Are the tools we use shaping the way we collaborate?

This is the first of some thoughts about collaboration. I am quite convinced that working in teams enhance creativity, is more fun, and more productive, but is not always straightforward how to get the most out of our collaborations. Recently, I started wondering if the tools we use shape the way we collaborate. Let me put an example, the typical use of the track changes (in Word, OpenOffice, or whatever you want) predisposes you to have a leading author “accepting” or “rejecting” other people changes. On the other side, if you use a Git stile workflow, the system only show you where the changes are in the document, and (at least for me) kind of assumes you will accept those (if you don’t spot anything wrong). Don’t stop reading, this is not a typical “I hate Word” post and the next examples are all using a text processor.

What I am trying to say is that if you want a lead author supervising everything, you should use track changes, but when you aim for a more equal contribution, where all team members are expected to come to an agreement, track changes is against the flow of work. I don’t think is only a matter of how do you prefer to see the changes, but that it actually affects (unconsciously) people feelings and behaviours. For example, as a non-lead author, you don’t feel the project as yours as you should, and you are probably tempted to point out where the project needs to be enhanced, rather than enhancing it yourself. This feeling of “the lead-author will check if what I am editing reads ok” calls for sloppier edits. But in a team with no one accepting formally your changes, you are more likely to work until your changes read perfectly.

I’ve been experimenting with this in a couple of places. We agreed with Rachael on not using track changes for our F1000 evaluations. Those are short pieces and usually only need a couple of revision rounds among us (now in .txt format, way lighter than a word file*). It works perfectly. I am also co-leading a paper where we tried not to use track changes for writing the discussion. It only half worked here. At the beginning we didn’t agree on the structure, so we re-write a lot each other versions, and that felt time-consuming. I recognize it is hard to let go the control upon something you wrote. However at the end I am positive as the discussion is now a real (good) mix of our ideas and stiles. I have to say that we were working on the same office, so that helps a lot to solve questions in real-time.

Where I am going? I don’t know, and I did a lengthier post than usual, so I’ll write about pro’s and con’s of teams vs. lead authors in a couple of days.

* ok, here is my “I hate word” rant.