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Collaboration has existed for hundreds of years, and still continues to play an important role in the construction of written work today. Although our present culture tends to put emphasis on the author as a single person far more often than as a collective group, it is unreasonable to discredit the advantages and accomplishments of the collaborative method.

Documented, collaborative efforts in writing began as early as the Elizabethan era in England and continued well into the 1600's, when William Shakespeare's claim to individual authorship expressed "the always-already present…human desire to possess what one has written" (Masten 369). An examination of theatre during this era suggests "the drama…was written by more than one person, produced through collective forms of thinking" and therefore emphasized authorship as a pluralized phenomenon (357).

Jeffrey Masten examines collaboration that took place during this time period through the idea of conversation in its relevance to authorship. Conversation can be defined in the era as both "sexual intercourse or intimacy" and as an "exchange of ideas" (360). Conversations held between opposite genders (other than within marriage) were always regarded as taboo in the Elizabethan era, however conversations between males were much more accepted, despite the common linkage between "the exchange of ideas and homoerotic intercourse" (360). The example of physical intimacy suggests the emotional intimacy and trust that was inherently part of a collaborative partnership between authors of the century.

This collaboration can be observed in many casual instances with conversation. As playwright Thomas Kyd recalled, attention brought to "an opinion affirmed by Marlowe to be his, and shuffled with some of myne" attributed confusion to the idea that he and fellow playwright Marlowe were working together closely and therefore naturally inclined to form a collaborative mind (360). Although Masten does not insist that speculations of Kyd and Marlowe's living together are true, he brings attention to "shuffled" and "some occasion of our wrytinge in one chamber" to suggest the intimacy that could be equated with the pair's collaboration (361).

Playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher were involved in a relationship similar to Kyd and Marlowe. Beaumont and Fletcher lived under one roof and shared "a wonderful consimility of phansey…which caused the dearness of friendship between them" that inevitably extended into the playhouse (365). This closeness of authors during Fletcher's life even extended into his death where he "and collaborator Philip Massinger were buried in the same grave." (366)

Despite the congenial attitudes towards collaboration, the Elizabethan period of literature also began to demonstrate a dramatic change in how an author's work was valued or credited. Previously, art was considered property of the larger group. Playwrights were "employees of acting companies" and their writing automatically became property of the playhouse, or collaborative team (367). An author's name on a script was not used for the purpose of personal recognition, but rather as "a selling point" for the play and its entire team of participants (367).

Although collaboration started as a casual, friendly gesture, rather than an act of purely business, the desire to seek singular royalties or recognition for one's work in the theatre began to grow. Alvin Kernan confirms that theatre in the Elizabethan period did become "a business, one of the first to be organized in terms of venture capital" and Andrea Lundsford observes that "playwrights did write for profit-or at least the hope of a livelihood-in mind" (Lundsford 80-81). As the desire for singular authorship and ownership has continued to become pronounced, issues surrounding collaborative work and its appropriate documentation have also expanded.

Contemporary authors participate in a collaborative atmosphere whose familial relationships are reminiscent of the Elizabethan era. In regards to "The Wasteland" by T.S Eliot, the author mentions in his journals the poet Ezra Pound, "who helped pare and sharpen the poem when Eliot stopped in Paris." (Nelson) Pound confirms this relationship through his own editorial notes. Pound's relationship with Eliot was like a mentor; he provided both literary and financial support during Eliot's developmental years. The well-known poet William Wordsworth also participated in a collaborative effort with Samuel Taylor Coleridge of "Lyrical Ballads" that was possibly "the most famous coauthored book in the English language." (Miller)

Contemporary fiction also features collaborative examples. Recently disputed, were the efforts between writer Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. While Carver received attention for being one of the best short fiction writers of all time, Lish spoke out after Carver's death, insisting that as the editor, he had also maintained an authorial role that had not been publicly credited. In addition, Carver's wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, also claimed authorship of his stories, stating that her deceased husband's ideas had stemmed from her own. (Miller)

Although collaboration between professional writers has produced mixed emotions, Lundsford has chosen to examine the generally positive reaction to collaboration from writers whose primary vocation is something other than writing itself. She looks to the psychologist Albert Bernstein who readily admits "when I work with other people…I feel that I do a much better job than I would have done alone" (29). This suggests that the collaboration in his written work allows for a "richer" product. Lundsford also looks at chemist George Irving's most prominent "collaborative venture," which he found "exciting and satisfying" despite the fact the project did not inspire the desired reaction from the audience (30-31).

Collaboration in scientific writing is particularly interesting because it is considered to be the norm, but methods of recognizing individuals within the collaborative group, or the group as a whole, are constantly being challenged and changed. Singular authorship in genres other than science is developed from an idea that the individual creator used his own intellect and exertion to create a work. Science writing differs from this idea because "scientists buttress their new claims by connecting them as much as possible to the body of previous scientific literature" in order to bring about technological advancement (Biagioli 257).

In the case of copyright, tangible items or unique thoughts are clearly defined, but less tangible ideas or scientific theory are often difficult to assign ownership and authorship. An artist or a writer can use paint or words as his building blocks, but a scientist must base his own novel contributions on the claims of hundreds before him. Colors and words are clearly in the public domain, but ideas in science are less clearly defined, and therefore singular authorship or ownership is extremely rare.

The multi-authorship in science writing is necessary in order to credit the range of people and tasks involved in a project. Not only is the writing itself, but also research, experimentation, development and editing are significant components in the production of a collaborative project, . Science can often "produce articles with hundreds of names stretching the author's byline over a few pages" (253).

The multi-authorship system is fueled by candidate hopefuls entering various scientific disciplines. Because of time limitations, science committees and review boards have a "tendency to rely on quantitative assessments of a candidate's publications" rather than their content (255). As a result, members of the scientific field could have a prolific name in publications, but a limited contribution in each of the individual projects.

Lengthy bylines can cause confusion as to the definition of an author. In addition to lesser-known participants who are listed for lesser-known reasons, there are also the well-known scientists who "unaware that their names had been added to an author list (a sort of 'inverse plagiarism' aimed at increasing the publication chances of the article" are used for a promotional purpose (262). The lengthy, abstract listing of authors can often cause confusion in the defining parameters of a collaborative project.

Scientific achievement is regarded as "professional recognition that can be transformed in to money...but is not money like-in and of itself" (254). Achievement is the primary purpose of providing recognition to scientists, and although this recognition could serve as a vehicle toward financial gain in the future, newer scientists strive for publication in order to become known and respected among colleagues. Achievement as "such a reward is not bestowed by one specific nation (according to its law) but by an international community of peers" suggesting that claiming authorship or ownership in science is often based on the subjectivity of people already established in scientific realm, rather than a strictly documented, legal code (254).

Drummond Rennie and his collaborative team are attempting to solve some of the challenges in scientific collaboration through "substitution of the word 'concept contributor' for the word 'concept author'" as a more diplomatic representation of scientific authorship (265). Contributions for each author could also be calculated in a precise percentile, in order to limit any confusion, as well as eliminate the outdated process of name order on the byline.
The CDF (Collider Detector at Fermilab) has also conceived a system to overcome collaborative challenges. At CDF, each individual publication will feature names in a "Standard Author List" in order the emphasize collaboration and limit any superfluous acknowledgement of those outside the lab. In order to qualify for the list, each CDF contributor must apprentice for his first year without receiving intellectual credit (270). After the individual has proved his ability to produce viable information, not only does the individual begin attaining credit, but he also continues to receive authorship rights a year after departure from the lab.

Collaboration in our society does not begin in the professional environment, because it is introduced at an earlier stage. In education circumstance, collaboration is often associated with various imitation techniques, such as students imitating professors, text book authors, or even other students. While some might consider this collaborative type of learning a form of plagiarism, Lundsford argues that collaborative teachings, specifically imitative ideas, are introduced to children at a very young age. She notes that Jean Piaget's work "demonstrated that children learn through interaction with others" in order to explore the world around them (111). Imitation is a natural step out of interaction, providing a precise tutorial for many age groups.
College Student Jennifer Markson says she writes down "word for word what the professor says" (Howard 27) in a classroom environment in order to absorb completely the meaning of the lecture. Jennifer is in a sense participating in a collaborative act with her professor by using the teacher's words in order to facilitate her own learning process.

Rebecca Howard notices that a subtle "patchwriting: copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another" is taking place on college campuses throughout the country, in addition to numerous professional situations (1). While at first she was shocked at the sheer volume of this "copying" at one particular institution, she recognizes that patchwriting is so ingrained in our learning system, it is excused in many types of situations.

Howard examines a specific professional instance when Gerhard Joseph patchwrites a piece of Thomas McFarland's Originality and Imitation in order to use McFarland's authorship ideas as a vehicle for his analysis of Charles Dickens and international copyright (6). While Joseph uses McFarland's linguistics and basic ideas, he adds on to McFarland's work by creating his own territory for the reader. This type of patchwriting, or indirect collaboration is comparable to patent law in regards to tangible items and allowance of progress.

If accomplished writers are participating in patchwriting as a form of imitation, it is no wonder that learning institutions also teach imitations as a standard component of the curriculum. As Martha Woodmansee says, one must naturally start from an imitative perspective in writing to "earn his flying wings" before venturing out into more individualistic composition.

While our society continues to place emphasis on singular authorship, we are actually undermining the natural state of writing. Linda Brodkey observes the irony of writing as an inherently "social act" that is nonetheless portrayed in present society as "solitary" (Lundsford 20). By examining these writing techniques, it is revealed that collaboration is the normal "social act" in the process of creation.


Biagioli, Mario and Peter Galison. Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford: Ablex, 1999

Lundsford, Andrea, and Lisa Ede. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. Southern Illinois University, 1990.

Masten, Jeffrey. Playwriting Authorship and Collaboration. New York: Columbia mp, 1997.

Miller, James, James Wald, Stephen J. Harris, David Bollier, and Benjamin Mako Hill. Collaborative Literary Creation and Control, A Socio-Historic, Technological and Legal Analysis. Hampshire College.

Nelson, Cary. An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Section from Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. <http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/life.htm>


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This page last updated on: Friday, 20-Oct-2006 13:15:16 EDT