but the fact that I was expected to give a great talk, was somewhat nerve-wracking. When people have covered your travel expenses, even provided an honorarium, you feel obligated to give them a memorable talk.

Not all invited speakers are similarly inclined. In fact, some well-known scientists in my field are notorious for giving appallingly bad talks. I remember one scientist in particular who had been invited to give a talk in a special speaker series at the university where I worked. He was quite well known and considered to be an “elder statesman” in our field. His talk was not only atrocious, but insulting.

He used the old-style transparencies on which he had scribbled crude diagrams, apparently on his flight to our city. That, plus the disorganized rambling that characterized his presentation told everyone that he did not consider this event important enough to prepare for. He then proceeded to crow about all the excellent research his group (and university) had done in this field---and that no one else had even come close to their accomplishments—including the members of the audience (who in fact were major contributors to the field).

I sat there dumbfounded, with my mouth dropped open. I was much younger and inexperienced then, but recognized the insult to our faculty. To rub salt in the wound, this guy continued to disparage anything he was shown around campus or the city. I tagged along as he was given various tours, so heard a lot of his insulting remarks. To the credit of the department members, they behaved politely and ignored the obvious insult.

I doubt that this visiting scholar realized what a bad impression he made. He was so arrogant and self-centered, that I imagine that he was unaware of the looks we were exchanging or the long silences after one of his outrageous pronouncements.

Anyway, that is not how to behave when you are a guest. During my recent experience, I was careful to be polite, cheerful, and enthusiastic.—even when I was talking to someone more taciturn. I always thanked people for taking the time to talk to me (during individual meetings with faculty) as well as thanking my hosts at the beginning of my presentation. When I was given tours of facilities, I always expressed interest and asked questions. Any glitches in the schedule or other issues, I brushed off and ensured my hosts that it was not a major problem.

Giving seminars at other institutions throughout your career is not only good experience, it might lead to a future job offer. So leaving a good impression, both professional and personal, is always wise. If you are visiting for a job interview, you obviously want to put your best foot forward. It’s not just the seminar and official interview that are important when you are being interviewed for a job. Manners are doubly important. In fact, it is how you behave and interact with potential coworkers that may determine the outcome of a job interview. The faculty, students, and staff are looking at you and wondering what it would be like to have you in the office next door or present at faculty meetings. Perhaps your scholarly record is so outstanding that it can overshadow negative personality issues. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Retirement Fantasies

Continuing on the theme of self-funded scientists, I wonder why more scientists don’t pursue science in retirement? Especially biologists and ecologists who can conduct a lot of research inexpensively. In retirement, one has a lot of time and no job responsibilities. Being older and experienced, a retiree is also presumably pretty knowledgeable. You don’t have to worry about fumbling around trying to figure out how to design an experiment or what would be the proper method to use in a new situation—as you likely did early in your career. You probably have a file full of ideas for experiments that you never got around to or that funding agencies didn’t like. Even better is that you don’t have to bother with all the egregious bureaucracy that employed scientists have to put up with.

I find it difficult to imagine not doing science. I also know that a lot of people don’t live very long after they retire. This may be especially true of people who either enjoyed what they did (and would miss doing it) or whose identity was tied up with their career. Not having goals or something to get out of bed for is deadly at any age, but particularly so in old age. The newly retired are one of the most vulnerable groups to depression. Of course, most people fantasize about retirement as a time to kick back, play golf, drink wine, spend time with family, etc. The last thing they want to do is work—or anything resembling work. I know once-dedicated scientists who walked away from their labs upon retirement and never looked back.

As for me, I cannot think of any leisure activity that would be as stimulating or interesting as science. I also detest the idea of frittering away my time playing golf or lying on a beach. I could imagine viewing science in retirement the same way 19th century naturalists viewed it: an intellectual hobby. These “gentleman scientists” were typically wealthy and did not have to work, but still pursued their scientific interests with zeal and produced major works (Darwin, for example). Interestingly, the concept of retirement was introduced in the late 19th century.

If you plan to travel in retirement, why not collect some data or specimens, write, or do whatever is most enjoyable to you (science-wise) along the way? If your science while employed involved high-tech, expensive equipment, then you could do something more affordable—and possibly more interesting--after retirement. Delve into a new field. Some retirees volunteer for science expeditions--often in remote and interesting settings. That would be a great way to learn about something new; and because you are already an experienced scientist, you would be an asset to the project. Or you could continue to collaborate with working scientists who have labs and grants and who would like to have you participate (and not have to pay you a salary). You would not have to deal with the administrative tasks, but just show up and do what you enjoy.

Even if you are not close to retirement, it is a good idea to be thinking about what you might like to do in retirement and to begin planning for it.

The time I most enjoyed nature and science was when I was a child, free to follow my whims, with no one to criticize my ideas, with no pressures to meet some deadline. I set up a corner of my bedroom as a laboratory, saved up to purchase collecting equipment and a microscope, and was my own boss. I’d like to experience that again.

Self Funding in Science

I’ve gotten onto the theme of early naturalists, adventurers, and generally intrepid souls who ventured into an essentially unexplored world to view and study nature. Many were self-funded “gentleman scientists” who could spend inordinate amounts of time (years) pursuing their travels to collect scientific specimens for museums and to observe and study remote natural areas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the pursuit of science has changed. Most of us spend a lot of time not actually doing science, but instead carrying out bureaucratic tasks or running after grants to fund our research and our staffs. In a previous post, I mentioned an article in Science called “Scientists Who Fund Themselves”. It is quite interesting reading and made me wonder why more of us don’t fund ourselves—at least in part.

The article describes a diverse group of scientists, some wealthy, but most just middle-class, who personally fund part or all of their research. One person used his savings to invest in the stock market, and now he runs his own lab, mostly funded by him. Some scientists use money made on the side consulting to fund their labs. Other scientists use part of their annual income ($10,000 to 20,000) to help pay expenses, including the salaries of staff, instead of wasting time begging for the funds from NSF. Many of us have used personal funds to pay for a conference trip or for a field trip when we did not have enough grant money to cover costs. But few of us are aware that some scientists have chosen to fund themselves at a higher level. Many who are aware of the practice think it’s crazy. Part of it is the loss of prestige and status that comes with winning grants. Also, the idea of using personal funds to carry out one’s job is abhorrent to many people.

But for some, it was the only way to keep their labs going. One researcher at the University of South Florida has donated $15,000 to $20,000 (made in outside consulting) annually for 30 years to his research. He’s not wealthy, but thinks his university salary is enough to live on. The consulting funds he’s donated has sent students to conferences or to do fieldwork or to pay for journal subscriptions.

Some of these self-funded scientists are driven by a desire to side-step the “time-gobbling”, “dignity-draining grantsmanship process” and pursue ideas that funding panels pan. Interestingly, a number of the people highlighted in the Science article are scientists studying biology or physiology of organisms, but who find they cannot compete with the molecular scientists. Whole-organism biology has definitely fallen out of favor. Not only are university departments not hiring such people, but funding agencies have also shifted interest toward molecular work. What is so sad about this is that a lot of whole organism or ecological research can be quite inexpensive, and these scientists are asking for very modest grants.

Also, if you delve into another field or area within your field, it’s difficult to compete for funding because you’ve not established yourself. One wonders how many good ideas and possible advances have been squelched because the proposal was written by an unknown, goes against the dogma, or does not involve sexy new techniques. And then there are the politics involved in getting grants--no need to elaborate.

Besides avoiding the competition for funding, self-funded researchers have more time for their research. Also, there’s no loss to overhead, which can eat up half of a grant. Self-funders are free to pursue their interests and not have to justify it by showing how the results will have some technological application or “broader impact”.

What a concept! Studying something just because it’s interesting. Sounds a lot like the 19th century “gentleman scientists” who studied nature because they found it fascinating.

Wild Women

How many of you recognize the women depicted in the two photos above?

On the left is Mary Kingsley who in 1893 left her home in England to travel through Africa alone. After both her parents died and she was free from family obligations, Kingsley decided she wanted to travel to Africa to study the culture and also collect specimens for the British Museum. Such an undertaking was quite unheard of at the time.

Kingsley slogged through mangrove swamps, paddled down rivers, climbed mountains, and fought off crocodiles, snakes, and scorpions. She returned to Africa on a second trip in 1895 to study cannibal tribes. She accomplished all this traveling while dressed in the proper attire of the day: long, woolen skirt, high-necked blouse, and hat (I think I’m most impressed with this). She was also an outspoken critic of missionaries and an advocate for women’s emancipation. She wrote two books: Travels in West Africa (1897) and West Africa Studies (1899). She died at the age of 37 (in 1900 of typhoid fever) while nursing Boer War victims.

Beryl Markham, pictured on the right, was a British-born horse trainer in Kenya who is known for her record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic. She was the first woman to make the Atlantic crossing solo and the first person to fly the route from England to North America non-stop (1932). She is depicted in the film “Out of Africa” as Karen Blixen’s young neighbor who is an outspoken, horse-riding tomboy. Markham also had an affair with Denys Finch Hatton (Blixen’s paramour). She later learned to fly and worked as a bush pilot. Her memoir, “West with the Night” describes her many adventures. Although not particularly focused on nature, her book includes some quite remarkable descriptions of horses as well as flying. She died in Nairobi in 1986.

I read the books written by Kingsley and Markham about thirty years ago and was inspired by their determination to follow their dreams, despite the many cultural barriers for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Markham’s book, West with the Night, is quite good—even praised by Ernest Hemingway (although he referred to the author as a “high-grade bitch”).

In the previous post, I talked about “gentleman naturalists” who were wealthy men pursuing their hobby of science, e.g., Charles Darwin. Kingsley came from a similar background and era, but was not wealthy. When she embarked on her African adventures, she had an income of only £500 a year. I think her achievements are all the more remarkable because she had little financial support and was also going against the cultural mores of her time. Later adventurous scientists such as Jane Goodall and Dianne Fossey were funded by grants, but were faced with similar challenges of working in a remote area and with minimal resources (at least initially). There are many other female scientists who have traveled and worked alone in remote wilderness situations—women you will likely never hear about.

Here are some more interesting books about adventurous women I’ve read or have waiting to be read:

Travelers’ Tales, Women in the Wild (Lucy McCauley)—collection of stories about climbing Mt. Everest, swimming Lake Titicaca, rafting in Borneo, and rescuing animals in Vietnam.

Off the Beaten Track, Three Centuries of Women Travellers (Dea Birkett)

Sand in my Bra and other Misadventures (Jennifer Leo)—“weird and wonderful tales of women on the road”.

The Thong Also Rises (Jennifer Leo)—“outrageous stories of traveling women”.

Reading the Landscape of America (May Theilgaard Watts)—stories about her travels to various ecosystems as a student and later visits describing the changes wrought by humans.

The entire series The Best American Nature and Science Writing—an edited collection of non-fiction, some written by female nature writers. If you’ve never read any of these collections, I highly recommend them.

The Gentleman Scientist

I was watching a film about Charles Darwin the other night and later began thinking about these early naturalist explorers. Many of them were able to pursue their interests in nature and science because they came from wealthy families, which allowed them the freedom from having to work (and deal with grant writing). Darwin is a classic example. His father was a wealthy physician, and his wife’s father was a wealthy industrialist. The voyage he took on the Beagle (1831-1836) was underwritten by his father (after Darwin’s father-in-law helped convince the family that Darwin should go).

Imagine spending five years sailing around the world, stopping in the Galapagos and other exotic places studying the geology and viewing and collecting fossils as well as modern animals and plants. Darwin later spent years at his home in England writing “On the Origin of Species” and other works. His father organized his investments, and the resultant income enabled his son to be a “self-funded gentleman scientist”. Darwin even referred to his work on the theory of natural selection as his “prime hobby”.

The term, “gentleman scientist” was coined in post-Renaissance Europe as “a financially independent scientist who pursues scientific study as a hobby”. There were many advantages to this self-funded pursuit: control over research direction, ability to avoid administrative duties, teaching, writing proposals, and peer review. Sounds pretty good to me.

Although self-funded science declined in the 20th century, there are modern-day equivalents such as Craig Venter (human genome), Stephen Wolfram (Mathematica software), and James Lovelock (futurist). An interesting article about self-funded scientists can be read in Science Magazine here.

I imagine that most scientists, if given the opportunity of financial independence, would continue to do their research. I know I would. I can only imagine the freedom and the extra time one would have. The fields of science and technology might even benefit from the fact that scientists are freed from the time sink of grant proposal writing, teaching, dealing with administrators, paperwork, and other non-science tasks. An example: Peter Mitchell who funded his own somewhat radical research later won a Nobel prize in chemistry. Craig Venter is another example who advocated radical approaches to sequencing genomes that angered the main-stream researchers and NIH. He made himself a multi-millionaire, created several institutes and businesses, and eventually sequenced the human genome.

Are there comparable “gentlewoman scientists”? See next post.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Healthy Work Environment

I was talking to my sister today about whether it’s more important to make a higher salary working someplace with toxic colleagues or working for a few dollars less with a staff who all get along. She works in a dental practice with seven other women who all work well together. My sister could work in another office for a somewhat higher salary, but might not have such a collegial group of co-workers. She’s happy where she is, and I would agree that she’s better off working in a supportive atmosphere. She and her coworkers help each other out, cover for each other, and generally behave in a professional and caring manner. That's worth a lot more than money, in my opinion.

The ideal situation, of course, is to make a lot of money and work with people you like. But how often does that occur?

One could ask a similar question about high salary vs. job satisfaction (exclusive of coworkers). I think most people who go into some realm of science really enjoy their work, and many would likely pick the same profession even if they made less money. At least, that was true for me and my generation. I’m not so sure of the current crop of students, many of whom seem very focused on monetary rewards and other perks.

I recently talked to some seventh-graders about science and the research I do. I went to six schools and talked to one or two classes at each school. These were schools in low-income neighborhoods with mostly “disadvantaged” students. Quite an experience, needless to say.

I was most nervous about whether they could relate to me at all (a well-educated, white, upper-middle class woman--and a science nerd). I then had the idea to start out by telling them about my background growing up in a rural area and on a farm. I showed them a picture of me and my father after a fishing trip (see photo) and asked how many of them liked to fish (a lot).

I went on to explain that many of the things that my father (who did not finish high school) taught me about nature and the outdoors helped prepare me for a career in science. I went on to show them successive pictures of me at various stages (college (fishing with my boy-friend), graduate school (fishing during fieldwork), first job, etc.). I ended my introduction with a video of me and my husband (also a scientist) doing fieldwork together. This seemed to strike a chord.

Well, back to the point I was intending to make….The most common question (usually the first question) I got from these seventh-graders was, “How much do you make?” At first, I was taken aback. I then realized that these students were actually contemplating what a career in science might be like and wanted to know if they could get rich doing it. I was not going to tell them my personal salary, of course. So I finally answered that salaries varied depending on the exact job, but that you could make a decent living being a scientist. I then emphasized that the most important thing was to do something you enjoy. I went on to explain that I loved what I do—my job allowed me to be outdoors in nature, travel to interesting places, teach others, and work with lots of different people. I explained that in the long run, loving your work was more important than making a lot of money.

This answer clearly did not resonate with some students, but others (mostly girls) came up to me later and said they wanted to do exactly what I did. So I guess I did make an impression after all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Writing collaboratively seems to come naturally to practitioners in fields that are viewed as being creative. We are all familiar with the writing teams who work for TV shows and movies. Those types of creative works are produced by two or more writers who brainstorm ideas, try out jokes on each other, or act out scenes to see what works.

Scientific writing, in contrast, is often performed alone or with coauthors inserting their text separately, in their offices, isolated from their colleagues. During graduate school, we typically go it alone—with some direction and input from an advisor (but rarely writing as a twosome). Many of us continue this tradition as we move into scientific careers, possibly under the impression that this is how it should be done. Although we may later work as part of a team of scientists to accomplish our projects, when it comes to putting the results and interpretation down on paper, we tend to work as individuals. Many scientists prefer solitary work, while others thrive on the exchange of ideas (brainstorming) and joint creation of a scientific article. Solitary behavior may be a result of male-dominated science, which has traditionally rewarded aggression, ambition, competition, and self-promotion--diametric to truly collaborative writing. Some might argue that multiple authors working separately--with one person later integrating the parts--is most efficient. But is that true or what is most desirable?

This post is about an alternative approach— “collabo-writing”, coined by three authors of a recent article in Academe: William Phillips, Charles Sweet, and Harold Blythe. These authors of “Collaborating on Writing” propose that there are numerous benefits, particularly increased productivity. Phillips et al. report that they have co-written and published more than seven hundred items, including “book and notes, traditional scholarship and commercial fiction” and attribute their productivity to collabo-writing. They offer some insight into why this approach is so effective and provide some suggestions for those interested in pursuing collaborative writing.

Some of the additional benefits Phillips et al. list for collabo-writing are: mentoring opportunities, professional development, and collegial networking. They argue (and this is my experience) that working closely with others to write an article sparks creativity and greatly increases development of new ideas. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon to some degree. I find that working with one or two other people is most stimulating, whereas interacting with larger groups is less effective. For a department or similar group, writing groups tend to increase the institution’s overall productivity. Usually, only a small percentage of a faculty is highly productive, so that having such individuals working with less productive scientists can lead to more publications overall. Junior scientists can greatly benefit from working side-by-side with a more experienced writer. For those seeking tenure (academia), permanent status (government), or partnership (consulting), help getting those first publications out can determine the course of their careers. This can also benefit the institution by promoting a collaborative, rather than competitive culture.

Another benefit, which is not always appreciated, is how collabo-writing can broaden your disciplinary knowledge through exposure to topics outside your immediate area of expertise. Brainstorming with a colleague to prepare a written document also increases your critical thinking skills and improves your ability to think on your feet.

A final benefit of collabo-writing is the opportunity to develop a professional network of colleagues. Some university faculty are actively promoting writing groups, especially among new faculty. Although typically not encouraged, developing a writing group during graduate school is a great way to get exposure to this approach—and could even lead to some pre-graduation publications and a post-graduation writing team. Jointly writing articles with fellow graduate students, e.g., for bulletins of scientific societies, for a popular magazine, or even a scientific review paper, is clearly a way to set yourself apart from the crowd.

My personal experience with true collabo-writing has been limited, but positive. Most of the writing was done jointly, with one person typing and the other dictating. These positions were switched frequently, and we periodically just sat and brainstormed or talked through an interpretation of the data. Bouncing ideas back and forth helped identify flaws or sparked interesting insights. Occasionally, we would work on something separately—preparing figures or compiling information for a table or conducting statistical analyses. But these activities were done side-by-side so that we could periodically discuss some particular point. Once there was a good draft, then one person would take the lead on finalizing the formatting and handling the correspondence with the journal. I described one of these collabo-writing efforts in a previous post.

Some Guidelines for Collabo-writing:

1. Find collaborators you respect (and trust). Starting out with your peers is probably the easiest, then try approaching someone senior whose work you admire.
2. Establish your roles early. In some cases, this may take some interaction to figure out who does what best.
3. Establish a goal and timeframe for meeting it.
4. Do some market research. For scientists, this means selecting the appropriate journal and finding out the journal requirements for length, formatting, etc.
5. Develop a “work alone-write together” rhythm. This pattern is similar to what I described above in my personal experience.
6. Deliberate practice will lead you into the flow. See previous post about what deliberate practice is.
7. Listen carefully to collaborators and take notes when they speak.
8. Seek to piggyback. Cooperation and building on others’ thoughts is preferable to trying to come up with the “best idea” of the group.
9. Subjugate your ego. Keep in mind that creating the best product is the goal, not who came up with the original idea.
10. Finish the play. Make sure someone takes the responsibility for submitting the article and seeing the publication through to the end.
11. Beware of the pitfalls. See list below: