Capitalizing on Technology to Facilitate Writing Partnerships

By Anisa N. Goforth, University of Montana and Natasha K. Segool, University of Hartford
 
Here’s the challenge: Get two highly motivated research partners and friends to work together on research studies and manuscript writing, while one is working at a young doctoral program that is focused on APA-accreditation in frontier Montana and the other is balancing different priorities in a teaching-focused specialist program across in Connecticut. It’s no small feat, and one with which that we have grappled with for four years. Yet, we have been very successful in developing two large-scale studies and data collection efforts, producing three peer-reviewed articles, two peer-reviewed conference papers, and three peer-reviewed conference posters, with more scholarship underway.
 
The Backstory
 
We met in graduate school at Michigan State University’s school psychology program. Currently, Natasha is an assistant professor at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut and Anisa is an assistant professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. Natasha was able to provide some support and advice to Anisa during her academic job hunt and during her transition into her academic position, which followed a year after Natasha’s own career started at the University of Hartford. Given our distance from one another, our friendship has mostly occurred through phone conversations and visits during academic conferences. 
 
As early career faculty, we often talked about the challenges of academic life, particularly developing and growing a research agenda amid multiple competing demands for our time. During one of our discussions, we talked about our mutual concerns and questions about the use of social media among our graduate students, some of whom did not appear to have a sense of professional etiquette online.  It was our big “Aha!” moment and we encourage everyone to look out for theirs—it is easy to miss. Prior to this, we had discussed doing research together, but those plans never took shape. We had tried to brainstorm research ideas, often forcing projects in which we had some shared experience. Yet, without passion and genuine interest, these ideas perished tragically in our shared Dropbox with documents that went unedited, and frankly unseen, for months at a time.
 
The key to our success has been capitalizing on our shared questions and curiosity. Once we realized that we were both having similar conversations in our classrooms about professional behavior and etiquette online, we wanted to examine these issues further. However, we were traversing an area of professional psychology that had limited research to turn to related to the ethical and legal ramifications of social networking use. Thus, with little fanfare, we launched into a new phase of our relationship. From friendship alone, we added “collaborative researchers” to our identity. Technology helped with this immensely. 
 
The Logistics
 
Over the past two years, we have designed and conducted two studies related to social media in school psychology. Both projects have led to peer-reviewed journal articles (one article in the Trainer’s Forum, one articleled by our colleague and another MSU alum Andy Pham, and another one currently under review) and conference presentations. All of these projects have been developed and written collaboratively using various technologies. Through these projects, we problem-solved through trial and error to develop working habits that were efficient and effective.
 
Creating accountability.We set up bi-weekly meetings to ensure accountability and keep our projects moving forward. Like many of us who are early career faculty (or mid- or later-career!), competing responsibilities seep in, and consequently, our work often occurred just prior to the upcoming meeting, knowing that our colleague was relying on the other to complete tasks. Our meetings were held using Google Hangouts, which allowed us to use the video call feature from our computers. After our meetings, the project leader sent an email with assigned tasks discussed during the meeting.
 
To organize the meetings, we often used Doodlebecause our schedules were already busy and our two time zones made it difficult to find overlapping work hours. Although it was only a two-hour difference (EST and MST), we had to balance meetings around students, teaching, writing times, and truthfully, our personal lives! Between other responsibilities and our desire to not schedule meetings after 5pm, we were left with a single hour from noon to 1pm on Fridays.  Protecting this time for our meetings was essential, and by prioritizing it, we believe this resulted in our success.
 
Although we did not always have significant progress to report, by meeting face-to-face every two weeks, we held each other accountable. In addition, we were able to consistently discuss our project, our expectations of ourselves and each other, and we were able to problem-solve before major barriers arose and derailed our vision. By seeing each other, we maintained a close working relationship together and communicated effectively.  In retrospect, in the rare circumstances when we canceled our meetings, our emails to one another were indications of being side-tracked or caught up with other competing responsibilities. It was our face-to-face meetings, however, that got us back on track and moving forward.
 
Writing and research materials. In order to collectively work on our project, we primarily used DropBoxto share research documents (e.g., IRB documents, research questionnaires, manuscript drafts, etc.). The key advantages to DropBox were that 1) we were both already using it for our other professional responsibilities, 2) we could easily use it from our work and home computers, 3) it provided notifications to us whenever a document was updated document, and 4) it retained documents in typical formats (e.g., Microsoft Word). At other times, other writing tools have been more helpful. We have used Google Driveand its tools (Docs, Sheets, Slides) while on a Google Hangoutvideo call so that we could work collaboratively on content in real time.
 
Challenges and Recommendations
 
There were a number of challenges that we needed to problem-solve, including time zones, accessing files, and troubleshooting technology (e.g., connectivity problems, dropped video call, camera errors). At times, this certainly hampered productivity in addition to causing frustration when we had set aside precious time to work together. In the end, however, we firmly believe that use of video-calling technology and file-sharing technology has facilitated much more productivity and accountability in our work together.  The technology allowed us to meet frequently, feel connected with one another, and have the opportunity to incrementally advance our work. More often than not, we spent our first five to ten minutes checking in with each other about our personal and professional lives before launching into our work, which was important for us to maintain and grow our friendship as well. We see our work together as a win-win!
 
A few other things to consider:

  • Some researchers are going to be more adept to technology than others. Expect to provide some on-the-go tech support in addition to developing unique research ideas and empirically rigorous studies.
  • Compromise on technology options and choose ones that suit the needs of most of the researchers. We recommend considering the reliability of the technology, ease of use, and cost effectiveness.
  • Be patient when there are technology issues (internet connectivity, video chat drops). Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and laugh.
  • Designate one person to be the group leader for the meeting (perhaps the PI or another researcher). As with in-person meetings, virtual meetings are more efficient and effective when someone keeps the meeting on track.
  • Designate someone to email everyone after the meeting with a summary and specific tasks, including due dates.
  • Build in time to socialize. Expect to spend 5 to 10 minutes chatting and updating about each other’s lives. This is a surprisingly important and rich part of research collaboration!

Resources for Interactive Research Collaborations
 
Videoconferencing and Communication Tools:
 
Google Hangouts
·         Advantages: Allows for video calls with up to 10 people; group conversations are easy and video facilitates understanding and quality interactions; allows for screen sharing to discuss specific issues (i.e., data analysis); integrated with the Google platform, facilitating communication across email, documents, and video.
·         Disadvantages: User interface is difficult to navigate and can result in delays making initial connection; requires a Google or Gmail account; requires one time download of Google voice and video free plugin.
 
Skype
·         Advantages: Allows for video calls with up to 5 people; screen sharing is free.
·         Disadvantages: Requires installing a program onto a computer.
 
GoToMeeting
·      Advantages: Allows users to share screen; personal “meeting room” for users; users can connect by computer or phone; can set up a schedule of repeated meetings.
·      Disadvantages: Costs $24 to $49 per month; must install a program; voice calls often have feedback.
 
FaceTime
·      Advantages: Since many people use iPhones, video calls are easy.
·      Disadvantages: Inconvenient for those without an iPhone or Mac; does not yet have a group video chat option.
 
File Sharing Tools:
 
DropBox
·      Advantages: Allows users to share documents with a group; documents retain formating (e.g., Word, Excel); backups of files are created and files can be recovered for up to 30 days.
·      Disadvantages: Editing must be done one person at a time, otherwise conflicted files are created; any change by a collaborator affects everyone else who has the shared file (e.g., it could be deleted).
 
 Google Drive
·      Advantages: Allows for real-time simultaneous editing; facilitates team writing and collaboration.
·      Disadvantages: Formatting between Google Drive files and mainstream Microsoft documents is problematic.
 
 Box
·      Advantages: Allows for real-time simultaneous editing.
·      Disadvantages: Less commonly used among researchers.

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