Research collaboration

When seeking research partners, it is worth considering junior colleagues, peers with different skills or areas of expertise, and academics from the developing world

February 14, 2008

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.

Working with like-minded people is a good way to start and useful for supplementing your particular skills, but limiting yourself to working with soul mates can be too comfortable. “Collaborating with people from other countries and disciplines puts you way outside the comfort zone,” Lowe observes.

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. Look outside North America and Western Europe to developing countries, he suggests, and treat them “not just as people to be schooled or taught but [look at] what they can contribute to what you 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 partners

“If you are collaborating with new people taking you into different realms, you have to spend time understanding other perspectives and methodologies,” 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,” 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. 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.

Nevertheless, he says you should not be shy about approaching people whose work you admire, however important they are. “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.

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.

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, and this should not be too rigid because that will mean no one taking any initiative.

Brown says that some management structure is essential, especially for big collaborations. Research councils like to see this: not because they are hooked on management rather than science, but “because they want to see that the research actually works".

If you enter into a collaboration, make sure you can deliver, says Haslan, but you also have to be prepared for some collaborations not to work out because of the nature of research. If this happens, Brown says you must talk to funders early. 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 very lonely if you don't collaborate.”


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