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Collaborative research: the why and how to collaborate in science.

Posted By Connections Editor , Friday, May 2, 2014
Updated: Monday, April 28, 2014
Eugenia Flores-Figueroa and Teresa V Bowman

“I was told once that the mark of a good PI (principal investigator) is that they sit in their office on the phone and dial up as many collaborations as possible”      Dr. Leonard Zon.

Imagine you are holding with your right hand a ball half white and half black. From your perspective, you see the ball as white, someone next to you sees the ball ¾ white and ¼ black, and someone in front of you sees it black. In order to get an accurate description of such a ball, you have to talk and work with the people around you, you have to collaborate. Collaborations can bring many benefits –like broadening your perspective-, but it can also be intimidating, especially for young researchers and students. You might become wary due to sensationalized stories from the press or from your colleagues or you just do not know how to start a collaboration. We learn by trial and error, and in order to learn how to collaborate, you will have to collaborate, and learn from your experience. However, jumping head first into collaborations without learning the basics of effective collaboration can leave you flailing in a sea of uncertainty. In order to avoid (or reduce the chances of) drowning in a bad experience, we asked ISEH members for their advice and invited them to share their experiences to help us understand the why and how to collaborate in science.

Why to collaborate in science?
If we had asked this question to our members in 1950 –when ISEH was created- we can speculate that the answer would have not been straightforward. Just remember the Till and McCulloch paper from 1960, it was a “truly” Till AND McCulloch paper (just two authors). Science has evolved in the last decades in many different ways; we have witnessed a technological and communications revolution. We do not see science as we did in 1950; our own field is evolving constantly and it is hard to become an expert in everything. These days it is not uncommon to read papers with more than 30 authors and to work on a project with people from different fields (researchers, clinicians, mathematicians and epidemiologists). We asked current ISEH members about the benefits of collaboration to understand why it is seducing more and more scientists each day.

One of the benefits of collaboration is that, as a researcher, you have only one view of your project, when you collaborate, you join perspectives. According to Dr. Leonard Zon, a distinguished stem cell scientist and Harvard Professor who works with the zebrafish model, “When you collaborate, you gain more information about your project, and this could be transforming.  You may publish more quickly or bring expertise into your own lab." For Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Goodell, the current president of ISEH and Baylor College of Medicine Professor, collaboration is an “addition of complementary expertise”, which means that you optimize resources and time, as you do not have to establish the techniques or spend money on reagents in your own lab, and collaboration will “provide another person to bounce ideas off and consider concepts you might not have otherwise.” Dr. Ulrich Steidl, an Associate Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine notes that “in the long run you almost always get much more out of collaborations that you are putting into them.”

You can also think of collaboration as a way or a style to do research. “Collaborative research," says Achilles Anagnostopoulos MD, Director and Head of the Haematology Department in Greece, “entails cross-fertilization of ideas and provides opportunities for creative thinking as well as cumulative capacity far exceeding the sum of its parts, raising the prospects for real progress that is unattainable when working in isolation.” 
Collaborative research will benefit your career, as Dr. Anagnostopoulos stated “L’union fait la force” (as the French say). But how should one initiate and foster fruitful collaborations and avoid bad ones?

How can a scientist engage in collaborative research?
Opportunities for collaboration are all around us, you just need to be aware and seize the moment. Attend local seminars and national and international meetings with your ears and eyes open to how your work could synergize with others. Don’t be afraid to initiate contact and inquire about the possibility of a collaboration. Small meetings, like ISEH’s, are generally a better set up for collaboration opportunities than big ones. Start by introducing yourself at a meeting to help put a face to a name, then follow-up contact with the researcher via email or a phone call. This personal touch helps to remind the researcher who you are, making them more likely to take your inquiry seriously. As Dr. Anagnostopoulos suggests, the most important thing is to “Strive to achieve it. For this to happen, prepare to be motivated, focused, clear about your objectives and capacity, patient, inventive and adaptable.” 

Before you contact someone, it is important to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with the collaboration and what is going to be your input. As the basic “playground rule”, you have a better chance that someone will “play” with you if you have a toy to “trade” or “offer” to your playmates. Consider if the collaboration is of mutual interest or not, and the resources of the researcher that you want to collaborate with, so your proposal fits both. For Louise Purton, Associate Director and Lab Head at St. Vincent’s Institute in Australia, “It helps if the collaboration is of mutual interest to both parties- we are all so busy in research and trying hard to get publications and funding that not many labs have spare time/money these days to put towards projects that are different to their research interests. While this is a shame, as cross-disciplinary collaborations can produce amazing "outside of the box" stories, at the moment many researchers need to keep focused to continue to get the funding for their research.”

To succeed in collaborations, “communication is critical”, as Dr. Goodell advises. “Suggest establishing a set of phone calls or meetings so that you are forced to see the progress of each other toward a common goal.”  Consider discussing authorship issues in advance- if not specifics, then general approach (what constitutes co-first-authorship?).  This can be motivating to the trainees. Dr. Zon agrees and notes “Things will change as time goes on, and it is better to be flexible”.   

Another motivator for collaborations is to establish common goals and incentives. Dr. Steidl suggests developing collaborative grant applications based on the collaborative work, "This ensures that all parties have a high interest in the success of the project -and not just the lab that is leading the publication efforts.”

How to minimized the risks of a bad collaboration?
Authorship issues, bad communication of goals and objectives or just because you and your collaborator were not meant for each other, are often the culprit of collaborations gone bad. “Collaborations are like relationships. Some work very well and continue to do so, others never really progress far, and just fizzle out,” said Dr. Purton. Dr. Goodell warns, “The interests of your collaborator are not always well aligned.  Might have different pre-conceptions about who does what, about what authorship should be, or what the timeliness (urgency) of the work should be.” When things just don’t work out the way you expect, “discuss it openly and decide together the next steps (if there will be any). If you have to completely abandon the project, explain the reasons to your collaborators in a timely manner. And don't let this make you give up on collaborations. "Making scientific friends is also difficult” advises Dr. Konstantinos Kokkaliaris, one of our junior investigators. 

Dr. Zon shares his experiences remarking, “There is only very small risk associated with collaboration.  In my career of 22 years, I have only had one collaboration that became antagonistic.  Collaboration involves some give and take.”  Dr. Anagnostopoulos corroborates this sentiment by stating “Collaborations pose few risks provided they are grounded on scientific merit as well as respect and openness. In my long professional career, I have never faced problems with collaborations forged with this spirit – whenever obstacles appeared, these stemmed out of fundamental disagreement on principles and objectives, emphasizing the need for careful pre-planning and transparency.” You should “learn from the experience and try again: experience requires training!”

Collaborators without borders? 
The rules of collaboration may also be cultural, and when we decide to collaborate overseas, we should take that into consideration, as this can be more complex than deciding whether we should “kiss, bow or shake hands”. There may be differences, not only cultural, but in science funding and customs rules (to import or export samples or reagents). According to Dr. Hector Mayani, head of the Oncology Research Unit in Mexico, “scientific collaboration in developing countries is a different story”. “Collaboration in Latin America and other developing areas of the world should be more common than it is. But the truth is that it is sometimes difficult to conduct collaborative studies –at least good collaborative studies- between research labs in “third world” countries. One reason for that seems to be the fact that “professional science” is relatively recent in developing countries; thus, the culture of collaboration is just being established.” Dr. Mayani believes that collaboration in Latin America will expand in the future, not only between labs within the region, but to labs from developed countries, as he stated -“small” labs have much to offer to “big” labs (let’s not forget the fable of “the lion and the mouse”).  

Take home message
Overall, collaborations add an extra and mostly beneficial component to our lives and our science; you just need to have clear and aligned goals with your collaborator.  

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