The Joys and Pitfalls of Collaboration: Part 2 – Keys to Success

If you liked hearing from Kim Frederick last week, she is back this week with more thoughts on how to make a collaboration successful – especially for untenured faculty.


 

Keys to Successful Collaboration

Models of successful collaborations are as varied as the projects themselves.  The key features for collaborations that work include many of the features of any type of “group work”.  Frequent and honest communication is the key to success here.  In my experience, it is the times when the collaborators are not communicating that progress is not made, feathers are ruffled, misunderstandings arise, and collaborations fall apart.

It is important to clearly and continuously define the roles and realistic expectations for each collaborator.  Setting deadlines is often helpful in making expectations clear and holding each partner accountable for making progress.  It is important to set aside time regularly to talk in person or by phone (or internet chat), whether it be every few days, every week or every few weeks.  Person to person communication is generally better than email as written communication can be misinterpreted.

“…it is critically important that each collaborator be honest with the other.”

Finally, it is critically important that each collaborator be honest with the other.  It is far better to admit that you have not followed through on your responsibilities than to avoid the conversation or lie outright.  While these suggestions may seem pretty obvious, almost all of us, including this author, can fall victim to time crunches that negatively impact our research and the research of our collaborators if we do not actively put mechanisms into place to avoid doing so.

Pitfalls to Consider Before Pursuing a Collaborative Research Model

Like many aspects of our careers, it is always good to make strategic decisions which weigh the possible positive and negative aspects of a choice.  This is particularly true for faculty who have not either received tenure or been promoted to the rank of full professor.  For these faculty members, it is important to seek advice about the department’s and institution’s view of research collaboration.  While many institutions are open to a variety of research models, there are still some that give preference to the single investigator model whether that is stated explicitly or not.  Once you understand your departmental and institutional culture, you can make an informed decision.

It is also important to be explicit and clear about the distribution of work and attribution of credit.  Which PI does the primary writing on a paper or proposal should be distributed appropriately.  If one PI finds it necessary to be the driver of the project, then it is no longer collaborative and may need to be terminated.  Things like authorship order on papers and who should be listed as the corresponding author are important to discuss explicitly.  If you happen to be at a primarily undergraduate institution and you are collaborating with someone at a major research institution, you should be aware that it is likely that most will assume that primary credit goes to your collaborator unless you are listed appropriately on at least some of the papers, talks and/or grants.

Collaborative research, like all research, is like the Longfellow poem. When research is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid.  I have successfully collaborated with other PI’s from my own institution, a government lab and several different major research institutions.  From each of these collaborations, I have learned a lot scientifically, made new professional contacts, published papers and had lots of fun.

~ Dr. Kimberly Frederick is a Professor of Chemistry at Skidmore College in NY

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