Monday, 21 January 2013

Developing Collaborations

Apollo 11: the ultimate interdisciplinary collaboration.
In space no one can hear you scream...

Funders are increasingly keen on encouraging collaborative research, but what are the pros and cons of this way of working? Run by Prof Jon Williamson and Dr Peter Bennett the Grants Factory session last week looked at some of the issues around working with others, particularly on interdisciplinary projects.

Jon kicked off by outlining possible reasons for collaborating. These included:

  • Having the opportunity to answer a large or complex research question, when you don’t have the skills, the background, the data, or the time to solve it yourself;
  • Having the chance to learn from others;
  • Developing new ideas and exploring different areas;
  •  Developing new and stimulating connections;
  • Propagating  your ideas and profile more widely.

However, you have to be careful in the collaborations you develop. You are going to work with these people for some time, and you have to make sure:

  • They have the time, motivation and commitment to work with you;
  • They have a personality that you can work with, and you with which you want to spend time.

Inevitably, there are pitfalls to collaboration.

  • Some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, may rate joint work less highly when it comes to the REF or promotion;
  •  It might be more time consuming, including having to learn a new disciplinary ‘language’, and having to administer and manage a programme.

So what makes a good collaboration?
  • The numbers involved are not unmanageable. Four is ideal;
  •  The involvement of all makes sense: they bring complementary skills, data or other elements to the table;
  •  They can commit time and energy to it;
  •  The working methods are agreed beforehand, including the ways in which you want to communicate (email/Skype/personal), and publish (first author/journals etc).
  •  The research question that sparked the collaboration interests you. You don’t have to know the answer, but you’ve got to be interested enough to want to find it.

And it might not work, but that’s the nature of research. It’s risky, but even if your collaboration does fail, you will hopefully have learnt by the process, have had fun, and have moved the question on.

Peter took over and started with a picture of the Apollo 11 astronauts. If ever there was a project that summed up the potential of collaboration, this was it. 400,000 people contributed, and achieved the near-impossible.


Collaboration is particularly useful for ECRs.
  •  It offers the opportunity to collaborate with more experienced partners, who will challenge, stimulate and formulate your own interests;
  • Partnering those with a strong funding track record will increase your chance of getting grants;
  •  Linking with other, research intensive university will be good for your profile and the development of your research;
  • It helps you to ‘acquire impact’ and increase your citations.

For Peter, his best collaborations were borne in tea rooms and pubs. Like Jon he emphasised the need to work with someone who shares your humour and outlook, and has complementary interests and skills. And, whilst collaborations can be fruitful, they all will inevitably end. This is not a failure, but a natural cycle, and you can move on to find others, through conferences, seminars, research visits and citation analysis.


Peter added to Jon’s list of pitfalls by adding some downsides of his own:
  •  Loss of control, and the sharing of ideas and data, which might be difficult for some people;
  • Collaborators might not fulfil their side of the bargain, and the project might fail as a result;
  •  Projects can be ‘bloated’, and costs can go up exponentially, as partners are added;
  • They can be a ‘hassle’ to run or be involved in.

However, on balance, collaborations offer huge potential to raise your profile and develop your career, to expand your horizons and to learn from others. 

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