Collaborating on research: the value of multiple perspectives

Two or three researchers can do better than one. Here’s how to take advantage of that.

For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about Web research that informs writing, whether that’s an article, a book, a white paper, or an internal document. Even if you’re doing actual primary research, such a survey or interviews, you’ll want to fill in knowledge from what others have figured out. This is secondary research, and of course, the Web is where it starts.

Having multiple people collaborate on writing is challenging — it demands a rigorous process and can often lead to extra communications overhead. Research is different. Multiple people can contribute to research with very little collaboration overhead.

Effective processes for research collaboration

Here are a few tips I’ve learned for effective collaboration on research:

  • Agree ahead of time on what you’re looking for. For example, how are financial companies dealing with COVID-19? What are the best exercises for recovering from back problems? Which programming languages are in greatest demand? You need some sort of guardrails on what you’re looking for, or you’ll just get back a random grab-bag of stuff, rather than useful information that can inform your next writing steps.
  • Turn people with different perspectives loose on the problem. Amazingly, people who search the Web for the same thing often come back with different answers. They use different search terms, find different things interesting, or just have different perspectives. (And of course, everybody’s Google returns somewhat different answers based on your Web history.) So use researchers who are young and old, male and female, of different ethnic or economic backgrounds, work in different industries, or are just think things through differently. A millennial woman in customer service will retrieve different information from a boomer with a math background.
  • Put your research in a shared bin. A Google Doc is ideal, since multiple people can edit it. Unlike collaboration on writing, here you probably don’t mind a little messiness — more nuggets are better. Dump your findings, quotes, statistics, and examples in the doc, in the form of a paragraph or two for each finding. Make sure to include a link to the original source (this avoids the waste of effort from re-researching the same thing, as well as inadvertent plagiarism.)
  • Don’t just research one link deep. If you find an interesting article, what does that article link to? What is the original source of the statistic they’re quoting? Follow the trail back to more original content. (This is another reason to have multiple researchers, because everyone will follow this trail a little differently.)
  • Review each other’s content. Often, when you read what somebody else found, it shakes loose more ideas in your own mind. Add comments in the Google Doc, or build on the other person’s entry with your own information.

The result of all this activity will be a rich collection of detailed information and links that can form the basis for whatever you’re writing. This is just what a writer needs to get started and fill in the gaps with interesting nuggets, examples, and statistics.

Research on its own isn’t going to lead you to new conclusions, but it will fuel your quest to support and extend those conclusions. And the more perspectives you apply to the research process — up to a point — the richer will be your tapestry of supporting facts and examples.

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