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How to establish productive research collaborations

By Richard de Grijs | Jan. 15, 2018  | Research skills Collaboration

With the scientific and scholarly research environment becoming ever more complex and demanding, establishing external collaborations is rapidly turning into a key survival skill. In this post, Richard de Grijs, Professor of Astrophysics at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University, shares his advice on getting started.

A few years ago, I was invited to contribute practical advice about establishing international research collaborations to the influential ‘Ten Simple Rules’ collection in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. Since scientific research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and complex, it is more than likely that your own research group doesn’t have access to all of the expertise or equipment you may need to become a productive researcher. As a natural consequence, establishing external research collaborations is rapidly becoming a key survival skill in today’s competitive scientific environment.

Therefore, in this blog post I have collected some of the most important ‘rules’ for establishing such collaborative links, with a particular focus on the needs of the AuthorAID community.


1. Determine your needs

Don’t rush into any potential collaboration, no matter the possible funding levels on offer. Make sure that the collaboration will be productive: choose your collaborator such that they can provide the complementary expertise, perspectives or skills that your home-grown team may be lacking, or access to equipment, field research, populations, or other research resources you cannot easily achieve yourself. Rather than jumping into a collaboration with a more established and more senior partner simply because it may look good on your resume, consider whether both of you share a passion for the research going forward.


2. Consider the type of collaborator desired

Having an association with a big-name professor in your field may look good on your CV, but do you really think that she will have the time to carry out the detailed research you need to make progress in your own career? I would recommend that you establish links with more junior researchers who are likely to follow through on practical research agreements, so that you both will be able to harvest the results of a mutually beneficial collaboration. It usually pays to contact your potential collaborator’s previous colleagues to make sure that he is actually true to his word and will attempt to meet his obligations. Producing a number of high-profile publications that set the tone for your field for years to come will have a more positive impact on your career than having that senior professor as last author on a regular article.

3. Offer tangible benefits in return

Productive scientists often have exceedingly busy agendas, yet they may be willing to welcome new colleagues to their team if the conditions are right. Instead of simply asking for help or resources, you stand a better chance of being noticed if you can offer tangible benefits in return. These may include your own, complementary expertise or skills, data you have already collected, a significant time commitment by your team, or even exchange students. Research collaborations involve both ‘give and take’ to become successful and productive.

4. Explore practical means of establishing the relationship

High-profile collaborations require more than just resources. While access to data, equipment, and expertise is key, establishing personal relationships is at least as important. Long-term collaborators often become good, sometimes life-long friends, which adds a whole new dimension to their joint efforts. Consider how you can establish personal relationships; the options are numerous, but pursuing them requires careful thought. Think about attending conferences in your field, talking to visiting scientists, or even applying for funding to support extended exchange visits to ‘test the waters’. Many funding agencies provide small seed grants to allow scientists to explore joint interests to potentially initiate more substantive collaborative research programmes.

5. Be a good citizen

It almost goes without saying that external collaborations require substantial efforts from both sides to become successful. Live up to your promises, meet deadlines, and above all, communicate, communicate and communicate. Keep in mind that electronic communication often does not convey the nuances of face-to-face interactions, and misunderstandings can arise quite easily. Be aware of how your message may come across and beware of potential conflict situations.

Good luck!

Richard de Grijs is a professional astrophysicist with more than 20 years of experience in publishing articles in international peer-reviewed journals. He is a long-time scientific editor of some of the main research journals in his field and the Deputy Editor of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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