Author: Michael Kalichman, 2001
Contributors: P.D. Magnus, Dena Plemmons


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.

Regulations and Guidelines

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


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