Collaborative working: Making it work

Science is a team effort, which brings together disciplines, teams and institutes. Collaborations have the potential to foster greater understanding and knowledge for both the scientific community and society at large. As collaboration is an essential part of research, avoiding the many pitfalls that can turn a successful research collaboration into a nightmare requires careful consideration.

Collaborative research entails coordination between researchers, institutions, organisations and/or communities. Such collaborations usually occur on a voluntary basis or in consortia, and take place in a disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, in a national or international framework.

Identifying the challenges of collaboration

While research is a collaborative endeavor, things may go awry at times. Authorship issues or miscommunication or personal differences between team members are often behind collaborations going wrong.

Misunderstanding may occur between participants due to disagreement on what and when to publish. Some prefer to publish each new discovery whereas others prefer one comprehensive publication after compiling all the data. Likewise, collaborative research presents challenges to the traditional notion of authorship. The perceived lack of recognition for researchers’ contributions is the main factor deterring scientists from participating in multi-group research. While team cooperation is important, there is little evidence that individuals’ contributions are valued in career decision-making, which is particularly worrying for PhD students and early career researchers. Similarly, co-authorship can mean different things. Asserting what kind of contribution merits authorship is not always clear. As author lists get longer, this means that a smaller proportion of researchers get the coveted first author position.

Differences in approaches among the collaborating partners might also be an issue. Misunderstandings may be caused by working in different research disciplines and may be due to different understandings of science, terminology or methods. Moreover, sometimes the competing priorities and objectives of the organisation of researchers may lead to differences in opinion on how research should be conducted and within what duration. Conflicting working styles and practices can seem frustrating, for example, not sharing the same working days. Other ineffective communication may stem from differences in social structures and practices, for example, practices such as gender segregation in certain countries can pose difficulties.

Issues in collaborative research can also arise from individual perceptions, interactions and relationships within the research team itself.  When passionate about an exciting scientific idea, researchers may neglect to think realistically about the multiple tasks that will need to be accomplished to construct an effectively functioning scientific team. All too often collaborative relationships are derailed by conflicts that emerge because potential tensions, differences and difficulties were not identified or discussed at the outset of the collaboration. Team diversity and interpersonal skills have a strong impact on research outcomes, as they affect key aspects of team functioning, such as communication patterns, problem solving and group creativity. Ultimately, what matters more than the individuals themselves is how the members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.

Building a sound collaborative environment

Multiple forces come together to make collaborations work. Trust is certainly one of the most critical elements influencing team cohesion. In research, trust becomes especially important because it has an impact on team members’ judgments about another’s abilities, designs, observations and scientific results.

Leadership is a further driving force in making collaboration work. The Principal Investigator (PI) starts with a vision, which may be of their own making, emerge from a group discussion. The PI uses the articulation of the vision to recruit team members and engages them in further defining and outlining the shared vision. As such, each team member needs to have an overview and understand how their work fits into and contributes to the overall effort to play an active role. With a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities, members can more easily understand how the various resources and activities are coordinated to achieve the goals, and how all together, they can contribute to the creation of something bigger. So team spirit does play a key role in collaborative efforts.

Additional critical elements include developing a strong vision, sharing recognition and credit, managing conflict, and team building. Communication is extremely important and, not surprisingly, it cuts across all types of contexts. There are many aspects of communication that are important to recognise, from the simple logistics of communication to the discussion of science, to establishing, building and maintaining team dynamics.

The Covid-19 Task Force has shown that collaboration works, bringing together people from different disciplines, backgrounds and institutes to solve very complex scientific problems. With a few soft skills in each scientist’s toolbox, the focus can be on the scientific problem rather than on personal interests.

The Montreal Statement outlines general responsibilities, and responsibilities in managing the collaboration, in relationships within the collaboration, and for the outcomes of the research. Read it here

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