Helen Kara FAcSS has been an independent researcher since 1999 and an independent scholar since 2011. She is the author of Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2nd edn 2020) and Research Ethics In The Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives (Policy Press, 2018). Helen tweets from @DrHelenKara. ORCID: 0000-0001-7348-0963.
Su-ming Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and Sociology, and leads the Environment, Development and Sustainability (Whitaker Institute) and Socio-Economic Impact (Ryan Institute) Research Clusters at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her research is on human rights, human development, public goods, development alternatives, decoloniality, global activism, and higher education. Su-ming tweets from @sumingkhoo. ORCID: 0000-0001-8346-3913.
Recently, both of us have been doing a lot of co-writing and co-editing, and it seems to us that quite a bit of discussion can be found on collaborative writing (for example this advice on collaborating and co-authoring, this checklist to enable effective management of co-authoring, and this review of the challenges and potential pitfalls of the trend towards collaborative authoring).
But there seems to be very little out there on co-editing.
Recently Su-ming co-edited an open access Special Issue for the Journal of International Women’s Studies with Anique Vered and Sayan Dey on the theme of ‘Decolonial Interventions: In the Middle of Decoloniality’. Even more recently, Helen invited Su-ming to co-edit a book project, that amazingly turned into three Researching in the Age of COVID-19 volumes, subtitled Response and Reassessment, Care and Resilience, and Ethics and Creativity. These were very rapidly commissioned and co-edited, and were published on 23 October 2020 with Policy Press.
The process was fairly similar for both projects, but the JIWS Special Issue had a relatively ‘normal’ academic timeline, issuing a Call for Abstracts at the end of July 2019, receiving full papers for peer review in November and finalising the submissions in August 2020 for publication in October. The open call yielded 36 submissions, and 15 papers from 19 authors in many different countries, disciplines and career stages.
But the timeline to develop the rapid Researching in the Age of COVID-19 e-books was more intense. A call for chapter abstracts with a mid-June 2020 deadline yielded over 100 submissions and 33 chapters from 90 authors, from an even greater variety of countries, continents, disciplines, practices and career stages. The chapters were commissioned, written, double-reviewed, sorted into volumes and sections and delivered to the publisher by the end of August.
Edited volumes suffer from an unjustified stigma, often being vaguely judged as being ‘lower quality’ and less ‘impactful’ than similar journal articles, for the purposes of academic ranking, grant assessment, hiring and promotion. Articles in themed journal special issues may also suffer from a similar stigma. In this 2012 post Pat Thomson gives cautious advice to would-be authors, and wonders if book chapters are ‘a waste of time’. She rightly argues that book chapters have different purposes from articles and that edited books are often used for teaching, reflect new topics of influence in a wider field of practice and provide good indicators that the author is connected with key scholars in that area. Thomson counsels early career researchers to limit the number of chapters they write and to first ensure that the proposed edited book will have a readership.
Book chapters are unjustly presumed to be either not peer-reviewed at all, or less stringently peer reviewed and therefore ‘lower’ quality. However, a recent chapter that Su-ming authored had five peer review evaluations from three anonymous reviewers as well as two book editors. This seems very rigorous. Also, the process of co-production with editors may actually increase the relevance of an article without throwing quality into doubt at all, through a procedure analogous to establishing validity in qualitative research. In both of these editorial projects, open calls resulted in abstracts that were selected for quality and fit with the open call. The resulting contributions were carefully read and sorted into thematic clusters, these became sections and, in the case of the books, sections became volumes. This thematic shaping greatly enhanced the overall issue and volumes, organically developing a chapter-volume dialogue that felt both creative and cohesive.
Thinking back on the book co-editing, we must admit we had some luck. We are lucky to have found that we like working together and seem to agree on most things. When Helen was asked if she would edit a book on researching in a time of crisis, Su-ming wasn’t the first person she thought of, but she was the first person she contacted. We knew rather little of each other, having met only twice at meetings for the EU PRO-RES research ethics project, so it was certainly a matter of luck that our knowledge, skillsets and working styles turned out to be complementary and compatible. We were able to figure this out early on, quickly developed quite a bit of trust and built on that. Both of us are experienced at working with teams and co-writing and that must have been a help.
While we acknowledge that not all collaborations are going to be like this, we would like to conclude by offering some thoughts on what has worked for us in the form of eight lessons that might hold for collaborative editing in general. We hope our positive experience provides encouragement to others.
Eight lessons for collaborative editing
- Develop sufficient clarity from the outset, but also maintain some flexibility about ownership, responsibility and stakes in the process. Check in frequently with each other but keep these check-ins brief.
- Establish a shared values base that can provide a foundation for trust, and think about how to manage differences in values and expectations. It helped us that we are both explicit feminists, and we can draw on a large body of feminist values and practices as guideposts.
- Respect all contributors and adopt a collaborative mindset of abundance, kindness and generosity.
- Own up to mistakes and try to fix them straight away.
- Humour and seeing the funny side, in the case of #4.
- Keep a basic spreadsheet to manage the project and minimise replication.
- Avoid over-organising and needless negotiation – we are both extremely busy people but managed to keep a large team of over 100 contributors on board and moving ahead by agreeing on simple protocols and sticking to them, such as who reviews first, who follows up and communicates with authors, and who updates the spreadsheet.
- Keep your project in perspective even if it is quite a big project – it’s only one of many things that people have to deal with. It is important to understand that people’s lives are busy, complex, and sometimes hard.