First Steps in Collaboration

Posted by on Nov 22, 2015 in Academic, Collaboration | No Comments

This is one of two posts written for early career researchers on the theme of collaboration. The first was based on ten questions I’m commonly asked in workshops. This one is a distillation of the good practice that I’ve gathered by working with collaborative people, developing networks and interviewing researchers over the last ten years. At the end of the post I translate these into ten first steps for ECRs.

The same health warning applies to this post as to the other – this is my take on collaboration. I believe that these ten steps will help you, but I’d encourage you to do what I’ve done and talk to people to build a more accurate map of your personal research landscape.

Successful collaborative researchers…

1. Have a strong profile – both online and in terms of your reputation. Make sure your online profile (on your university page, a personal website and any other platforms) clearly explains what you do (i.e. what you might bring to a potential collaboration) and your research vision (i.e. what you’d like to address, people you’d like to work with and what impact you’d like your work to have). This should help the right people feel confident about approaching you. Be reliable and responsive when dealing with people and make sure they are aware of your interest in collaborating with others. If they know this and think you would be a strong addition to other partnerships they are aware of they may recommend you.

A couple of resources to help.

As you might expect, the staff profiles at Edinburgh College of Art are beautifully designed. Take a look at some of the staff there and the way the information is presented. Look at other institutions and make a list of what information you find and how useful it is. Use this to improve your profile. If you want to develop a stronger online presence, you should also read Professor Alex Marsh’s musings on his motivations for using social media and the benefits he’s seen. One Academic Online is a few years old but is still a great introduction.

2. Identify the career boosting opportunities of collaboration and make sure they happen

This isn’t about publications which I cover later (point 7) but the other benefits. Access to mentors, chances to visit other researchers, opportunities to show leadership, connections with researchers in other sectors. Try to imagine what your profile and network will look like at the end of the project and make sure that you connect with people and talk about you as well as the current project. If people know enough about your career, ambitions and interests they are in a position to help you.

3. Have fun

Otherwise, what’s the point? Work with people who fire your creativity, make you see the world in a new way and add real value to your work (and in a few rare instances, your life). Collaboration is harder and often more frustrating than working alone, but if you are working with the right people, it’s worth it.

4. Match ideas and plans to funding

Look into funding opportunities EARLY. New ideas are often malleable and information from a likely funder (even one you aren’t ready to approach for a few years) might highlight things you aren’t yet thinking about (such as the need to connect with a non-academic partner or consider how you will develop the researchers involved in the project). This avoids late “forced marriages” once a deadline looms when academics suddenly need to bring in a partner to meet eligibility criteria. Health warning: precise demands from funders do change from year to year so check with research office experts for any insider knowledge they have to help you make the right decisions.

5. Work with people they trust

In workshops I talk about “test-driving” research partners by working on something with them which is low risk and self contained. If they turn out to be unreliable, over-committed or just not someone you enjoy working with, it’s easy to walk away. Some examples of these test-drives include – organising a workshop, arranging a student visit, writing a paper (depending on your research model – more common in arts, humanities and social sciences, but very difficult in experimental sciences). Think about activities which will highlight their reliability, integrity and attitudes. But remember, they will be judging you as well!

6. Know the track record of their collaborators

If you are planning to work with someone for the first time and there isn’t time to develop trust, ask around your network for advice and feedback. Would they work with this person again? Are there any (acceptable) challenges which are important to manage? One example for me is a long-term collaboration with someone who knows my tendency to do things at the last minute (and not at all if there isn’t a meaningful deadline) and therefore schedules my contributions to come ahead of regular meetings. This creates the “real” deadline that I need and keeps our work together on track.

7. Ensure projects lead to publications or other valued outputs

As an early career researcher you are likely to be working at the “coal-face” of the research which may include preparing data which is then used by other members of the team. In some disciplines this puts you at risk of not being recognised as an author of any resulting publications, but rather someone mentioned in the acknowledgements. Most projects include a balance of activities – some will benefit you directly, others are your contribution to the wider project and can’t always be credited. Ensure there is a balance and that your role is recognisable and rewarded. The template from the NIH (look at questions 9-13) can help you to have these conversations when the project is being mapped out. Again, more senior researchers can advise you and support you.

8. Develop transparency in projects and have systems/approaches for communication

There’s always a risk that distant teams made up of really busy people don’t communicate as regularly as they should. Data generated through research is a valuable resource which needs to be securely managed and it may be difficult for some researchers to share this even around the consortium. The NIH template touches on this but increasingly institutions will have their own systems and guidelines. Here are two examples (look for your own data experts in your institution).

University of Glasgow 

University of Strathclyde

A related issue is open-access data. Funders increasingly want data produced by researchers they have funded to be openly available. The UK Data Archive produced a Best Practice for Researchers guide in 2011 which is full of advice and resources.

9. Have a Plan B

With any research project there is always the real possibility of the hypothesis, methodology or generated data not producing the intended result. Although this is understood by funders, make sure that your project has a detailed project plan which can be used to map progress against. If there are signs that a line of enquiry is unlikely to bear fruit, meet early to consider alternative approaches. Competition for funding is so intense now that you are likely to have worked a lot of this out during the planning stage. It may be useful to have a standing item on any group meetings to consider Plan B.

10. Are clear about own role and the expectations ON others and OF others

One of my favourite bits of advice about collaboration (from Professor Tom McLeish, a career collaborator) is “Trespassers are Welcome”, which succinctly conveys how important it is for everyone in a project to feel comfortable talking about the whole project, contributing ideas and highlighting any concerns. This means that you need to have a good understanding of what everyone in the consortium does, how they do it and what this contributes to the whole. You need to understand how your work relies on what they do and how others will rely on you. Take time to talk to everyone, perhaps using some of the questions to reduce confusion in collaboration on this site, so that you feel comfortable and confident about the whole project. This means that you will benefit from better advice, supportive scrutiny and ensures that the data that flows around the network is useable and fit for purpose.

So how do these ten key behaviours relate to ECRS? Here are my suggestions for ten first steps towards becoming a collaborative researcher:

  1. sort out your profile and tell researchers in your network what you do (clearly) and what you want to do
  2. look at the profiles of successful researchers – the things they’ve done and the reputations they hold – and identify what you need to do in a collaboration to boost your CV and profile
  3. maintain connections with people whose company you enjoy. Over time you will probably identify ways to work together (and if not, they are worth staying connected with anyway)
  4. look at the kinds of grants you’ll be applying for in 3-7 years time and be honest about where the weaknesses are in your profile and network. Then start building these.
  5. try to get involved in a few activities with people you see as potential collaborators and see if they are good at replying to emails, send information when requested, give you fair credit and treat you with respect. If not, feel happy walking away (or for people you HAVE to work with, make sure you have advice on how to handle them)
  6. talk to people about how they knew their good collaborators were going to be good and what they wished they’d known about collaborators who turned out to be bad. Don’t expect people to “name names” and if they do, be careful not to repeat any negative reports. People will need to trust you to share this and it’s likely to come through face to face conversations rather than in emails.
  7. have the difficult conversation about publications early rather than at the point when the writing starts (or worse, is done). Advice on having difficult conversations here.
  8. understand your institutions data management plan and meet people who manage this to discuss your data so they can help you develop a tailored plan. Be aware that if you are collaborating with other institutions who have their own plans, that any difficulties are often worked out at institution level – another reason for ensuring that the person who may conduct these negotiations really understands your research.
  9. get into the habit of thinking “what will I do if this doesn’t work?” as you plan your own work and also tracking how you adapt to problems or emerging information. If you can do this for your own work and reflect on the process, you’re more likely to be able to do this in a collaboration.
  10. be interested in the work and approach of the people you collaborate with. At this stage, if you aren’t collaborating outside your group or field, talk to other researchers when you meet them and have a stock of good questions to explore their work. (The Confusion in Collaboration questions might be useful)

As always, discuss these with your own mentors and advisers. Collaboration is likely to be a feature of your career and you can’t start building your network and “trespassing skills” too soon.