How to collaborate more effectively: 5 tips for researchers

Participating in a collaborative effort can be extremely challenging. To get the most out of it, you need a strategic approach.

28 January 2020

Andrea Aguilar

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A successful collaboration can achieve high-impact findings and give you access to new funding sources and expertise. It can also be a great opportunity to think about the tools and outputs that can make your research more accessible to your peers and the public.

Here are five tips to help you manage collaborative projects more efficiently, from the Nature Masterclasses+ online course, Effective Collaboration in Research.

1. Be strategic – and don’t overcommit

It can be tempting to accept every offer to team up, but it’s not a quick, easy, or cheap way to achieve a goal.

Carefully assess the time and resources that would be required for a potential collaborative project and decide whether it fulfils a specific need in your research and if it will help you achieve your career objectives.

2. Create a collaboration agreement

Whether you’re setting up a research collaboration or participating in someone else’s project, it’s a good idea to record a framework in a formal document (“collaboration agreement”).

These contracts are often used in large and medium-sized collaborations, or in partnerships with industry, but you can choose to create a written collaboration agreement for a project of any size and scope.

“It sounds very dry and impersonal, but it’s a way to show that this is being done professionally and is done with good intention,” says John Kao, chair professor of translational medical engineering at the University of Hong Kong, in the Nature Masterclasses’ online course on research collaboration.

“That transparency really helps to build trust.”

Your collaboration agreement can outline the key goals for the project, as well as timelines, roles and responsibilities, intellectual property, and authorship for any written outputs (especially publications).

Discussing, agreeing, and recording these things at an early stage helps to ensure that there are no surprises partway through the project.

3. Communicate your failures, not just your success

Clear and regular communication is crucial to the success of any research collaboration, and communicating delays or problems should not be seen as ‘admitting failure’.

Knowing about a delay as early as possible will be useful for the leader of the collaboration and will enable them to adapt the timeline or task-list accordingly.

Mark Hahnel, founder and CEO of online open access repository, Figshare, and expert contributor to the Nature Masterclasses’ online course, says there is no such thing as too much communication in a collaborative project. “If you think you are over-communicating, you’re not,” says Hahnel. “Communication is only ever a good thing [in a collaboration].”

4. Embrace all types of outputs, not just papers

Common outputs of collaborative efforts include scientific publications, preprints, datasets, and conference presentations and posters. These will likely be built into your collaboration framework and management plan.

But you might decide to create further types of outputs to help you generate additional value and impact.

Creating a website can help you communicate your results to the public, and make your project more visible and accessible to other academics and potential collaborators. This can also be a good place to share other outputs you might create, such as images, maps, videos, or animations.

Interactive outputs such as simple video games and smartphone applications can also be good option, depending on the goals of your project.

Be sure to revisit your outputs regularly throughout your collaboration to see if there are any new opportunities that you might not have considered earlier. This becomes particularly important as you reach the end of a planned set of experiments or grant funding.

“We created a website where people can come and measure their own implicit biases,” Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science and a Nature Masterclasses collaboration expert, says of one of his first psychology projects.

“It's a great instructional tool about this area of research and a great way to collect some data about how these biases might operate,” says Nosek. “The datasets generated from that have potential uses far beyond what we considered as the initial collaborative team.”

5. Learn what it takes to be a good team player

One of the great strengths of collaborative research is the innovation that comes from bringing together researchers of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Sometimes it can seem hard to adapt to different ways of thinking and working, but being flexible and open to new ideas will pay dividends.

“Even though you might be the world expert on something, be prepared to allow yourself to think that you might not know everything about it,” says Nature Masterclasses collaboration expert, George Pankiewicz, a collaborations manager at the MET Office in the UK.

“There are others who will bring great insight. They may not be a world expert, but they may have something to contribute.”

For more tips on how to collaborate, see the Nature Masterclasses online course, Effective Collaboration in Research and try the one-hour free sample.

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+Disclosure: Nature Masterclasses are run by Nature Research, part of Springer Nature, which also publishes the Nature Index.

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