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Collaborative writing in cyberspace: A case study

Julie Dow
University of South Australia

The availability of email and the Internet link between educational and other institutions opens up a new range of possibilities for cooperative writing and publishing for which there is much positive and enthusiastic support in the literature. While the benefits are multiple and publications can take on a more international perspective, there are many issues to consider before and during the writing process. The practical and interpersonal approaches to division of labour, planning, drafting, revision and editing take on a new significance when one's co-author is remotely located and all communications are via an email link. However, the speed of communication gives an immediacy which compensates for some of the difficulties

In addition to dealing with the writing, the authors also need to manage the practicalities that beset computer users, even those who are well informed. As a paper grows, the melding of the individual contributions after each file transfer to ensure that integrity of content remains, the technological issues of transferring files, the formatting issues and compatibility of files all need to be addressed, sometimes on the run as issues arise.

What is apparent from this case study of two authors working together across the Internet is that it is necessary to have good interfaces to the networks and sound systems support, together with a reasonable knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of file transfer In addition, the authors need to work out new ways of working collaboratively and communicating successfully in this virtual world.

Organisations - and the people who work in them - need to understand that just as technology has transformed the way people communicate, it will reshape the way people collaborate. (Schrage, 1993)

When two colleagues from a British library school asked me to work with them to co-author a paper for publication, I hesitated only briefly before sending an email acceptance. The task was to analyse the roles of library and information science professionals as knowledge engineers in the development of expert systems. The published literature of the subject had to provide the basis for the analysis and for any conclusions that we could draw about research in this domain. I knew that there was a substantial amount of work required, as much of this literature discusses specific expert systems designed to support particular information tasks, or the broader topic of expert systems rather than knowledge engineering.

As the remote member of the writing team, I recalled a section of the Preface to The Internet Companion (LaQuey & Ryder, 1993). Its authors claimed that they had never met face to face. They lived in widely separated cities in the United States and yet, by exchanging ideas and drafts through the Internet, they wrote their text of almost two hundred pages in approximately eight weeks. This confirmation of the success of remote collaboration seemed quite applicable to our task. I had access to the Internet and was experienced in using email to make contact with colleagues in distant places. I had developed some facility with the shorthand of academic exchange that characterises discussion on professional matters in this medium. In addition, I had downloaded and retrieved files successfully across the Internet. More importantly, writing this paper would model using computers as effective communication tools and it would be a valuable extension to my own practical knowledge of using networks.

It did not occur to me initially that using the communications technology available to us to work cooperatively might be just as challenging as the writing task. Certainly the benefit of hindsight lessened my optimism about the ease of file transfer, though I am continuing to collaborate in cyberspace. This paper considers the experience of using the Internet to share academic research and writing across the globe and is based on the incoming mail messages and the perceptions of one member of this collaborative writing team.

The time line for preparing the paper was fifteen months. It involved approximately two hundred and fifty email exchanges between the authors before they sent the paper to the referees. The authors reflected on the experience gained from this remote collaboration. At the time the abstract for this paper reached the LETA Conference Committee, a co-author sent the following email message:

How about a paper on writing papers by email/networking? This is sort of a semi-serious suggestion. I have stored all the communications I received.
Quite independently, each of us kept the related email; the raw data we needed to analyse our experiences more objectively.

Why write together?

The literature of collaborative authorship consistently identifies the following reasons for writing together in the academic environment or the workplace. (1) Co-authoring papers demands shared creativity to produce a document that reflects the combined expertise and knowledge of all contributors, whilst retaining an integrated writing style. (2) The outcome may develop insights that would be impossible within the scope of a single author paper. (3) Co-authors provide the first audience for the paper and assist with editing and revising the content. (4) Working together enhances the efficiency of the writing and publishing process, (5) promotes professional growth through collegiality, and (6) it exploits complementary strengths of the authors. (Isenberg, 1987) In addition, academics frequently have no one else in their Department who shares the same research interests. The opportunity to work with someone from another University provides mutual support and expertise. It also allows for the pooling of resources and sharing of knowledge that Schrage (1990) argues is vital to increased productivity in modern organisations.

In our case, the size of the writing task and the broader perspective likely to result from collaboration were important determinants in the decision to write together. The task was too demanding for one person to undertake, especially whilst managing a teaching load. The literature review covered approximately two hundred articles on different expert systems, and sharing it made the necessary analysis possible. The collective analytical skills and memory of the researchers were powerful tools in developing different and divergent approaches to the many issues that emerged from the literature review. These factors, together with the knowledge that a team effort could produce a better outcome, prompted the collaboration.

Collaborative writing among professionals in the workplace assumes a variety of forms. For example, Debs (1991) identifies the following:

a group may plan and revise a document, but only one person drafts it; two people may plan a document, one drafts it, another revises it; one person provides the information, another drafts the document, and so on.
Writing together is also a common work practice for many professionals. Davis, for example, surveyed 245 engineers in 1977 and found that they spent an average of 30% of their time working with the writing of others (ruin, 1991). When Faigley and Miller surveyed people in industry in 1982, they identified 73.5% of respondents who claimed to collaborate with others sometimes (Debs, 1991). Ede and Lunsford (1986) reported that 87% of the randomly selected members of the six professional organisations they surveyed sometimes wrote as part of a team.

Remote collaboration

Although there are few reports of remote co-authoring of research papers using computers, e mail and rapid file transfer of documents across the Internet provide new opportunities for collaboration in scholarly publication. Within minutes, authors working in different continents and hemispheres can exchange ideas and drafts of papers from their office desktops, or their homes, if they have access to the systems and the skills to use them. By contrast, there is a minimum of almost two weeks postal turn around time between Australia and Britain, provided that each author could make the necessary adjustments to the paper almost immediately. With this time lag, the joint paper under discussion was feasible only with electronic transfer, particularly when the final deadlines were tight. How, then, do authors work in this remote mode and how do the systems influence their work?

Computer based writing tools that help writers maintain an effective dialogue through their collaboration exist, but most of them are not very satisfactory programs. Researchers are attempting to design software to support authors who are remote from each other that approximates some of the flexibility and richness of face to face contact. Although a number of experimental groupware programs are available, they have a range of problems, including rigidity of scheduling, too much access to the work of others and a failure to take into account intuitive decision making and the nature of group decision making techniques (ruin, 1991). We used the asynchronous email packages provided through our networks to link to the Internet, and sent most of our files using these mechanisms. When we needed to send large or formatted documents, we used FTP (File Transfer Protocol). Both are command driven and have poor user interfaces on typical University systems. With perseverance and support from the systems staff when problems occur, the outcome is satisfactory.

Two of the writers, one based in England, the other in Australia, agreed to take major responsibility for the content of the paper and to share other identified responsibilities. Due to other commitments, the third writer, also based in England, was a contributing author to a discreet section of the paper. She contributed her expertise in this field by acting as an internal referee, consultant and proofreader who was emotionally detached from the content. This role, managed through email with one author and face to face with the other, was important in helping to shape the final form of the paper.

Once the planning was done and the drafting commenced, team discussion through email and consideration of our internal referee's advice helped to resolve possible differences about the content and direction of the paper. Researchers frequently report conflict in collaborative writing teams. Ede and Lunsford ( 1986) comment that a number of respondees to their survey of collaborative writers mentioned the importance of strong leadership and a mentor relationship in avoiding difficulties with shared writing projects. This role was most evident in our project when each writer, at different times, was ready to complete the final editing and submit the paper. A potential area of disagreement was averted because the writers could seek independent feedback and suggestions from a knowledgeable peer.

Approach to the writing task

An overview of our approach to the writing task indicates that the planning processes differed little from those used by authors who are located side by side. The process included:
definition of title and scope;

draft outline plans of content - simultaneous exchanges of suggestions;

clarification of terminology and consensus on plan;

division of responsibilities;

literature search;

compilation of a data base to manage variables in the data;

analysis and interpretation of the data;

continuous drafting, redrafting and exchange of content;

updates of bibliographic citations and integration of new content;

final editing and preparation of manuscript.

The mechanics of working through these routines at a distance and on a long term basis were new to us. This led to much trial and error in determining suitable methods within the scope of email transactions. Simple management issues emerged quite early. One message, for example, suggested a method for maintaining continuity in the dialogue:
The email is going to take some managing. Something we have not done up to now is remail a mailing with added comments. I suggest that in future all messages that are replies include the original.

Electronic brainstorming

Initial planning commenced almost immediately to ensure that when the journal editors called for an outline of the intended approach and content for the paper, we would have a proposal ready to send. In the first instance, the authors decided to develop content outlines independently and agreed on a date to exchange these initial drafts. They returned these drafts with new suggestions or proposals and annotations noting similarities and modifications. This process continued until a preliminary overview of the paper emerged.

From the first exchange, it was clear that there was a high degree of consensus about the content of the final product, if not initially on its placement within the structure. The need to clarify agreed definitions for some central elements of the content became apparent. For example, we needed amplification and consensus on the difference between knowledge based and expert systems and a decision about whether to include knowledge based hypertext systems. It is likely that we would have clarified these matters quickly in a face to face discussion, but when using email participants must explain these matters, as the following extract illustrates:

>A question that occurs to me is whether we are looking at ES only or
>whether we will consider knowledge based systems, ie hypertext systems
>as well.

Perhaps this is a matter for the Introduction. We need to define our 
scope tightly. I feel that hypertext systems should only be included 
when they contain an overt ke/es component. None spring to mind at 
the moment...
Continuous email discussions traversed the Internet until all authors agreed on the content and title. The asynchronous nature of email removes some of the energy and spontaneity generated by face to face brainstorming. The absence of body language, gesture and tone also remove important communication cues that facilitate human interaction and decision making. One can reasonably expect that writers will need to spend more time developing their ideas when using this medium.

Over the first three months I received fourteen email messages discussing procedural matters and defining the scope of the paper. This figure represents approximately half the number of messages transacted. The electronic brainstorming continued over several more months before all agreed on a detailed outline of the paper. The process generated a collection of discarded and revamped material that we saved as files, which in turn provided a record of the conceptual development of the ideas. Generally authors lose this aspect of academic writing when they plan face to face.

As a component of a study leave visit, the authors met face to face to consider the fine detail before the writing began. Prior to this meeting there was sufficient structure from the email planning for all to start purposeful searching and reading. The meeting resulted in a decision to use a data base to collate the information and manage the many variables within the scope of the topic. It also facilitated sharing resources, clarification of detail that was difficult to pinpoint remotely, and it established a firm consensus about the final direction of the project. The face to face contact accomplished more in a very short time than months of mail exchanges might have achieved.

Managing the drafts

Initially one writer commenced a skeleton of the paper using the identified sources that were mainly pre 1990 publications. The other author identified more recent material to add to those sections. After the first draft exchange, it was evident that this approach did not work well for remote writers as the material was too difficult to merge. Each writer needed to take responsibility for specific sections, which the other writer supplemented if he or she found additional material. The challenge was how to integrate the new material efficiently and accurately when a new file arrived. The mail provides one suggested solution:
> My trick is to put the text of each
> new version into italics as soon as it arrives, resave under another name
> and then I add and edit in normal text. This makes it fairly easy to
> cut and paste into the next version, as I print the version with the 2
> type faces for guidance.
The speed of the exchanges offered a challenge of a different kind, especially for our referee:
> I been trying to keep up to date with the paper but this has been
> difficult with different sections being sent back and forth across
> the world. I am having version 4 printed off now, which I
> understand contains everything to date.

Problems to solve

During the preliminary stages, the mail exchanges were short; a maximum of three screens of material. When the drafts, literature searches and the data base were ready to send, the problems of file transfer emerged. Matters that are comparatively minor in face to face collaboration can be significant hurdles across a network. For example, we had access to different word processing programs. This is not a major difficulty when the material is saved in text format and authors share a file by passing a disk between themselves. However, when a file transfers to a minicomputer and then across the Internet, and into another system, these differences can cause annoying editing problems. These included extensive editing of hidden formatting characters that transferred to the other word processor. To avoid a very untidy document that became increasingly difficult to format, the authors needed to edit extraneous characters before merging the old and the new after each file transfer.

The network at my end was fragile, especially during the summer break, when we did the bulk of the writing. Members of the systems staff were working on major extensions to the network backbone around the Campus and they were using non-teaching time to connect machines in student computer laboratories to the network. This work made Internet connections, at best, unpredictable and there were times, sometimes unannounced, when the local network was down. These problems undermined the carefully constructed plans to exchange files at specified times, which in turn interfered with efficient management of deadlines.

Over the summer break, office hours for direct access to the computer systems were from nine to five, Mondays to Fridays. These hours limit productivity when modem access to the network is Version: 2.3 unreliable; a problem caused by the antiquated modems connecting external callers to the network. It was opportune, but technically difficult, for me to work and transfer files at night when my colleagues, in a totally different time zone, were also at work and could respond quickly to mail. This avoided the twelve hour delay that is a natural outcome of the time differences, but caused other problems.

When the final edit of the drafts was due, I could not log on to my local network through any of the Campuses and I could not get a message out indicating that there was a problem. Technicians completed some routine AARNet maintenance on a Friday evening and inadvertently reconnected my University as CSIRO for the weekend. In addition, there was a major wiring breakdown on my Campus that required radical repairs before anyone could access any files. This delayed the production of the final paper until technicians repaired the system breakdowns and I could retrieve the file to edit it.


Our workload division designated me as the responsible person for conducting a comprehensive online search to update our sources. The editors of the journal for which we were writing provided a DIALOG data base password to support a detailed literature search for each contribution. This password allowed thirteen hours of prepaid online search time before it self destructed. It included multiple downloads of records without the normal additional charges. This made it an especially valuable resource for a researcher and one we could not run the risk of allowing other network users to intercept. Consequently, the issue of security became particularly important when my colleagues transmitted the password to Australia to enable me to initiate the search. Since we were committed to working in the electronic environment by that time, no one suggested sending the password by letter as a security measure.

The initial approach was to use email and an encryption program, PGP, to encode the password within another message. The following mail extract illustrates the coding.

... try decoding the following, the key to which is 'promotion'.

You should get a list of names of American Civil War generals 
plus data.



I wanted to use the same version of the program as my colleagues, but the source from which they obtained their file was not responding. After several unsuccessful attempts it occurred to me that I was trying the source at approximately the same time each day, obviously when the system was unavailable in Britain. Eventually, the telephone offered a simple and relatively private way of transferring the password, but first we needed to establish precise time differences and personal availability. Rising in the middle of the night to discuss passwords was not an attractive option for either party.

At a later stage, security of our content became an issue again. Once the file began to grow longer, there seemed to be more problems in transferring the draft documents by email unless I was directly on the network. It was possible to use the FTP (file transfer protocol) to send drafts to an FTP server in the University of my counterparts, but we needed clear arrangements and times to enable me to access this disk space using a mutually known password that my co-author changed soon after the agreed file transfer time. On more than one occasion something went wrong at the designated time and I was unable to transfer the file out. To overcome these immediate problems, my systems manager transferred files to an FTP server in my University to which only systems staff have write access. He was very concerned about the security of our content at these times and insisted that we use a nondescript file name as files placed on these servers are open to any Internet user to copy.

How does communication change?

Apart from a meeting and two telephone calls, all communications for this writing team were by email.
We cannot separate writing from the conditions in which writing is accomplished. Further, we cannot separate writing from the contexts in which writers and readers interact. (Duin, 1991)
Effectively, if collaboration is to produce an integrated and coherent result, with styles and concepts suitably blended, the authors need extensive communication and interaction. All of their discussions, disagreements, differing points of view and exchanges contribute to the outcome. Co-authoring is as much a social process as an academic one. Clear lines of communication are necessary and if the task is to be easier, packages that allow for the synchronous interactivity of a conversation, without the constraints of enforced agendas, will help to facilitate the intellectual teamwork that is possible from the combination of different minds working on a task or problem.

Schrage ( 1993) observes that communication and collaboration are very different. "Perhaps one can't collaborate without communicating, but communication doesn't always lead to effective collaboration." He, too, argues a case for finding tools and environments that provide for individuals to share with others to become more than themselves when developing ideas and contributing to productivity within the workplace, whether they are remote or in the same building.

The email exchanges served as a good link for this purpose, though they do not replace the continuous and spontaneous day to day exchanges that occur in photocopier queues, across the tearoom and over the telephone. These are just as much part of the intellectual exchange in developing a research paper as are the formal meetings. The casual conversations stimulate and enrich the ideas of all parties and enable researchers to share other research papers, and the findings of colleagues whose interests may be similar. This continuous sharing is difficult to maintain over the network, as one must formalise the logon process and make a deliberate effort to record these ideas without the immediate response that maintains the flow of ideas in face to face contact.

Personal contact also evokes sensitivity to and an awareness of the commitments of the other parties in setting deadlines and sharing responsibility, which is impossible at a distance. Two simple examples illustrate the point. This author booked a week's holiday in January at short notice, based on low priced air fares. Unwittingly, my co-authors had identified that week as the next major file exchange date. It had not occurred to us to share these dates across the Internet, until a return date for the file was discussed. This miscalculation threw our evolving timetable quite significantly out of line.

Awareness of sickness also goes unnoticed, for one does not complain across the globe about suffering from a virus. At one of the later draft exchanges, I made numerous corrections and alterations to some sections of my own drafting. When I found that some of these were not included when the next update arrived, I became concerned that my changes were not acceptable, or that I had edited text that was not mine, instead of simply commenting or asking questions about it. A timely email from our third author told me that my co-author had gone home to bed to recover from a debilitating virus that had incapacitated him all week. This gave a perfectly reasonable explanation for these editing omissions and allied my panic.

Research into collaborative writing identifies a pattern of communication There is a distinction between tasks that demand interactive conversation, such as planning and revision and those that can be more independent, such as drafting. One research team reported that 87% of collaborating scientists did initial planning in face to face conversations, while 56% used this approach for more detailed planning. All collaborators wrote individually, but when drafts were ready for revision, 96% of the authors worked independently, but 51% supplemented this with face to face conversations about how to proceed (Galegher, 1992). After examining the work of collaborating scientists and doing experimental work with students using a computer mediated environment, Galegher (1992) concluded that it is very difficult to complete intellectual teamwork without the expressiveness and richness of personal interaction. It seems that without our one person to person contact, the fine detail of planning would have been much more difficult.


Computer mediated communication is valuable for its capacity to reduce barriers created by physical distance and to facilitate collaboration of remote researchers. It is also convenient in enabling writers to communicate without coordinating times and for maintaining records that chart the evolution of ideas. Members of this writing team had good access to each other during the drafting stage of the paper, and could send as many email messages as were necessary to clarify ideas, but the inability to sit around the same table and share ideas tends to limit the nature of the collaboration. It is impossible to draft or revise together and it is quite difficult to phrase comments or questions to remote authors that make the desired point, without possible misinterpretation or causing offence.

Authors who propose to work in a remote mode need to prepare themselves for some technical difficulties and enlist the support of their systems staff to assist with these matters. It is worthwhile to investigate current developments in groupware to support their activity as research in this area is continuing. Whatever the difficulties, it is rewarding to complete a piece of work with colleagues using a computer network and without the benefits of immediate contact.


Debs, Mary Beth. (1991). Recent research on collaborative research in industry. Technical Communication, 28(4), November, 476-484.

Duin, Ann Hill. (1991). Computer supported collaborative writing; the workplace and the writing classroom. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 5(2) 123-150.

Ede, Lisa S. & Lunsford, Andrea A. (1986). Collaborative writing on the job: A research report. Paper presented the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, 37th, New Orleans LA, March 13-15. ED 268 582.

Galegher, Jolene. (1992). Communication patterns and intellectual teamwork. Technical Communication, 39(4), November, 702-703.

Isenberg, Joan P., Jalongo, Mary Renck & Bromley, Karen D'Angelo. (1987). The role of collaboration in scholarly writing; A national study. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington DC, April 20-24. ED 287 873.

LaQuey, Tracy with Ryer, Jeanne C. (1993). The Internet companion: A beginners' guide to global networking. Reading MA: Addison Wesley.

Norman, Donald A. (1991). Collaborative computing: Collaboration first, computing second. Communications of the ACM, 34(12) December, 88-90.

Schrage, Michael. (1990). Shared minds: The new technologies of collaboration. New York: Random House.

Author: Julie Dow, Senior Lecturer, Library and Information Management, School of Communication and Information Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of South Australia, Lorne Avenue, Magill. South Australia. 5072. Telephone: (08) 302 4646; Fax: (08) 302 4745; Email:

Please cite as: Dow, J. (1994). Collaborative writing in cyberspace: A case study. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 45-51. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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