Ten questions about collaboration

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

Collaboration is one of my favourite topics in academia and I particularly enjoy helping people identify ways to start or develop the collaborative strands of their research. This post is the first of two – this one provides a set of answers to questions that I’m commonly asked in workshops and the second covers my own top ten ideas, all with a focus on getting started.

I’ve been involved in events that try to build and improve collaborations for about ten years. I recently wrote a guide to good practice in collaboration for the Institute of Physics which involved interviewing a range of successful researchers about their approaches and advice. On top of this I also work collaboratively in researcher and organisational development whenever I can.  I’m therefore drawing on the collective expertise of a wide range of academics and organisations and will link to these where I can.

How do I…

1. Build internal networks?

Most universities are large complex organisations with real communication challenges. There are almost certainly a range of events and networks in place which you could join and benefit from but the challenge is finding them. A way forwards is to identify the people and departments who want to foster collaboration (at Glasgow this drive comes from the Research Strategy and Innovation Office which organises a range of networks and events including the Interdisciplinary Researchers Network )

2. Take the first steps?

Read my other blog on this!

3. Find partners in new networks?

Once in a new network, potential partners need to know what you can do (skills and expertise) and what you want to do (research vision and collaborative plans) so make sure that you clearly introduce yourself with this key information. Look for opportunities to raise your profile in networks by speaking at meetings, offering to organize events and being active. If you will find it difficult to attend all the events, try to encourage people to use social networking tools to broaden the reach of the community – taking the lead on this if no-one else will.

4. Ensure the outputs and outcomes from collaborations benefit me?

As an early career researcher this can be challenging but is critical. As soon as research plans begin to take share, make sure that the issues or credit and reward are discussed. An effective leader will do this, but you also need to be clear about what you need from the project in terms of publications, responsibilities and credit. If you are a junior member of the network, ask a more senior researcher for advice and whether they can help you address this. Don’t feel that you are alone in being concerned about this – it is one of the most common reasons for discord in collaborations. There are a number of tools to help – I refer to these as “objective standards” in workshops – meaning that they are external frameworks which don’t favour any individual. Look at the sample partnering agreement produced by the NIH as an example. At the start of planning the research you may not be able to write a comprehensive dissemination plan (although some funders will demand on), but you should be able to agree a set of principles that will help recognition and reward be given fairly.

5. Drive ideas forwards (and build momentum)?

If you are working on an idea which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, look for some “hooks” which will create firm deadlines. These might be funding opportunities, conferences where you can present ideas, workshops, student projects – get ideas by talking to people who’ve turned conversations into funded projects about how they pushed things forward.

6. Plan a collaboration?

Many planning tools are available – some are listed on the GW4 collaboration guide. However, often the best framework comes from proposal documentation. Collaborative grants are at risk of poor communication, duplicated effort, loss of momentum and scope creep, so funders usually demand robust management structures and plans before they will commit. Think about the longer term direction that you want your project to take and even in the early stages, the proposals for large complex grants (from the MSCA ITNs  or Research Council CDTs ) indicate the planning and management issues of running collaborative projects.

7. Find funding (especially to build ideas and teams)?

Use the internal experts to help identify the key funding opportunities (research support offices or local research officers) – some of the funders are listed on the collaboration page of this site.

8. Manage distant teams?

Many of the systems and processes demanded by funders are there to ensure that the distance between researchers doesn’t endanger the research progress. In the early stages make sure that people spent as much time as is feasible face-to-face getting to know each other. If they feel comfortbale in each other’s company and have spent time exploring the ideas and “trespassing” on each others’ areas of expertise they are more likely to interact from a distance. Cost into any proposal enough travel funding to ensure that people can get together regularly. Don’t restrict this to the PI and Co-I level – the students and researchers working on the project must also interact as they will be doing most of the work and coming across most of the problems. Make sure that they use technology effectively to keep in touch. This can include shared repositories for data, video conferencing, online forums and social media. There are also some suggestions in this guide from Cardiff University which is aimed at managers of home-based and distant workers, but includes a lot of relevant suggestions.

9. Pursue elusive collaborators?

If you have contacted a potential collaborator and heard nothing, don’t despair – they are probably very busy and may be intending to reply to your message but never quite finding the space to do so. Follow up again, making sure that you are VERY clear about what you are proposing, why you want them involved and what you think might be the benefit for them. Say that you appreciate they are busy but that you would like to talk to them and will call in the next few days to see if there is any mutual interest in taking things further. You could also ask if they are likely to be attending a meeting or conference where you might coincide. Another strategy is to either bring them to your department (have them invited to give a seminar) or to travel to them (again, possibly giving a seminar in their department after making contact with the person who arranges their programme) for these initial conversations. This demonstrates your commitment and willingness to make real efforts to engage them which are good things to see in potential collaborators.

10. Work out who to collaborate with and who to “compete” with?

This is a very personal decision and really has to be worked out by you and the other researcher. Sometimes bringing together two people in the same field with similar interests creates a critical mass which allows for the work to progress more quickly. Other times it just feels like a duplication of effort. Trust your judgement if you are in this situation. If the ideas aren’t flowing and it doesn’t feel right, agree to continue to work in the same space, but independently.

Finally, there’s an overarching piece of advice – I’m presenting my take on all these questions (based on talking to experts, but nonetheless, my take). You should seek advice from more experienced researchers in your field and develop as many “mentoring” relationships as you can with people. Collaboration usually involves working with people with differences in their skills, interests, motivations, backgrounds – getting a bit of insider advice from a mentor will help you approach potential partners with more confidence and awareness.