Your tips for successful collaborations — R Voice

Your tips for successful collaborations

chris leonard
chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 156 admin

As multi-center, multi-author papers become more common, the business of working together in a collaboration can become difficult. These tips were interesting to me, but what's YOUR top tip for working in a successful collaboration?


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  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 401 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thanks for sharing the link, @chris leonard. Collaborations are a really important part of research in my view. We had a thread earlier this month on tips to find collaborators, but keeping them is a skill too!

    I have been part of a multi-author paper with a team in Australia this past year and it has been a great experience. I think my top tip would be to be accepting and respectful of others, both in terms of their experience but also cultural differences. It helps to keep things friendly and is a great learning opportunity also.

  • chris leonard
    chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 156 admin

    Thanks Shruti - is there not a formal allocation of roles within the collaboration? How do you assign tasks etc.? Also, given the time difference, how did you usually communicate? I'm interested as there is much to learn for non-academic groups working asynchronously too.

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 401 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Ooh - such good questions that I haven't actually thought about formally because things felt like they fell into place naturally with the team.

    Formal allocation of roles: as we were working on a systematic review, yes we each had tasks to do e.g. article screening, data extraction etc. But for the writing of the manuscript, it was a lot more informal, based on the time that we each had. We have a lead author who put the bones of the paper together and then the other two of us added when we could.

    Assigning tasks: was all quite amicable as well, a suggestion would be made by email or it would be a conversation where someone would offer to do something and then others fell in around that based on availability.

    Time difference and communication: we have had a few meetings via Zoom...generally I will start a bit early and my AUS colleagues would have an early evening call. Thankfully, I am an early bird anyway! My colleagues are understanding that my timings are different, and even though I'm the only one they are keen to make sure the time suits me - always giving me time to make a cup of tea at least before we start! Other than that we would have email for anything needing simple decisions. The main communication method during the manuscript writing was actually on comments on the document which was held in a shared OneDrive folder. We all made tracked changes and commented/replied to any thoughts or suggestions. Then the lead author (they established the proposal/collaboration) accepted tracked changes etc to come up with a more final manuscript for us to agree on.

    I think some of the things that made this collaboration so smooth are that no one was slacking and just along for the ride. Everyone put in the work where they could and did it well. The fact there were only three of us and all understanding/appreciative of differences I think was also helpful. I think that's why my original top tips were what they were: things feel very natural and smooth when you've got a good team!

  • chris leonard
    chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 156 admin

    Great answers! Thanks Shruti :-)

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭

    Interesting exchange, @Shruti Turner and @chris leonard .

    We dont always get to "choose" collaborators. Whether we have a choice or not, and irrespective of how much choice we have about the team members and how things go...

    My top points on collaborations is ....

    Observe one's own match with the team. I observe people, their drivers/motivations/incentives/goals, and attitudes closely - throughout interactions. I then temper my expectations/effort investments accordingly.

    And observe the leader extremely closely. If the top is a mess - the rest follows.

    Basically, experience and observation has taught me to put my toes into the water and see the source and flow of the river - before jumping in.

    If I have the choice and am in the leadership role/have a say, I try to contribute to form a good team with resonating values, goal-sets, and set task-divisions considering member interests, capabilities, incentives, etc. And keep an eye on effort-outcome parity for all team members.

    I feel Shruthi's experience is where things went smoothly. However, it is a bit rare rather than the norm. 😁

    I have had a mixed bag of experience and witnessed a wide range of behaviors - in my own interactions and that of others.

    It is a spectrum. Seen outright power harrasment/abuse, people slacking, being unprofessional, miscommunications (repairable and irrepairable) , credit stealing (deliberately or by mistake), bulls in china shop ("proactive"). But have also worked with people who are great team players - open, honest, transparent, fair, willing to communicate - listen and respond, are amenable to work-divisions, flexible to changing ways/directions as things unfold, are open to being wrong or saying "Yep - I made a mistake", no ego trips, conscientious and proactive (not in a bull in a china shop way).

    I think it really depends on the people as well as goals/expectations in hand. A good leadership (not BOSS) - is also the key. Leaders - who understand work divisions and are mindful of power dynamics and effort-outcome parity. Leaders who are able to match people with appropriate goals/tasks depending on abilities/drivers/incentives. Making a team is an art, in my opinion. In academia, I dont see people give these things a good thought.

    My generic observation is academia is rife with lousy leaders, lost in their little often delusional bubbles - and dont necessarily understand people or their management.

  • chris leonard
    chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 156 admin

    Thanks @Raj sundaram -but this is a damning quote I will remember for a while:

    "My generic observation is academia is rife with lousy leaders, lost in their little often delusional bubbles - and dont necessarily understand people or their management."

    😕

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭
    edited June 2021

    @chris leonard ...yes, a bit strong a statement, I guess. 🙃

    Also, I see this more in established advisors (over 50). The reason for this is perhaps, these established leaders got into leadership positions when academia wasn't this hypercompetitive.

    Also, by default the academic structure lends itself to conditioning leaders to a sort of "freedom", which inherently lacks the idea of accountability or taking responsibility for poor team performances. Poor performances are rather conveniently put down to individual performances of those in lower hierarchies. See/seen this a lot.

    If things go well, "it's because of me"; if things go badly, "it's because of you/bad postdoc/bad PhD student/bad xyz lower in the hierarchy".

    To which my internal answer is....."yes, it's all because of the 'stupid' and 'incompetent' postdoc or student that YOU recruited, trained, mentored, and guided as the advisor. Speaks more about you as a guide than the measely student or postdoc."

    Then, there is obviously a lack of proper and formal upskilling/training in human resource management, team management, or even financial management for advisors.

    Then, there are massive power imbalances because of the lack of accountability.

    Unfortunately, some established advisors think of themselves and are treated (by institutions, etc.) a bit like Gods. Which also means it is difficult to upskill or reskill people who think of themselves (consciously or unconsciously) as perfect beings. 😅

    All this inevitably leads to "yes men" and cronyism, that worsen the lousy leadership, creating toxic and dysfunctional groups and teams.

    This thing called research for the pursuit of truth, etc. collaboratively is lost along the way...amidst such dynamics.

    So...yeah...a strong statement, but the phenomenon is real, and has concrete reasons stemming to the academic structure with its inherent power imbalances.

    Even more damningly, I am coming to the conclusion that as long as there are too many PhDs and postdocs ("cheap bottom of the pile labour" who bring in most of the resources, including money), and as long as there is a huge demand for academic positions, there is no incentive to change the status quo.

  • Kakoli Majumder
    Kakoli Majumder Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 251 admin


    Jumping in here a little late. While I agree that academia often lacks effective leadership, I was wondering what could be the reason behind this. Transitioning to leadership roles, whether in industry or in academia, needs training. In industry, training and development opportunities are provided to mid-career professionals who have the potential to become leaders. Does the same happen in academia? Do universities provide their faculty with leadership training? @leonard waks As a senior faculty member, what's been your experience with this? Does your university provide leadership training to their academic staff?

  • leonard waks
    leonard waks Member Posts: 5

    The top universities often do many things right. They have more money, and the leaders and most faculty have taken on board their high status. They "own their level." Lesser universities have fewer resources, but more to the point, fewer positive self-regarding habits.

    Let me share two examples concerning leadership. When I was a young philosophy professor at Stanford, I noticed that promising junior and mid-term scholars were selected for leadership internships; they were, for example, rotated into a dean's office as an assistant dean for a year. These younger scholars learned how to see university problems from a leader's perspective. They networked with other leaders. They made decisions and took actions that had effects, and thus acquired a leaders' perspective. At Stanford, a few younger scholars were also selected for participation in a Ford Foundation program that freed them from teaching for two or three years to develop particular leadership projects they had initiated themselves. I was chosen for that program.

    Some years later I was a full professor at Temple University in the Department of Educational Leadership. The department suffered from a split between the faculties in its two programs - urban education and educational leadership. Our dean rejected the department's recently elected chair because he feared that this person would exacerbate the split, and asked me whether he could install me as chair (against a majority of the faculty members' desires). He told me that I was probably the only person who could hold the department together. I knew this would be a tough assignment but I accepted. A few weeks into the job I noticed that there were actually one or two-week training seminars available for new department chairs, and I asked this dean whether he would support my participation in one. He did not merely refuse but showed complete incomprehension about why a department chair would seek training.

    Bottom line: Stanford took for granted that potential leaders selected from the faculty required training and support. That idea was incomprehensible at Temple.

  • Yuliya Shtaltovna
    Yuliya Shtaltovna Member Posts: 13 ✭✭

    Digital Collaboration has moved the research so much forward!!

    It's amazing to see how further we are now compared to even 5 years ago. We are creating conferences, editing a journal, organizing webinars within teams of people from different continents and those who have never met each other in "real life"

    What a joy to see it!

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭


    @Kakoli Majumder I think the reasons for ineffective leadership in academia are

    (1) Power imbalances and lack of accountability inherent to academia.

    (2) Lack of training. By this I mean not just non-availability of training opportunities/avenues.

    I mean the lack of availability of training in forms that dont constitute a mere "checking of a box".

    [Apologies for the double negative...]

    Formal training (for human resource management, finance management, research ethics, code of conduct, bias training, etc.) - the kind that is taken seriously, especially by people at upper hierarchies is quite rare as far as I know.

    Here is an interesting take from Adam Ruben on (lack of) training of scientists to be mentors.

    https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/08/scientists-aren-t-trained-mentor-s-problem

    I agree (with @leonard waks) that availability of resources/culture to allocate resources for training can be an issue. However, the attitudes of faculty toward training is set mostly by local department/unversity cultures, even in top universities with "infinite" resources. When complacency and power with no accountability or other stressors (related to unhealthy competition/unreasonable instability) kick in, there is no incentive to seek training or even make use of the training resources available to improve/learn.

    As a mild contrast to @leonard waks 's comment, a bit more positively....

    Some mid-level universities with decent (not "infinite") resources but with incentives/necessities to make their systems better to reach research outputs of top universities often seem to at least try to provide training/support systems that are taken more seriously by faculty (my observation in the UK).