Saturday, July 29, 2017

Collaboration in Syntax

I have had many chances to collaborate in my career.

Most of them have been wonderful experiences, producing beautiful papers that I am proud of (just look at my CV for examples). But some of them (a handful) have been complete disasters. To protect the innocent, I give no names here. In most cases, the disasters did not yield a paper.  Or yielded a paper that is now in limbo. And I have heard stories from others as well. In the case of one particularly famous paper, I heard that by the end of the process the co-authors were not even speaking to one another. So what is the difference between an wonderful experience and a disaster?

One of the positive things about collaborating is that it accelerates and deepens your thinking. Since you are working with another person, you can bounce ideas off them, and they can reject them, or offer evidence to support them, or modify them or connect them to other ideas or literature. You are not stuck in a rut for endless periods of time, because somebody is there to help you out of the rut. And they might have ideas that they bounce off of you too. In giving them feedback, you might add to their idea in some crucial way, creating synergistic effect.

Along the same lines, it is often the case that the authors have different areas of expertise, either a different language area, or a different theoretical specialization in syntax, or a different set of methodological skills. And by collaborating, you learn things about those areas.

So the key word here is synergy. That is the most wonderful thing about collaboration. You write a beautiful paper that is different and better than what you would have written on your own.

Another positive thing about collaborating is that your collaborator can lend moral support. It is difficult to do research in isolation with nobody showing any interest, until the paper is published (and maybe even then). You wonder whether the effort is really worth it. Maybe it would be better to be doing something else, like taking a walk or preparing for courses or watching a basketball game. In fact, in some situations (fieldwork in a different country) such isolation can become quite intense. If you have a collaborator, there is always somebody to talk to who also finds the work interesting. Such interaction lends automatic worth to the work.

On the negative side, if you agree to collaborate on a paper, then you are agreeing to compromise. It is highly unlikely that all your ideas will appear exactly how you want them to appear in a collaborative situation. You talk about the ideas with your collaborator, and if they object, then you need to answer the objections, and this ultimately changes the idea. Usually the change is positive, but sometimes you would have preferred the original. Also your collaborator might insist on ideas that you do not find plausible. So then another negotiation starts.

Problems in collaboration can be of different kinds. One problem is that the collaborators may have different work schedules. One collaborator may find it acceptable to take a month before doing any further work on a paper, but then when they do the work, they do a lot work in a compact interval of time. So they have a kind of punctuated work model. The other collaborator might want to work on things continuously until the paper is finished. These differences in working style can be fatal.

Another problem in collaboration is deciding the status of the co-authors. Is one co-author the lead author, or are the two co-authors equal co-authors? Perhaps a more common issue is the issue of role. Suppose one has two authors who are equal co-authors, what are the jobs of each author. Is the work divided up by data domain? Or by different parts of the analysis? Or in some other way? For example, is one author primarily in charge of the writing. The two authors may have very different perspectives on their roles, and this may be a problem down the road. On a related note, if you have gotten use to one style of interaction in collaboration and then you move on to a different collaborator, you may erroneously believe that the collaboration will be more or less the same as the one you are used to. This sets up false expectations and can lead to conflict.

A final problem with collaboration is that some departments do not value it. What one hears is that a co-authored paper will not count at the same level as a single authored paper. This is truly bizarre and ridiculous. At least for syntax research where one has two equal co-authors, working collaboratively will always increase the total amount of work you do on a paper. The reason is that in collaborating you spend lots of time communicating your ideas to another person, and this can take literally hundreds of hours of e-mail and Skype time. The misconception usually arises from people who do more psycholinguistically oriented work, where each paper has 10 authors, half of whom are research supervisors and lab managers. So obviously in that case, not all authors can get full credit for a research paper. But this model does not apply at all to traditional generative syntax papers.

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