Texas Tech University

Collaboration: The Scholarly “Marriage”

By Marianne Evola

Many years ago, a close friend of mine and his fiancé were attending group premarital counseling. They had been together as a couple for years, knew each other very well, finished each other's stories and had finally decided to get married. Even though they knew each other so well, they thought it would be prudent to participate in premarital counseling to see if there were any marriage-related issues that they had never addressed as a couple. Thus far, no surprises had arisen for them in counseling. However, they were amusing me with stories on the shocking surprises that so many of the other couples had encountered, for example, the couple that was shocked to hear that it was important to discuss plans to raise children when preparing to marry. Over dinner we laughed at the many obvious issues that couples in love had never thought to address in their race to the altar. Years later, as a junior researcher in a dysfunctional collaboration, I realized that we had made the same mistakes as those young couples in love. We had failed to address critical issues at the start of our collaboration and as such, everyone was blindsided as conflict, distrust and disappointment progressed and the collaboration dissolved. To this day the word “collaboration” elicits a very negative emotional reaction in me, even though I can logically see why the collaboration fell apart.

Collaboration has become an essential part of efficacious research. Disciplines are now defined by great depths of knowledge. Expertise in a particular discipline encompasses a great depth of knowledge over a narrow range of topics. To address complex issues, expertise must be brought together in the form of collaboration so that both the depth and breadth of knowledge can best be utilized. It is widely accepted that our greatest breakthroughs in the future will be in the form of collaboration and as such, most funding agencies encourage collaborative work that brings together experts in markedly different disciplines. However, many senior scientists are not well trained in how to manage these types of research relationships. Furthermore, most areas of research did not evolve to appropriately address the complex nature of authorship and credit that is created by research collaboration so that all contributors are effectively recognized for their participation in team projects. Therefore, there are many mistakes and oversights when researchers from markedly different disciplines are brought together in collaboration.

Just like those young couples racing into marriage, engaging in a new research collaboration is exciting, and everyone is enthusiastic to start designing experiments and collecting data. It was prudent for those young couples to seek out marriage counseling before getting hitched and possibly even constructing a prenuptial agreement to protect everyone's rights and property. Similarly, it also is prudent for potential collaborators to construct a collaboration agreement or at least start discussing the difficult questions associated with collaboration before data collection begins. Most universities require collaboration agreements for large multi-institution collaborations. These generally address ownership of intellectual property and distribution of finances. However, more often than not, collaboration agreements between groups within a university are neglected until there is conflict. At which point, everyone realizes in hindsight that a discussion and/or agreement would have prevented many of the problems and likely maximized productivity. Currently, both the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Office of the Inspector General at the National Science Foundation (NSF) recommend that when entering a new collaboration, researchers address the difficult questions and construct a written collaboration agreement. These recommendations have grown from many accounts of wasted research funds that resulted from failed collaborations, where the research remains incomplete or unpublished due to the ongoing conflict between collaborators. There is even a statement on the ORI website that they will not intervene in allegations or disputes that stem from research divorces.

So, how do we engage our potential collaborator(s) in a discussion of critical issues associated with collaboration and what should be contained in a collaboration agreement? The rest of this article will discuss the challenges to engaging in this discussion and what should be defined in an agreement.

Challenges to Initiating and Engaging in the First Collaboration Discussion

First, acknowledge that addressing expectations and responsibilities of a collaboration is often awkward but necessary. Think of it as the nightmare of first dates. You cannot move into a relationship without first enduring the discomfort of a first date and all the expectations and uncomfortable silences that come with it. Similarly, a collaboration agreement needs to be addressed before a great deal of time and effort is invested in a research project. The hard questions need to be raised to assess whether a research relationship will be productive. It is difficult to discuss expectations and credit with close colleagues. It is even more awkward to address these issues with unfamiliar persons outside of your discipline before a project has even begun. Furthermore, potential collaborators can be resistant to discussing credit for a research project that has not yet produced data.

Second, acknowledge that as much as we would love to believe that research is objective and impersonal, it often is in fact very personal. Research is about our ideas, creativity, ingenuity and our sweat. It is hours, days, weeks and months of experimentation with the hope that you will find support for your hypothesis and if not, that the data will provide information that will appropriately redirect your research plan. As a fan of the TV show “Big Bang Theory,” I think that the humorous portrayal of Sheldon Cooper epitomizes our desire for detached intellectualism. When in fact, just like Sheldon, our passionate and territorial claim to our creative ideas often inhibits our ability to recognize and acknowledge the contribution of our colleagues. Research is personal and emotional, and as such, there is plenty of room for conflict when researchers come together to collaborate.

When you organize a meeting to discuss expectations and responsibilities on collaboration, request that you and your colleague(s) take some time to assess and compile a written list of expectations for responsibility and credit involved in the potential collaboration. Then work through the lists to professionally negotiate a written agreement. While engaging in the conversation, remember that these negotiations are also an assessment of the potential for a productive collaboration. Just because two productive research teams have a complementary set of skills does not mean that they will be productive in a collaborative project. It may also be useful to include an objective mediator in the negotiation process to help detect biased expectations and provide recommendations for fairly resolving disagreement.

Different Disciplines Working Together

Different disciplines and even research labs within a discipline often have markedly different practices and policies. In addition, different research disciplines have marked differences time-tables for project completion, labor demands for conducting research, demands for resources and expenses as well as space requirements. You embark on a collaboration to incorporate the expertise of your colleagues. However, to some extent, you need to comprehend the rudimentary nature of their research so that you are not blindsided by the costs in time, labor and resources associated with the collaboration. For example, in my field of behavioral pharmacology, completion of a research project in six months to one year is very fast. Many research projects take two or more years for completion. This time frame seems outrageous to colleagues from the biomedical sciences as does the costs associated with housing research animals for long durations of time and paying a team of undergraduate assistants to assist in data collection.

Many researchers embark on a collaboration to combine their research strengths with the research strengths of colleagues from markedly different disciplines. These are respectful collaborations of peers engaging in a collaboration of equals. However, in the current highly competitive research world, some researchers pursue collaboration to obtain a bit of data to appease the research agenda of funding agencies. Both of these agendas are workable and even efficient if all parties understand the nature of the collaboration. A limited collaboration can be an efficient use of resources. Rather than a research team investing resources in equipment and education to conduct unfamiliar research, it makes more sense to employ colleagues to conduct that bit of the project design. However, problems arise when the collaboration is not defined and the expectations of colleagues differ. Significant resources can be wasted and careers negatively impacted if one party perceives they are embarking on an equal collaborative path, while the alternate party perceives that their colleagues are merely making a contribution of limited interest. Similarly, the parties can differ on their interpretation of the value of that limited contribution. Furthermore, even if the collaboration is clearly defined, you must decide if you are willing to contribute work to a colleague that has limited interest in your research discipline. If so, clearly define expectations of responsibility and credit. However, even if two parties embark on an equal collaboration, be aware that it is human nature to perceive your own contribution to the project as being more important than your colleague. After all, we all chose our respective fields because we comprehended the importance of the discipline.

Bringing Together the Research Teams

As stated above, just because two productive research teams have a complementary set of skills, it does not mean that the teams will naturally be productive when working together. At the very least, bringing together two research teams will require significant leadership by the principle investigators or senior team members as initial obstacles are encountered. Senior team members need to spend time discussing the management hierarchy of the combined teams and the power limitations of team members that will minimize the insecurities and dominance struggles that can lead to competition and conflict. Even if roles are clearly defined, as the teams start to work together, conflict will naturally arise. Leaders need to immediately address those conflicts in their own team and not assume that their own team is innocent of instigating conflict. You want your team to maintain their loyalty to you, but also engage the other research group with respect and professionalism. On an aside, faculty and senior researchers are often resentful of being forced to play the role of referee and would rather personnel behave professionally and work out their own differences. This approach is rarely successful and it can be costly to neglect conflict at the start of a collaborative project because it is much more difficult to overcome distrust at a later time. Rather, focusing on leadership at the start of a project will pay off because once everyone settles into their roles, less oversight and guidance will be required of the team leaders. Remember, a team can destroy a collaboration even when principle investigators maintain a respectful and collegial relationship.

Senior graduate students will often be finished before a large collaborative project is complete for publication. As such, including them may hinder their progress while providing little benefit to their career after graduation. Unless the collaboration provides them with financial benefit or a postdoctoral position after graduation, including them in the project may be inappropriate and they may resent the distraction. Personnel with a history of poor communication skills generally do not make good leaders in a collaborative environment, even if they are brilliant contributors to their field. Rather, more diplomatic members of the team are often quite effective at promoting professionalism between the teams. Your most productive team members may already be too busy to effectively participate in the collaboration unless some of their responsibilities are redistributed to less busy personnel. Consider the current roles and demands on your team members before assigning them additional responsibilities in the collaboration. Furthermore, for those who are included, clearly define their responsibilities to your research team with respect to their responsibilities to the collaborative project.

Credit and Authorship

Finally, and most importantly, as teams come together to contribute to a project, how will credit and authorship be handled once the project progresses to publication? Authorship disputes are the most frequently reported allegation of misconduct. Interestingly, neither NSF nor NIH includes inappropriate authorship practices in their definition of misconduct even though both acknowledge the importance of authorship. They choose to leave it to the institution to resolve disputes of this nature. As a result, many institutions are attempting to define the authorship practices of their institution. This is easy for medical schools since the professional practices of authorship are clearly defined by the American Medical Association and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. However, it is more difficult to create an institutional authorship policy on academic campuses where disciplines markedly differ as do their authorship practices. The current trend is to encourage departments or individual investigators to define their authorship practices and provide that policy to all personnel and collaborators with whom they choose to work. Regardless, before you invest a great deal of time into a collaborative project, it is critical to define a means to address authorship and credit for when a successful project progresses to publication.

Additional Issues to Address in a Collaboration Agreement

Could the project produce marketable intellectual property? If so, who will own the property and how will each party be compensated for their contribution? How will the money be managed if this is a funded project? Who will control the budget and under what circumstances can the distribution of funds be altered? Who will own data produced by the collaborative research? Where will the data be housed and who will keep the data organized? Who is responsible for archiving data and who controls sharing of archived data? What supplies will be contributed or shared with the collaborative project? If there are multiple funded projects, can any supplies be shared? How will space be shared for the collaborative work? If there are graduate students involved in the collaboration, how will data be allocated for use in master's theses or dissertations? How often will we revisit our collaboration agreement as research progresses? Remember, as research evolves, so will expectations and responsibilities and as such, the collaboration agreement also needs to evolve.

Even with my jaded reaction to the word collaboration, I realize that effective collaboration will be central to exciting scientific progress and breakthroughs. The key is for scientists trained to be independent researchers to learn the skills associated with conducting effective collaborative or team research. One of those skills is the ability to productively engage in the difficult conversations that address research expectations as well as the ability to negotiate and define research responsibilities. Finally, it is critical that once responsibilities and expectations are defined, a written collaboration agreement should be constructed and shared with all research personnel involved in the project.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of Research & Innovation. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.