5 Tips for Forging Successful Scientific Collaborations

Science is more collaborative than it has ever been, partially spurred by the trend towards ‘big science’ multi-disciplinary initiatives such as genomics, new sources of energy and biotechnology applications.  In 2007, for example, one half of all publications in the EU had international co-authors, twice the level of two decades ago.  More broadly, the collaborative trend at large US research behemoths like MIT have directly translated to a robust start-up trend, which benefits innovation and job creation.  Indeed, Science Magazine even touted the benefits of collaboration for career development of postdocs and young faculty.  But with great potential comes great responsibility, and collaborative science, while rewarding and fun, must be carried out responsibly and with caution.  We at Labguru are tremendous proponents of the collaborative aspects of research.  In fact, we created our lab management system as a tool to improve communication and data sharing within and between labs.  But we also have broader tips for Principal Investigators to ensure that they start and maintain successful relationships and research consortiums.  Here are our top five:

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1.  Share and share alike

Even beyond directly interconnected work between laboratories, science is an inherently collaborative endeavor, highly reliant on building upon the results and experiments of predecessors.  As such, it's extremely likely that at some point, you’ll be dependent on your collaborators to provide samples, reagents, biological specimen or custom protocols to help support your research.  Conversely, other labs will also depend on you to do likewise, and when they do, make sure to be an equitable partner.  It won’t take long for collaborations to dry up if other PIs don’t feel that you are as open about fairly sharing your resources as they are theirs.

2.  Communicate, communicate, communicate

Along the lines of sharing physical materials, make sure that the lines of communication are consistently open between labs you’re either forging a collaboration with or have already done so.  Answer emails from colleagues and their students in a timely manner.  Connect students and postdocs working on a collaborative project with their counterparts in the other lab, and instruct them to do the same.  Arrange to have in-person meetings at each others’ institutions on a periodic basis.  Not only will it be a thrill for younger students to have opportunities to expand their research horizons, it will ensure that goals are being met and potential problems resolved in a timely manner.

3.  Set realistic expectations about credit and work allocation

You don’t want to wait until you are getting ready to submit a publication to discuss how to apportion credit for research [See "On Being Equal: The Co-First Author Phenomenon"], who will be first author (and subsequent positions on the paper) and who will communicate the publication, or if you’ll share those duties with other professors.  Set a realistic, reasonable assessment over how work will be apportioned, what experiments and follow-up experiments each lab will be responsible for, and who will write what parts of the paper.  Transparency will go a long way in preventing hard feelings and bottlenecks at a time when you want maximum expediency.

4Abide by MTAs and international agreements

If your collaboration will involve material exchange, make sure that all transfers are done legally and in compliance with University, national and international regulations.  In the United States, for example, it is common to at the very least sign a materials transfer agreement between labs.  If shipping involves dangerous lab materials or biohazards, check what protocols must be followed.  Your Environmental Health office and website will provide helpful hints about shipping hazardous materials.  Don’t just drop your sample in a FedEx envelope and ship it to your collaborators!  Finally, if you expect your colleagues to work with samples that require animal work or special biosafety training, make sure they acquire the necessary training before embarking on any research.

5.  Never stop networking and forging relationships

Think of the collaboration as an ongoing process that will last throughout your career.  You will never have enough collaboration and will constantly find colleagues you can learn from and expand your research with.  Take opportunities at conferences [Read "Business and Pleasure - International Science Conferences"] to network and interact, share your research and keep an open dialogue.  You’ll find that your CV will grow proportionally along with your network!

How do you guys feel about our list?  For those of you that have had collaborations, what have you learned from them?  Do you have any additional tips to offer us?  Drop us a line in our comments section below.