How to foster a culture of healthy collaboration in research
Giant strides in technology, improved digital connectivity, cheaper transportation, and international cooperation have made the world highly connected and interdependent. This globalization has accelerated the need to cultivate intercultural and international collaboration in nearly every sphere of life. By the same token, most pressing challenges faced by humanity today are of global importance, be it biodiversity loss, the climate emergency, or global health crises. The best bet to tackle such challenges is to focus on cross-sector and cross-disciplinary approaches.
Why collaboration is important for research
With the rapid expansion of knowledge, science needs to become increasingly collaborative. Such partnerships can come in different flavors: interdisciplinary, international, private–public, academia–industry–government, and even collaboration with citizen scientists and advocacy groups. Bringing together diverse perspectives, skills, and strengths in this manner can increase efficiency, expedite research, and increase visibility.
Some ways by which collaboration benefits research and researchers are as follows.
Exciting new vistas for researchers
Collaborations can help forge new connections and networks and even increase chances of getting funded. Academics can meet potential employers, mentors, and collaborators. This could translate into researchers taking up research roles in different countries or sectors (public to private and vice versa).
Collaborations across borders can even allow researchers from developing and developed countries to exchange information, expertise, and techniques. In this way, researchers can generate new knowledge and acquire new experience, equipping them to expand their horizons and skill sets to address complex scientific questions.
Creating a greater impact
By being at the helm of research that has a direct impact on policy, practice, or industry, researchers have the power to increase their impact and visibility. What’s more, papers produced by collaborative studies receive more citations than domestically authored papers do, with citation rates increasing with every additional country in an author list.1
Improving international relations
Science diplomacy is an approach that can help establish, build, and strengthen links and relations between nations through research collaboration, some examples being the scientific cooperation in Antarctica or space.
Science diplomacy is particularly relevant today, with Ukraine and Russia locked in battle and relations deteriorating between Russia and other countries that were working together. Threats to the deep-rooted tradition of scientific collaboration across divides can stymie the progress of science. According to one expert, “Where traditional channels may fail, collaborative science can enhance the relations between nations.”2
Hallmarks of a healthy collaborative culture
Good collaborative culture is not just about linking researchers at an individual level; it means ushering in international partnerships, academic connections, and research collaborations. At the heart of building meaningful and fruitful partnerships in research are trust and communication. Let’s take a look at the signs of a healthy collaborative framework.
Openness and mutual trust
One of the pillars of a collaborative project is trust. A successful collaborative framework will have open lines of communication. Offline and online communication tools will be used, and multilateral flows of information will be in place.
When stakeholders sharing a common concern or interest come together, they can meaningfully fulfil goals. Common interests ensure that all involved parties have the motivation to see the project till the very end. In other words, shared goals encourage shared responsibility among all partners.
Mutually agreed terms around access and credit
Members of a healthy collaborative setup will have clear and mutually agreed definitions and expectations with regard to the ethical sharing, processing, and use of data. Similarly, conditions for credit, rewards, and attributions among partners are decided and agreed upon in advance to avoid disputes.
Success stories of collaborative research
Tackling epidemics and pandemics
Historically, collaborative research and science diplomacy have proven successful in targeting diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, Ebola, Zika, and in most recent memory, COVID-19. Without cross-border, cross-institutional, and science–industry collaboration, it is hard to conceive if we would have the vaccines and treatments available today!
Building climate resilience in agriculture
The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research—constituted by 16 international agricultural research centers—has been catalyzing significant agricultural research through multilateral partnerships. Close collaborations with national and regional research institutes, academia, development organizations, and the private sector have led to modern, high-yielding rice and wheat cultivars to fight global hunger. Other research includes capacity-building for the development of sustainable and resilient farming systems under changing climate, with a focus on food, land, and water resources under climate extremes.
More than a dozen nations have partnered to build and operate the International Space Station (ISS) to demystify diverse aspects of science in space.3 The ISS National Laboratory is also an example of a public–private partnership. It seeks third-party funding from private and government agencies. The space station research environment is also open to entrepreneurs and innovators to drive change.
Building blocks for effective collaboration
Leaders and organizations can lay the groundwork for effective and healthy collaboration of any type by considering some key points and avoiding major pitfalls.
Building a paradigm of trust
Channels for multilateral interactions and sharing of ideas must be facilitated. There should be mechanisms in place to resolve disputes, should they arise. Ideally, ground rules or a code to ensure transparency in all aspects of running the project should be established.
Typically, public and for-profit private sectors view each other with unnecessary antagonism. Therefore, there is a need to establish public–private trust relationships.4
Understanding and respecting cultural and disciplinary differences
Collaborators should be mindful of differences in culture to maintain long-term and sustainable relationships. It is imperative to cultivate an understanding of the dynamics of cultures of different participating groups to prevent intentional or unintentional cultural bias.
Organizations wishing to build collaborations should perform the following:
- Include intercultural topics in teaching and learning.
- Provide soft-skills and sensitivity training.
- Provide orientation to different communication styles in different cultures or settings.
In the same vein, acknowledging and understanding similarities and differences in concepts, methodologies, and working styles across disciplines and sectors will avoid unwanted surprises and unexpected reactions.
Ensuring fair and equal participation
Considering cultural differences and sensitivities, all partners are entitled to equal participation. This can be ensured as follows:
- Allow leadership by underrepresented academics and partners.
- Explore and respect the diverse expertise and experience each partner holds
- Consider different ways of representing and maximizing the strengths of each member.
A common understanding of data access, security, and sharing
“Open Science” encourages equitable access to scientific data and the ability to reproduce previous scientific findings with the data. Any type of collaboration warrants mutual agreement on how to ethically share and process data. To build trust and encourage data sharing, the following are necessary:
- Stakeholders must prioritize and respect data privacy and security.
- Ethical data sharing and processing should be defined clearly and transparently.
- As evidenced by the recent pandemic, there should be mechanisms in place for researchers to access industry data. In fact, such data access is imperative in any setting, besides emergencies.
Avoiding helicopter research
Complex global problems often require local solutions. These solutions might be particularly effective if they are co-created with local communities. Researchers must involve local communities in surveys, conservation efforts, etc., while respecting their autonomy and rights. Helicopter research or “parachute science”5 is the exploitative practice wherein researchers from wealthy nations conduct research in resource-poor settings with minimal or no involvement of local communities or researchers. Areas targeted for research should not be viewed as simply a source of samples or locals merely as a means of logistical support.
Principal investigators and institutions must consider the following to avoid helicopter research:
- Ensure highest standards of ethics. Obtain consent and permits as needed and provide necessary ethics disclosures in publications.
- Ensure that research outputs benefit the source country’s local researchers, community, and/or infrastructure.
- Build local research capacity (e.g., provide training to young researchers in the latest technology)
- Give credit where due, e.g., authorship and acknowledgments, as applicable.
An “open” research environment is most conducive for high-quality science to thrive. And when researchers of divergent disciplines and geographies come together with other stakeholders with unique strengths and resources, it brings hope for resolving the major challenges facing our planet today. It is more important now than ever before to transcend geopolitical and sector barriers and nurture collaborative research.
1. Maher, B. & Van Noorden, R. How the COVID pandemic is changing global science collaborations. Nature 594, 316-319 (2021) doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01570-2
2. The Biologist. What is science diplomacy? The Biologist. https://www.rsb.org.uk/biologist-features/what-is-science-diplomacy
3. ISS National Laboratory. Public-Private Partnerships in Space. https://www.issnationallab.org/research-on-the-iss/public-private-partnerships-in-space/
4. Reich, M.R. Public–private partnerships for public health. Nat. Med. 6, 617–620 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/76176
5. Tackling helicopter research. Nat. Geosci. 15, 597 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-022-01010-4
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