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The ingredients of successful research collaboration

By Rahab W. Muinga | Aug. 8, 2017  | Research skills Collaboration

Dr Rahab Muinga, an animal nutritionist based in Kenya, shares her top tips for effective research collaboration with other scientists

When I look back at my career path, I am convinced that there is no research without collaboration. Over the years, I have moved from being a mentee to a mentor – and I learnt the fundamentals of research through collaboration with other scientists.

It was 1977 that I had my first experience of research collaboration. At the time, I was a Research Assistant at the Animal Husbandry Research Station in Naivasha, Kenya (which has since changed its name to KALRO Naivasha). I was given an assignment by the Director to do a review on wheat for livestock feeding. Armed with a BSc degree in Agriculture, I combed through all the relevant library books within reach and submitted my write-up after two weeks. The document was sent back to me after two days with a lot of corrections for me to add!

This was the first time I had worked on a piece of research with someone else, and it taught me the importance of listening to more experienced researchers to improve my skills. The corrections may not immediately make sense and it can be tempting to ignore them – but there is always something to learn from researchers with more experience.

I would strongly advise early-career researchers to be courageous and to actively seek help from more senior scientists when it comes to editing publications. For example, the response from my first attempt to publish a journal paper was: ‘re-write and submit as a journal brief’. I shared the same manuscript with an experienced scientist who edited it – and it was accepted as a full paper in the same journal!

Flexibility and working together

My experience has taught me that it is important to actively seek opportunities to collaborate and, where necessary, to be quick to adapt. For instance, during my MSc studies, my supervisor decided to recruit students to work on aspects of a research grant he had won. Although I had initially proposed to work on cereals in pig nutrition, I changed my topic to roots and tuber crops for poultry so that I could be a part of this project. This turned out to be a synergistic collaboration, where my supervisor had someone (me!) to carry out important work and I was able to acquire my MSc certificate.

Ten years later, a collaborative research project in my institution required a scientist to carry out a dairy nutrition study. The project also had an opportunity for PhD training. I could have dismissed it since I was carrying out poultry research at the time – but I joined the multidisciplinary project team as an animal nutritionist. As a holistic project, it required all team members to work together. After five years, our collaborative efforts resulted in publications in journals and conferences, as well as improved dairy technologies and capacity-building for the scientists, three of whom acquired PhDs. The project team leader was a seasoned scientist and mentored the younger ones.

Benefits of mentoring

After 20 years of working as a researcher, I was appointed to a research administration post. This opened up many opportunities for me to supervise work in other disciplines and to work with researchers with a range of different backgrounds and specialisms.

It was during this time that I had the opportunity to mentor younger scientists. After writing research proposals, my colleagues and I would scout out students in animal science to help with the projects. I co-supervised the students’ work and thesis writing with their university supervisors – it was my responsibility to ensure the research requirements were met and the university supervisors’ responsibility to ensure that students met academic requirements. This collaboration gave students the opportunity to be mentored by experienced scientists in a research setting, and to be co-authors of scientific publications.

I have seen huge benefits from mentoring. Senior scientists can help younger scientists to ensure that their manuscripts conform to specific journal requirements. Not only does this help early-career researchers to publish their work, but it may also save them from publishing their work in predatory journals.

Action for successful collaboration

Finally, for sustainable collaboration, it is important to:

  • Work in consultation from concept development to publication of the results; partners should be involved in all discussions and decisions
  • Have a signed contract outlining the terms of reference and roles for each partner
  • Establish the ground rules for the collaboration and have a well-defined research protocol to guide implementation of the activities. This should include a clear work plan and budget, indicating contribution from each partner and expenditure authorization
  • Meet regularly to review achievements and plan next steps; this helps to monitor the milestones towards the final product
  • Agree on project reporting schedule and format
  • Predetermine authorship of publications and sharing of positions to avoid one person patronizing first authorship
  • Cultivate a cordial working relationship and an exit strategy for the collaboration

Dr Rahab Muinga is a Senior Principal Research Officer/Head of Knowledge and Information Sub Unit at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). With an academic background in animal nutrition, she also mentors and coaches upcoming researchers.

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