Author: Michael Kalichman, 2001
Contributors: P.D. Magnus, Dena Plemmons
  • Communication:
    The nature of collaborations is variable, but responsible collaborations are always defined by openness and early, on-going communication. Science is a communal enterprise; both science and society are best served by collegiality and open collaboration. There should be a mutual understanding of what is to be exchanged through the collaboration, how the research will be undertaken, and how the products of the collaboration will be shared.. Collaboration is most likely to succeed if expectations are clearly communicated (and perhaps documented) before commitments are made.

For many reasons, science increasingly depends on collaborations. First, no single person has the skills, knowledge, and resources to address all research problems; a judicious choice of collaborators can save considerable time and money. Second, the funding and structure of science tend to favor programs in which recognized authorities are involved from each key area. Third, breakthroughs are often more likely to come from collaboration across disciplines than by adherence to tried and true methods. Fourth, collaboration between the private sector and academia is being encouraged by legislation (e.g., the Bayh-Dole Patent Reform Act of 1980 allowed universities to negotiate patent rights with industrial partners), industry (which recognizes the benefits of the expertise and reputation of academics), and academia itself (which can benefit from immediate and long-term sources of private funding). Finally, collaborations are easier now than before. With obvious improvements in communication (phone, fax, e-mail), shipping (one-day delivery), and travel (to national and international conferences), potential collaborators are more likely to find each other and are more able to maintain their collaboration. Whatever the reason, collaborations are increasingly beneficial and possible.

Nevertheless, collaborations are also a frequent source of problems, in part because collaboration can take such different forms. It certainly implies two or more people having joined together for a common purpose, but this might involve almost any arrangement of shared time, work, resources, unique materials, data, ideas, or money. Once the work is completed, credit and responsibility might then be shared in a number of ways. Collaborations may not even begin because of reluctance to share or work together (Cohen, 1995), and if started, collaborations can be marred by misunderstandings of what is to be provided by each of the participants, unhappiness with a slow collaborator, disagreement about what and when to publish, or conflicts regarding authorship and credit. (Kahn et al., 2000; Wilcox, 1998). Although there is no panacea for such problems, it is evident that any solution needs to begin with improved communication.

A number of professional societies and journals have published guidelines that address various aspects of collaborations. For example, in 1995, the American Academy of Microbiology published a document summarizing many of the important issues in collaborations plus suggested guidelines for successful collaboration (Macrina et al., 1995). Another report, with a focus on universities and industry, makes a variety of suggestions about how to overcome the existing barriers to collaboration (National Academy of Sciences et al., 1999).

The process of collaboration is regulated primarily at the institutional level, not by the funders, public or private, of the research. The presumption is that the community is best served by minimal barriers to free and open collaboration. However, the outcomes of collaboration, particularly patents and copyrights, are restricted by both public and private funders of research. Moreover, nearly all institutions have rules and guidelines governing collaboration. For example, most academic institutions have explicit rules governing ownership of the products of work done by employees of the institution; material transfer; and limitations on academic-industrial agreements that might compromise the institution's academic mission. Some institutions also have guidelines for issues such as sharing and ownership of data, assignment of authorship, and credit and responsibilities for authors (Eastwood et al., 2001). It is increasingly the case that collaboration with someone outside of an institution cannot proceed without involving the institution.

Case Studies

Discussion Questions

  1. For your area of research, what are some specific benefits you could gain from collaborating with others? What are the costs? What are the risks?
  2. What issues are most likely to cause disagreements among collaborators working in your field of research? What problems, if any, are unique to your field of research?
  3. What steps can you take, or recommend, that would decrease the risk of miscommunication in future collaborations?
  4. What rules govern the transfer of material into and out of your institution?

Additional Considerations

  • Cultural Communication Barriers
    While successful collaborations depend on explicit communication, such communication is often difficult. In some cases, different cultural backgrounds are an impediment to understanding. The culture of, for instance, the private sector emphasizes discovery and application of profitable products while academics may be more interested in mechanisms and new discoveries. In international collaborations, participants may literally speak different languages. Even when a common language is available, participants may have very different styles and understandings of communication as well as different perspectives on sharing and ownership.
  • Disciplinary Communication Barriers
    Different research disciplines can also be a source of miscommunication. Because of the nature of the work, some disciplines may have very different expectations about hours to be worked (e.g., many biochemical and molecular biological studies require long hours), standards of proof (e.g., different disciplines have developed different views about the need for statistical methods), or the pace of work (e.g., high quality electron microscopy can often be elusive and require many days or weeks of searching for acceptable images long after a study has been otherwise completed). Similarly, communication across disciplines can be impaired by different understandings about the science, vocabulary, or methods.
  • Individual Communication Barriers
    Different individuals can simply have very different standards and interpersonal styles. Some people consider a verbal agreement to be binding, while others prefer explicit, written contracts. Some favor rapid publication of each new finding; others prefer to amass a body of work for a single large publication. Some are convinced that authorship and credit should be reserved only for those who have made the most substantial contribution to the study; others are much freer in assigning credit. Some readily and clearly speak their minds; others are more withdrawn and will volunteer information only if asked.
  • Risks of Collaboration
    Collaboration is in the best spirit of science, but opening a collaboration can leave a scientist vulnerable to the actions, or inaction, of his or her collaborators. Therefore, choosing colleagues should be based not only on the science, but also on the likelihood of amicable relationships in which lines of communication can be kept open.
  • Communication of Expectations
    Although guidelines or regulations do not explicitly cover all these aspects of collaboration, the goal should be communication that clarifies expectations of all parties involved. It may not be necessary to put everything in writing, but attempts should be made to explicitly address relevant issues.
  • Anderson MS, Louis KS, Earle J (1994): Disciplinary and departmental effects on observations of faculty and graduate student misconduct. Journal of Higher Education 65: 331-350.
  • Bayh-Dole Patent Reform Act (1980): Section 6, Patent and Trademark Amendment of 1980, PL 96-517; implementation by OMB Circular No. A-124 [superseded by PL 98-62 and 37CFR401, 1987]
  • Brown S, Kalichman MW (1998): Effects of training in the responsible conduct of research: A survey of graduate students in experimental science. Science and Engineering Ethics 4: 487-498.
  • Cohen J (1995): Share and share alike isn't always the rule in science. Science 268:1715-1718.
  • Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2000): Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisors, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
  • Douglas-Vidas J, Ferraro A, Reichman M (2001): Analysis of Guidelines for the Conduct of Research Adopted by Medical Schools or Their Components. Published on line by the USPHS Office of Research Integrity
  • Eastwood S, Derish P, Leash E, Ordway S (1996): Ethical issues in biomedical research: Perceptions and practices of postdoctoral research fellows responding to a survey. Science and Engineering Ethics 2: 89-114.
  • Eastwood S, Fike JR, Cogen PH, Rosegay H, Berens M (2001): BTRC Guidelines on Research Data and Manuscripts (Brain Tumor Research Center, University of California San Francisco, 1989). Revised and updated in 2000 and reprinted in (Bulger RE, Heitman3/4E, Reiser SJ, eds.): The Ethical Dimensions of the Biological Sciences, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.
  • Institute of Medicine (1989): The Responsible Conduct of Research in the Health Sciences. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.
  • Kahn JO, Cherng DW, Mayer K, Murray H, Lagakos S for the 806 Investigator Team (2000): Evaluation of HIV-1 Immunogen, an Immunologic Modifier, Administered to Patients Infected With HIV Having 300 to 549 X 106/L CD4 Cell Counts: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 284:2193-2202.
  • Macrina FL et al. (1995): Dynamic Issues in Scientific Integrity: Collaborative Research. American Academy of Microbiology, Washington, D.C.
  • National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council (1999): Overcoming Barriers to Collaborative Research. Report of a Workshop. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.[the document is for sale, but there are links to free versions in pdf and html]