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Collaborations: the good, the bad, the meh


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How much of your dissertation depends on being able to share resources, labor and others' expertise? Has this enhanced your research significantly, and added value? Have any been total washes?

 

I'm thinking on this lately because I have one I'm trying to manage right now, and it's not going great. It's a finicky technique requiring lots of testing and re-dos, and it came out of left field...long after my proposal defense, advisor just fixated on it and insisted it be done. Another is one I've been trying, largely on my own, to get off the ground for a year and a half. It would have been something cutting edge and been a cool add to my project...my advisor was supportive, and anyone I mentioned it to was excited about the prospect...but the main contact has been rather incommunicado and abrasive from the outset. I don't think that bodes well for actually training, working in their lab, and being involved in the pub process together. I decided this week to just abandon it. 

 

I feel a bit adrift at the thought of someday, in the not-too-distant future, being my own PI and having to cultivate collaborations that will be successful. Is there a recipe for success? Or is fostering collaborations as a novice scientific researcher always a bit of a crap shoot?

Edited by mandarin.orange
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Most of my work is done in collaborations. My dissertation is actually kind of an exception, where only two chapters (out of 5) came out of joint work. 

 

I will say this: I've had awesome collaborations and I've had meh collaborations. I think the most important factor in a successful collaboration is the personality match between collaborators, and that's something that's very hard to quantify or predict, but it's something you just know when you meet the person and talk to them. Sometimes someone rubs you the wrong way, or you get a weird vibe off of them. If that happens, even if it's someone who on paper it would be great to work with, or is famous or it would look good on my CV to have something with them, I just don't. Doing that in the past has caused me a lot of grief. Now I concentrate on the sustainable ones that I enjoy. 

 

Then there are also some technical aspects to collaborations that as a young researcher you need to learn to figure out, but I think they tend to depend on the group more than anything. Like discussing authorship very early; agreeing on how we communicate, how we technically keep shared work and who has access to it; who is responsible for which part of the work; operating procedures for if/when someone becomes busy and less responsive (happens to everyone at some point). I only work with people who I know I can trust. So if they are writing an abstract and I don't have time to take a look, I fully trust them to submit it with my name on it, and I know it's good and represents all our thoughts. Same goes the other way -- I expect to have the autonomy to make decisions myself, if a collaborator is not able to attend to our joint work in a reasonable amount of time. This is always tricky, especially when collaborating with older, more established researchers, but if someone is going to insist that nothing happens unless they personally approve it, and then they take months on end to reply to email, that is probably not worth maintaining.  

 

As a PI I think you choose students who you think can work well with you, and you facilitate conversations among students, as needed. You make yourself available to settle disputes and you try to prevent them before they happen if you think something might be brewing. Beyond that, you make the community around you pleasant and you make collaborations possible, but I don't think you can force them. (But, I am not in a lab science so it's not like anyone is required to collaborate on anything in particular, so things might be different for you.)

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Thanks, fuzzy. I waited a few days to see if there would be more replies, but perhaps no one else collaborates?  B)

 

The point about personality mesh being key is what I've been coming around to myself. It's easy to get stuck on study design, and the techniques or potential data sets that would really enhance a project...but if the "gatekeeper" to that technique is very difficult to deal with, perhaps it is ultimately not worth it.

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I guess I would ask myself if it'd be a one-off project where I would learn the technique and I might not enjoy the project tremendously but then I'd be able to use the technique on my own, or if I'm always going to be dependent on the other person to be able to use it. If it's the former, then if there is a reasonable payoff, I might do it (though recently for a kind of similar case I decided against it because it really wasn't pleasant to work with the person I would have needed to be learning from). If it's the latter, then I think it's not worth it, as far as I am concerned. It'd have to be one hell of a serious payoff to make me participate in an unpleasant collaboration at this point in my career. 

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I don't have a lot of collaborations, in part because of personality differences and in part because I work in an area that very few people are doing research in. Personality is a key factor in successful collaborations, as are the willingness to listen respectfully and compromise when necessary. I've reached out to a few people about collaborations that have never written me back. But, I'm also in a field where solo authoring papers and projects is more common than not. 

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In my last program, I collaborated twice.  One was fantastic and really enhanced my project/thesis; it was with a fellow grad student.  

The other was for a side project that I had initiated.  I needed to collaborate with a particular tenured prof.  It was a disaster.  She was not receptive at all--kept "forgetting" our appointments or cancelling.  Oh, and she also began ignoring my emails.  I bypassed her for some time by collaborating with one of her grad students and another prof. instead.  Ultimately, I needed her though.  I wound up dropping that project.  She drained me of any interest.

I found out after the fact that she was a cruddy/annoying advisor and a mediocre prof., at best.  Before collaborating, find out about the person you plan to approach.  If he/she is known for being a gremlin, move on.  Save yourself the trouble.  I don't care how much of an expert the person is.

 

In my new program, I'm collaborating again (with the department chair).  It's a great fit!  I'd say I'm 2 for 3. 

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I have lots of collaborations, I didn't respond mostly because not all of them tie strongly into my dissertation. 

 

The way our lab works, everyone has related but disparate projects, and everyone has some expertise. Accordingly, there is a lot of intra-group collaboration. IE, I do the vast majority of live cell applications of work from a number of different project sources, as well as specific instrumentation usage. 

 

Outside of my group, I have a number of different collaborations, some minor and some major, with faculty and graduate students at different campuses or in different programs. Some were collaborations I initiated with peers, some were collaborations that my PI started and handed off to me. 

 

A lot have fallen into each of your categories- some have just turned out to be really hard to manage- too many people with ideas, not enough people working on implementing them. Lots of people also means lots of chances for miscommunication and shifting priorities. Especially projects that started as a collaboration with a PI, that then got handed off to one or more graduate students in their lab that weren't as interested or necessarily capable of pulling off what they needed to.

 

I've had a couple that the collaboration was successful, but the project ultimately wasn't- good ideas, good communication and follow through, but just not ultimately interesting enough for various reasons to lead to new grants or publication. 

 

And then I've had a couple of excellent collaborations that have yielded really good results. 

 

Maybe more in the vein you're talking about, I also differentiate between actual collaborative projects (where you design and perhaps write a grant for a project with defined contributions from multiple partners), and the need to rely on instrumentation and expertise not found in my research group or department. When I had to learn cell culture, molecular biology, and then ultimately set up my own lab for it, I relied a lot on peers with that expertise for advice, training, and to look over my data. 

 

Similarly, when one of our projects veered heavily into the more hardcore physical side of organic photochemistry, I relied very heavily on a colleague there to help me design experiments and look over data. 

 

A lot of other collaborations of this type have ultimately been very successful, where a project I'm already working on veers into new territory, that requires me finding someone with that expertise to learn from and work with. I find myself knocking on doors of people I don't know all that well on a regular basis to get a new take on something odd I'm finding in my results. 

 

On the flip side, for better or worse, I've gotten a name around campus as the guy to go to for separating samples. I've ended up collaborating with everyone from anthropology to genetics with different one-off or long term projects that need someone with a background in liquid chromatography. 

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I found out after the fact that she was a cruddy/annoying advisor and a mediocre prof., at best.  Before collaborating, find out about the person you plan to approach.  If he/she is known for being a gremlin, move on.  Save yourself the trouble.  I don't care how much of an expert the person is.

 

This is good advice. With regards to the outside prof I want to drop, a committee member had forewarned me in a one-on-one meeting, and I vividly remember it starting with, "You seem like a nice person..." I tried to blaze ahead anyway. Lesson learned! Eigen, I appreciated your post b/c these have largely been geochemical techniques. People have their very specialized instrumentation and expertise cornered...seems to make collaboration essential. 

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I "collaborate" in that I have two advisors, so I have lab mates in two separate labs. The first year or so was very difficult -- both advisors work in different sub-fields, and the vocabulary is different enough that we were having a lot of communication challenges. Over time, I've learned how to better manage the different perspectives, even use them to my advantage. It takes time though.

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Today on NPR there was a story about collaboration and authorship that made me laugh. 5000 authors on a single paper? http://www.npr.org/2015/08/12/431959428/research-biologist-coins-term-kilo-author-for-scientific-journal-articles

 

I think I've seen this paper and the number of pages required to list the authors is longer than the paper itself (9 pages for the science, 24 pages for the author list). The NPR interview is fun and while I agree that it's common in my field to "err on the side of inclusion" when deciding whether or not to include someone as a coauthor, I don't think you get to 5000 authors that way! Instead, this paper, for the Higgs Boson, has that many authors because when building a giant experiment such as the Large Hadron Collider that represents decades and/or lifetime's worth of work and ~10 billion dollars, every single person that was involved in building the experiment is an author on the main result of that experiment. 

 

For papers like this, it doesn't make sense to think about "who did what" or how to distribute the credit. For this, everyone should receive equal credit. The point of these large (and risky) experiments is that everyone is important and you want everyone to "buy in". Including things like authorship order or specific statements of who contributed what would weaken the community aspect of these types of projects. Although this 5000+ author paper is an extreme case, in physics/astronomy, it's pretty common for big experiments/projects to have 50-100 collaborators that are all listed in some way that indicates equal credit (sometimes with a little bit more credit to the lead of that particular paper). 

 

One thing I think should change though is that big collaborations should be able to register their collaboration with the journal as something like the "XYZ Collaboration". Then papers can just list this collaboration instead of listing in ABC order (unfair exposure to some names and also prevents ridiculously long lists and/or forgetting a team member). The important part though is that each member of the collaboration should be linked to the registered collaboration name. That is, searching for Author X on Google Scholar or other database should bring up papers they are coauthors due to their collaboration membership. But this requires some kind of central ID system. A few are starting to happen (seeing more and more ORCiDs in my field) but no one system has dominated yet.

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