Wednesday, 17 May 2017 11:54

Scientific Collaborations: Understand Yourself, Set Rules, and Communicate

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Published in Careers

Last fall, I attended a workshop on scientific collaborations by Dr. Michelle Bennett from the National Institutes of Health. Even though I’ve always been involved in collaborations, I never appreciated their elegance before attending the workshop. Modern science is built on collaborations. If you look at recent scientific breakthroughs, such as the creation of the HPV vaccine, identification of the virus causing SARS, or detection of gravitational waves, almost all of them are the results of international collaborations. Most newcomers in science, including myself, cannot imagine science without collaborations. If you do research, you probably have collaborators within your lab, with labs across your country, and all around the world. There is no doubt that successful collaborations enrich the scientific process, but what makes or breaks collaborations?

Know Thyself: Mindful Assessments
Before you begin a collaboration, it is important to know what you’re getting into and how it aligns with your personality. In teamwork, there are two major steps: 1) the assessment of your strength and weaknesses in a group and 2) accepting that your collaborators have unique personalities. Do not try to classify people into different personality styles, but accept them for their unique set of attributes. The personal diversity that you and others bring to a collaboration will add to the scientific and interpersonal experience. That doesn’t mean you should collaborate with anyone and everyone. Before you email them or reach out to them at a conference, do your homework on the potential collaborator and how their philosophy aligns with yours. Just getting along with a group/person doesn’t always mean you can have a successful collaboration. Talk to others who have previously collaborated with the group/person in mind and evaluate things before taking the first step.

Set Ground Rules
BEFORE you start experiments, have a professional conversation with all the collaborators. Here are the tenets of a successful collaboration that need to be thoroughly discussed prior to the start of the collaboration:

Goals: You’re starting a collaboration because each of you has a set of skills that if put together, will help achieve a goal that either of you couldn’t independently achieve. In other words, the sum of your skills is greater than each one on its own. Whether you’re collaborating with another lab member, or with a dozen labs, you must define and foster a shared vision. A shared vision will determine not only the desired outcome but also all the steps that need to be taken to reach that outcome.

Expectations: Even if you’ve listed all the experiments the teams will have to do, you want to avoid two people doing the same thing, or worse, the two sides thinking the other one is doing a particular experiment. Make those very clear, and update the teams through adequate communication (discussed in more detail below).

Conflict of Interest: As much as we like to avoid them, conflicts of interest are inevitable. Discuss how the collaborators will address the situation should a conflict of interest arise.

Contingencies: This is tricky because even the most imaginative mind fails to predict all possible scenarios. Brainstorm with your collaborator and address scenarios like what if that experiment fails or what if your work gets scooped, etc.

Authorship: Imagine that all the experiments are done and your team has a story to publish, but you haven’t determined authorship - things can get really confusing, really quickly. Authorship and credit need to be discussed prior to the start of the project and assessed along the way. This is not traditionally the way it’s done because science is unpredictable. But in collaborations, we must strive to constantly be aware of this or make changes as needed.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
If successful collaborations had a recipe, communication would be their main ingredient. All parties in a collaboration must constantly update one another on the progress they’ve made toward their shared goals. I learned the importance of communication from my PI; during a collaboration, he would immediately inform the other group about our lab’s progress, and pushed us to directly interact and communicate with our collaborators. This created a sense of teamwork between both labs to the point that we considered the members of the other lab as our own. This sense of community is only one of the many benefits of constant communication. Most of us are in science because we enjoy talking about science, we enjoy agreeing (but mostly disagreeing) with what others say. Effective communication cultivates this nature of scientists and results in a more successful scientific endeavor. In addition, trust and productivity improve as a result of communication.

Trust, You Must!
Trust is something we don’t like to discuss in science. But when it comes to collaborations, different forms of trust must be maintained. Initially, you can rely on calculus-based trust. This is a less personal form of trust that can be described as “trustworthy until proven otherwise.” The second form of trust, competence-based trust, is particularly important in science. This is trusting someone’s skills - trusting that their 0.5 mL is exactly that and tube X contains X, etc. Without competence-based trust, a collaboration is not going to succeed. Even if you deeply trust a person, not being able to trust their data is detrimental. The third form of trust is more personal, also called identity-based trust. However, this form of trust takes time to build and requires an interpersonal understanding, something that most long-term collaborations benefit from. Assess and take steps to build trust with your collaborators, and maintain the trust.

Despite all the points mentioned above, no collaboration is going to go perfectly as planned, regardless of how much you prepare. Make changes along the way and communicate with your collaborators. Be ready to make compromises and always consider others in the decisions you make. Above all, collaborations should make science more fun. Enjoy the process!

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17 May 2017 16:32
Alireza Edraki

Alireza Edraki is a PhD candidate at the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He received his B.S in Biological Sciences from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research interests are evolution, RNA biology and CRISPR gene editing. Ali is passionate about writing and teaching science. He started teaching when he was 16, and has been teaching ever since. His goal is to become a science educator, to teach the public about the wonders of science.