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A Guide to Successful Research Collaboration

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Science is a combined effort that surpasses geographic and cultural boundaries. To solve complex global problems, more researchers are sharing their knowledge, experience, and resources by working together.

Researchers can collaborate within (intramural) or between (extramural) academic institutions, as well as with government organizations and private sector companies. The degree of interaction between collaborators can vary from high to low—from one-time contributions to more extensive partnerships spanning multiple studies.1

These types of projects can take various forms and can include participation in the generation of hypotheses, the development of materials (such as reagents), the design and execution of experiments, data analysis, and paper authoring. Laboratories may also write and submit grants together, resulting in a joint effort that evolves over years or even decades.

23-FLE-30701 Research Collaboration (AZO Blog re-write)_featured

For early-career researchers, finding the right partner can prove challenging. This post outlines the benefits of collaborative research and provides early-career researchers with information on securing a collaboration.

The Advantages of Collaborative Research

In addition to providing a unique combination of expertise, talent, and perspective, joint projects provide researchers with skill sets, specialized apparatus, research facilities, and funding resources that may otherwise have been inaccessible. Collaboration thus improves the quality and scope of scientific studies, which can lead to more significant and impactful outcomes.2

Working together can also enhance productivity. With a larger pool of resources, projects can be completed quicker and more efficiently. Joint research studies are also more likely to be published in international journals, helping accelerate the distribution of scientific findings to readers across the globe.

Diverse talents and experiences can also encourage interdisciplinary research, helping to bridge the gap between various fields. For example, in today’s era of big data, interdisciplinary collaborations between data scientists and biological researchers are becoming more commonplace and are important for helping experimental researchers understand large-scale computational analyses.

“As data science shifts from the academic or theoretical realms into bona fide translational medicine, it requires a new way of communicating and collaborating with peers who may have limited experience in each other’s fields,” explains Antony Wood, Senior Director, Product Design & Strategy at CST.

 Blog: AACR 2024 Highlights: The Era of Data and Omics Has Arrived

Additionally, international collaboration can help promote cross-cultural understanding and more effective problem-solving, as peers may have different cultural backgrounds and practices. It can also help individuals build and maintain a wide network, which is crucial for young researchers looking to develop professional relationships

As a result, many funding agencies structure grant applications to reward laboratories that undertake these types of collaborative projects.3,4

Determine Your Strengths, Weaknesses, and Goals

Before approaching potential collaborators, consider how the project will meet your needs. Many researchers work together to push research goals forward, with career progression and research promotion as secondary benefits. Irrespective of your specific objective, determining your goals enables you to be strategic about whom you contact. Defining your research question and methodology will also help you maintain focus and collaborate more efficiently.

Evaluating your skills is equally important, as collaborating is a two-way street—you must contribute something while seeking help. Rationalize your strengths and weaknesses; if you have an idea that is not your forte, consider finding someone with experience in that area.

Potential collaborators also encounter their own challenges, so think about what you can offer before reaching out. This may involve asking them what obstacles they face and suggesting ways in which you can help.

Grow Your Network and Presence

The aim of research collaboration is to create a network of peers you can turn to for ideas, advice, and support. Begin with your current network. Contact past supervisors, colleagues, and other connections that may be beneficial. Ask them to introduce you to individuals you aspire to work with or see if they can recommend potential collaborators.

To grow your network, contact individuals in your field directly. Gang Xiao, Assistant Research Professor at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, recommends reviewing the literature to find researchers doing similar work.

If their interests and expertise align with your goals, contact them about the prospect of a collaboration: People are often receptive and flattered by your interest in their research. If their goals or availability do not align, don’t be discouraged. Instead, ask them to introduce you to individuals you aspire to work with or see if they can recommend any potential collaborators.

If you seek a fresh perspective, don’t be afraid to approach individuals from outside your field. Be enthusiastic about new ideas for your research. David Hyman, Chief of Early Drug Development at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, describes the ideal collaborator as “somebody who is engaged” and “excited about the project.”

Conferences and seminars are additional ways to build your network. They allow you to discover new research and meet potential collaborators face-to-face. If you attend a conference, be sure to have your elevator pitch prepared beforehand.

Conferences also expose people to your work. If you are invited to present your research, say yes, as it may spark a new relationship and research idea. You can further increase your visibility by publishing journal articles or guest blog posts—individuals can then access your research, explore your perspectives, and determine how your expertise could contribute to theirs.

Blog: Mastering the Many Forms of Scientific Writing in Academia

Early-career researchers can also find and meet potential partners by joining a professional organization.

How to Contact a Potential Research Collaborator

You can contact potential collaborators via face-to-face networking, email, phone, social media, or online platforms like LinkedIn or Collaboratory. Whichever method you use to introduce yourself, take time beforehand to research your potential partner so that you can individualize your approach.

When contacting a peer, consider time zone differences and language barriers. It is also important to understand the culture of whom you are approaching—research the country, institution, and department beforehand.

To introduce yourself, prepare three to six lines that explain who you are, your area of expertise, and your achievements. This can be delivered in writing or verbally.

Once contact has been established, arrange a time to discuss the project further. Here, you will get the chance to share ideas and see how you interact—ideally, the person will be fun to work with, will contribute to the work, and have the same ambition and enthusiasm as you.5

Set Expectations

One of the most important factors in predicting a research collaboration project's success is ensuring effective, ongoing communication about goals and responsibilities throughout the duration of the project.

Before the official collaboration starts, discuss your expectations for the project. These should be formalized through a written agreement that summarizes the conditions of the project—this includes percentages of involvement, expected response times, major deadlines, conflict management tactics, and how each author will be accredited.

Consider the Future

It is never too early to think about the future. Look for opportunities to extend the collaboration. Make connections with other potential partners. Even if the project was not as successful as anticipated, the relationship formed will be invaluable as you advance through your career.

References and Further Reading

  1. Bennett LM, Gadlin H. Collaboration and Team Science: From Theory to Practice. J Investig Med. 2012;60(5):768-775. doi:10.2310/JIM.0b013e318250871d.
  2. Leydesdorff L, Bornmann L, Wagner CS. The Relative Influences of Government Funding and International Collaboration on Citation Impact. J Assoc Inf Sci Technol. 2019;70(2):198-201. doi:10.1002/asi.24109.
  3. Eberle J, Stegmann K, Barrat A, Fischer F, Lund K. Initiating Scientific Collaborations Across Career Levels and Disciplines – A Network Analysis on Behavioral Data. Intern J Comput-Support Collab Learn. 2019;16:151-184. doi:10.1007/s11412-021-09345-7.
  4. Defazio D, Lockett A, Wright M. Funding Incentives, Collaborative Dynamics and Scientific Productivity: Evidence from the EU Framework Program. Research Policy. Research Policy. 2009; 28(2):293-305.
  5. Pedersen CL. How to pick a great scientific collaborator. Nature. 2022 May 13. doi: 10.1038/d41586-022-01323-9. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35562500.
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Kenneth Buck, PhD
Kenneth Buck, PhD
A cell biologist by training, Ken received a PhD at Rutgers and continued as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, where he studied cytoskeletal dynamics and signaling mechanisms involved in the cellular motility of regenerating neurons. At CST, Ken collaborates with scientists to create multimedia scientific communications. When he's not writing video scripts or in the studio, he can be observed in his natural habitat, mountain biking with colleagues on the rocky North Shore of Massachusetts.

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