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Key Ingredients for Effective Collaborations

A great deal of discourse around scientific collaborations starts with what doesn’t work and what’s frustrating. There is value moving through this to discuss what makes collaboration effective. As early career scientists, now is a great time for us to learn from these discussions and apply best practices to our own future collaborations.

Early career scientists lack experience when it comes to initiating scientific collaborations but we have participated in collaborations. Therefore, our motivation for this post stems from a desire to do productive and impactful research with other people. How can we achieve this? In preparation for this post, we reflected on our own scientific collaboration experiences. We also talked* to and read articles by scientists who are experienced at building and maintaining effective scientific collaborations. Several important ingredients emerged that we will discuss in further detail: trust, having a shared vision, setting clear expectations, reflecting on progress, and communicating effectively.


We read and heard over and over again that trust was a very important to part of effective collaborations. This is true when it comes to trusting collaborators to express their opinions/ideas, and for meeting the expectations and goals set forth in the initial project outline. Additionally, it is impossible for all collaborators to know all the scientific details of a project. Therefore, trust is needed to ensure that collaborators are working towards previously agreed upon milestones using previously agreed upon methods. If you’re unfamiliar with a potential collaborator, it may be a good idea to ask mutual contacts for honest feedback on their work ethic and collaboration style before entering into the collaboration. You may even try to start a small, simple project with them to “test” your interactions and collaboration before committing to a bigger, more complex project.

Shared Vision

Defining the shared research goal helps clarify and center scientific collaboration; everyone should be on the same page, know where their research fits into the larger project, and what they have to do to get the project to the finish line. Collaborations can mean different things to different people in different circumstances. Sometimes the most fulfilling scientific collaborations may start out with free-form brainstorming, devoid of discussions about such unsavoury topics as fundability and practicality. During these brainstorming sessions, you learn how to communicate with your collaborators, get a sense of their strengths, and test your compatibility before making commitments.

Setting Expectations

Frank discussions of short- and long-term expectations for project responsibilities, prioritization, timelines, meetings, funding, authorship, intellectual property, and data sharing can help avoid conflicts; especially if these discussions are started during the planning/grant writing stages of the collaboration. During the early stages, collaborators may also want to discuss how many people are part of the group and how new collaborators can join the group. With regard to setting expectations, it might be helpful to outline your non-negotiables before entering into a scientific collaboration. Defining expectations can be difficult because future responsibilities and funding can be uncertain and because we often focus on the science above all else. Researchers from different backgrounds may have different views on when discussions about project expectations are appropriate to have (if at all) and how to communicate their needs/non-negotiables as a collaborator. It can be particularly difficult for younger researchers bridging the topic to more advanced collaborators.

Collaborations can become strained when they involve researchers at different points in their career unable to understand each others’ perspectives and insecurities. As an advisor, be cognizant of your advisees first collaboration. You may have forgotten that it can be a challenging situation to navigate for the first time, with all the power dynamics, be they true or perceived. It is crucial to teach your advisee how to be a good collaborator: both in how to be considerate and how to stand up for oneself. Many things (i.e. how to address comments you don’t agree with and how to decide on authorship) seem like second nature to an experienced researcher, but can be baffling to someone new to research. Ensure your advisee knows how to receive criticism in a productive way before you encourage them to begin a collaboration with more independence from you. When we start out in grad school, many of us get defensive at criticism and don’t know how to communicate, or even recognize, we don’t understand.

Combining research and teaching is the cornerstone of academia, but it can be a source of great conflict. An advisor-graduate student relationship comes with relatively straightforward expectations that the advisor will spend time training the student in research techniques, analysis and writing. Although the advisor may have come up with an idea, developed the techniques and spent as much or more time on the paper (especially a graduate student’s first manuscript), the student generally maintains first authorship. However, when senior graduate students, postdocs, researchers or other faculty are involved, authorship and ownership is less straightforward. We have no easy answer for this, except to recommend everyone has clear expectations about responsibilities, and an agreement about how training will be addressed.

Reflection and Communication

Regular meetings can be helpful to update collaborators, reflect on progress, and reaffirm project goals and expectations. Care should be taken to ensure that regular meetings are productive and not simply a box checking exercise. This may be achieved by setting meeting agendas or building flexibility into the meeting schedule if outcomes take longer than expected. Good communication is key to effective teams. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions of your collaborators. However, it is also important to get ok with not knowing every aspect of your collaborator’s approach.

Effective Collaborations for Interdisciplinary Teams

It’s more and more likely these days that scientists will find themselves as part of an interdisciplinary collaboration. When this happens, it is important to try to step outside and be aware of your field’s culture or tendencies to approach a research question and be curious, open, and flexible to other cultures and tendencies. Further, try not to assume you know what questions are important to your collaborators that are in other fields. It’s a good idea to ask your collaborators in other fields what questions are important to them and also reflect on what questions are important to you. Will your collaboration meet in the middle or answer both? When it comes to interdisciplinary collaborations, it helps to have a liason that can bridge two disciplines.


Please leave us a comment if we missed anything!

*Thanks to the NC State University College of Natural Resources Women in STEM lunch meeting for your helpful comments during our lunch discussion on February 14, 2018.

Photography by Armanda Roco