Don't stick with your soul mate

November 2, 2006

If you're keen to get into research, now may be the time to make new friends. But don't ignore junior colleagues and, remember, collaboration works best if team members have different skills, says Harriet Swain.

Adventurous academic seeks similar for shared interests, exciting discoveries and mutual publication. Good on you for rejecting academic isolation, but why link up with someone just like you? Some of the most profitable research collaborations are with people who can offer something different and therefore complementary, says Philip Lowe, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's rural economy and land use programme.

While working with like-minded people is a good way to start and useful for supplementing your particular skills, limiting yourself to working with soul mates who cover your weak spots can be too comfortable. "Collaborating with people from other countries and disciplines puts you way outside the comfort zone," he says.

Nick von Tunzelmann, professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University, advises thinking in terms of a broader range of potential collaborators than has traditionally been the case, looking outside the US and Western Europe to developing countries, for example, and treating them "not just as people to be schooled or taught but (considering) what they can contribute to what we are doing".

Lowe warns that this kind of collaboration works only if you have a sense of mutual respect and a willingness to learn from the people you are collaborating with.

This will mean putting aside time to read up on other subjects, or the cultures of other countries. "If you are collaborating with new people taking you into different realms, you have to spend time understanding other perspectives and methodologies and what other people bring that is distinct," he says.

Von Tunzelmann says you should ideally travel to the countries of the people you are collaborating with rather than wait for them to come to you.

"An important part of the process is just being there, absorbing and finding out what people are doing there rather than what they want to do here," he says. "That's a more genuine basis for proper exchange."

Alex Haslam, professor of social psychology at Exeter University, says collaborations with peers, your seniors and your juniors have different things to offer and you should pursue all three if you want to avoid your career appearing lopsided.

"People who just want to collaborate with people senior to them are sycophantic," he says. "I would be suspicious of someone who only did one type of collaboration."

He says you should not be shy about approaching people whose work you admire, however important they are, and asking if you can collaborate with them. "Just think about what you could offer someone that would allow them to take their work further," he advises.

Nor should you reject approaches from more junior researchers, which may be a way of increasing your influence.

Nigel Brown, head of science and technology at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, says you need to recognise that collaborations differ - some are almost technical, where someone has a method or piece of equipment that you need. In these cases, you have to be clear about defining who owns the intellectual property and what everyone's roles are. "Often it falls down because a person feels used as a technician rather than having any intellectual input," he warns. He therefore advises getting everyone's contributions established at the beginning, but to be prepared to recognise that these roles will develop as the collaboration continues.

Lowe agrees. "What people fall out about is publications," he warns. You have to make clear what will happen if someone has collected plenty of data but not written anything for a paper. You need to establish how names will appear on a paper - whether it will be alphabetical or in order of seniority or contribution to the work. This should not be too rigid because that will mean no one taking any initiative. Others should have the right to jump on board if they can demonstrate that they have made a contribution, he says.

Brown says that some kind of management structure is essential, especially for big collaborations. The reason that research councils like to see this is not because they are hooked on management rather than science, he says, "it's because they want to see that the research actually works".

He says research councils will also want to know how communication is to take place between different collaborators. "Although you can do a reasonable amount by e-mail and telephone, face-to-face conversation is useful sometimes for hammering things out," he says.

Haslam says you should make sure that if you enter into a collaboration, you can deliver. "A lot of people talk about it and nothing ever comes of it," he says. "That is frustrating for everyone."

But he says that you also have to be prepared for some collaborations not to work out because of the dynamic nature of research. If this happens, Brown says you must talk to funders early. He says it may be possible for financial arrangements to be altered to support a different kind of project.

Haslam says the general rules of successful collaborating are to do more than is asked of you, not to get too hung up if others let you down or to be too precious about your role. "Try to be decent," he says. "Academia can be a very lonely profession if you don't collaborate."

Further information Sussex University Science and Technology Policy Research: www.sussex.ac.uk/spru  

Economic and Social Research Council: www.esrc.ac.uk

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council: www.bbsrc.ac.uk

TOP TIPS

Be imaginative in your choice of partner

Find out about your partner's background

Be reliable

Work out your roles beforehand

Don't get too upset if your partner lets you down

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