8 things scientists want from a collaboration

New report identifies what can make or break a good international collaboration.

2 May 2017

Ivy Shih

Prasit Rodphan / Alamy Stock Photo

By pooling scientific resources and expertise, international research networks can more effectively address global health challenges beyond the scope of individuals, countries or institutions. But what constitutes a successful research collaboration has rarely been studied. A paper in PLOS ONE, has identified eight criteria researchers consider before joining an international collaboration.

Over two years, bioethicists Michael Parker and Patricia Kingori, from The Ethox Centre in Oxford, interviewed global health researchers that had a significant role in large international collaboration networks in health. Large collaborative partnerships were defined as those that involved more than 10 countries with high and low incomes. Afterwards the authors compiled a list of what defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ international research collaborations.

1. Cutting-edge science

Researchers were more likely to join international projects that offered them a chance to contribute intellectually. The chance to be actively involved in cutting-edge science was a powerful motivator. Researchers disliked, and try to avoid, collaborations where they felt they were being taken advantage of. This was especially common among researchers from low-income countries or institutions, where they might be recruited to gain access to samples, or as a token to fulfil funding requirements, rather than for their scientific expertise.

2. Effective leadership

A project leader with a clear scientific vision of the study is also a strong motivator for researchers to join a collaboration. Effective leaders are able to form a team that is productive and can deliver results, and manage the complex relationships between institutes and individuals. Good leaders are often highly respected in their field, and genuinely engaged in all aspects of the study. An interest in helping young scientists was also seen as a mark of leadership.

3. Good scientific practice

Positive signs of a good collaboration are participants with the right attitude, who can deliver data, samples and analysis to deadline. Scientific competence – the ability to conduct investigations with rigour – was also a good sign.

4. Capacity building

Capacity building was seen as the most neglected aspect of international collaborations. A good international partnership should not only offer opportunities for the principal investigators, but also invest in strengthening scientific skill-sets of all members, including early-career researchers. One solution is for collaborations to provide resources that build upon members’ scientific expertise, such as training courses, fellowship roles or access to new technologies.

5. Respect

While mutual respect for all collaborators is important, pretending there is scientific equality between all members can do more harm than good. Every researcher and laboratory has their own strengths and weaknesses. Failure to recognize that can be insulting.

6. Opportunities for discussion and disagreement

Health networks and programs that span multiple countries can encompass a wide distribution of scientific priorities. Researchers said honest and open discussion about their motivations was important. Addressing this early ensured that needs were met and avoided future conflict among collaborators.

7. Trust and confidence

A potential scientific partner’s reputation in their field of research impact the level of trust and confidence a research had in their ability to carry out their responsibilities to the team.

8. Fairness

Concerns about recognition of scientific input played a large part in researchers’ assessment of collaborations. A collaboration that might fail to give credit to both members and study participants was a major drawback. Interviewees said some clinicians and laboratory staff failed to consider the background work that goes into producing scientific results and the input of local communities that participate in studies.

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