“Much to be gained, many ways to get into trouble?” How we can get it right with collaborative research.

Workshop held on 20 January 2015, The University of Sheffield

Professor Paul Martin (Sociological Studies) introduced the workshop by inviting us to think about collaboration in terms of a relationship type. Are interdisciplinary projects like an established marriage? Do we think of them more like a business contract? Can they operate more like a dysfunctional family? This provided an interesting thought experiment as we moved through the afternoon’s agenda.

First up we had some short provocation pieces from those experienced with working with others from different disciplines or different sectors. Liz Sharp (Town & Regional Planning) illustrated some of the challenges faced during her water related research where there were power dynamics operating between engineers and social scientists. Thinking back to the relationship metaphor a significant challenge seemed to emerge around there being “tellers” and “doers” within a project, where one party gains more from the collaboration after using the services of another. Fabio Ciravegna (Computer Sciences) provided a more evangelical perspective by prompting us to question why collaboration isn’t currently seen as essential by every researcher, given the opportunities it provides to create research that has real World impact. His example around the Digital World highlighted how the prevalence of big data can provide a focal point for diverse teams to analyse, utilise and mutually benefit from this unmined resource. Finally Alistair Buckley and Helen Holmes (Physics and Astronomy) introduced their endeavour at shaping an “energy science” given their work on renewable technology and its adaption in different residential communities. Their group relationship was akin to a bunch of survivors thrown into a new situation all trying to figure out how to muddle through the mess, live through it and make it safely to their destination.

There was plenty of time for discussion where participants could share their own stories of collaboration and it wasn’t just about putting up the challenges but also thinking about possible solutions. Each participant seemed to have a slightly different perspective on what collaboration means to them and it provided a fascinating opportunity to talk about the human element of how we do research. Richard Hudson (R&IS) reminded us about the links to integrity and how these can be tested during any cross boundary initiatives and that there is help within the university as well as the broad international guidelines.Researchers can and do hold different values and undertake practices and behaviours which might run counter to their own expectations in terms of what is acceptable. On-going dialogue with potential collaborators, from the start, that seeks to improve understanding of the justification for differences in research practices can prevent future misunderstandings and negotiation may be necessary to agree mutually acceptable standards and, thereby, clarify mutual expectations (for example, about consent or data management or authorship). But, ultimately, a researcher must feel comfortable about who s/he is collaborating with and this may mean that sometimes variations in practice and behaviours are so different that a researcher has to say No before committing to a collaboration. The workshop revealed a mix of approaches to reaching an informed judgment on whether or not to collaborate with someone – gut instinct, trust, researching an individual’s track record, reading an individual’s past research papers, and formalising agreements in writing.

The Singapore and Montreal Statements (see below) are recent initiatives at the international level that identify norms of good research practice that should be universally applicable to all research.

How do you perceive the relationships within your own collaborations? A little reflection can be a big help and is something that our team would like to hear about.

This workshop was hosted by the Quality & Skills Team in Research and Innovation Services




ad6resin“Much to be gained, many ways to get into trouble?” How we can get it right with collaborative research.