The Nature of Collaboration

Aug 5, 2022 / Mind Cart AI

In today’s world, there are innumerable proven benefits to collaboration, thus it is highly encouraged by various companies, universities, labs, and other organizations. It is important to understand the ideal opportunities and methods of collaboration, and this article gives insight into this necessary knowledge.

It’s in the nature of many to collaborate on research and then to publish papers together. And, in many cases, collaborating is fun in a world where the number of publications is important for obtaining tenure or grants, collaborating is a quick way to raise one’s production. That being said, how do you go about collaborating with someone? In the world of science, especially, in the world of publishing, everyone has an amour propre, an image of oneself. How do you get to work with people, when you realize that each person is effectively competing with every other person, if not for resources, then for recognition and fame?


Perhaps, the best way to begin any collaboration is to become friends with the other individual. It doesn’t hurt to have lunch together, to chat at coffee, to have breakfasts and so forth. It’s also important that during these set-up meetings, prior to the collaboration, each person clearly recognizes that there is value in collaborating, so that one person doesn’t feel taken advantage of. These often unspoken, but negative feelings can kill a long term relationship and negate the meaningfulness of the collaboration. You should accentuate the positive and see how both or all parties can benefit. But that, of course, is common sense.You have to repeat it to yourself, but, in truth, there’s nothing new here except the obvious.


Let’s move to the less obvious


It is ok, even admirable, to want to collaborate. But, why do some collaborations go on for years, while others last the length of one or two papers, and others die a horrid death, even before the paper or data is produced? What’s the secret sauce in collaboration? 


These are hard questions; there’s no answer. However, look around. Look at your colleagues who have been in the field for 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years. How do they operate? With whom do they collaborate? What are they doing, and why? Have you ever thought of asking them why they collaborate or don’t collaborate? Or, what goes right, what goes wrong? We begin with the people. For successful collaboration to go on for more than the initial momentary passion and intellectual infatuation, each person has to know their respective position in the collaboration. Not all collaborations are equal. So, it’s not a matter of each person being the leader half the time, or some other such formula that you might think is the secret to success. Collaboration is like a marriage or a dance. Each party should know its role. It’s no use for two married people to compete about who is boss, or who does what. They can discuss, but not compete.

Now that we know a bit about collaboration, let’s delve into it more deeply, examining the motives for working together. Why specifically do YOU want to collaborate? This isn’t necessarily an easy answer, nor is there one single answer. 


Is it because you feel uncertain of yourself? Feelings of fear and uncertainty, especially when one begins a career, are not all that unusual. In fact, the person who looks calm at the start of the career, who seems to ‘know’ the right moves and what to do, may be totally wrong. No one really ‘knows it all,’ not even when the person is at the pinnacle or end of their career. So, it is perfectly OK to collaborate because you are unsure of yourself. In fact, it is probably a better idea to collaborate than to hide your possible ignorance by withdrawing into yourself.


There also may be a more Machiavellian reason for collaborating.That’s OK as well. We don’t necessarily collaborate out of fear or diffidence.We may collaborate in order to gather together a string of publications. With achievement in scientific research counted in terms of quantity as well as quality, collaborating with others is a quick way to build up one’s resume.. It’s a world of eat or be eaten, publish or suffer the consequences. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of publishing behavior where you attach yourself to the coattails of others. That is, nothing wrong if this happens at the start of your career. It’s quite wrong, however, if this attachment to the research team and collaboration characterizes most of your career, instead of just its beginning.


And then there is the collaboration of equals, of true team spirit, of kindred souls who work together, share ideas, and share authorship. That’s probably the best collaboration. It’s the story of the selfless friendship between Damon and Pythias of Greek mythology, or of Jonathan and David of the Old Testament. Here’s the best of the world, where each of the collaborators can do more together than they could alone.

Who is likely to collaborate?


When we look at the scientific literature, searching for collaborating partners, what types of patterns do we see? You ought to try the experiment, looking for papers that are authored by one, two, three, and then four or more individuals. Then, ask yourself what types of patterns you observe, and what do they mean? What do you sense is going on here? Don’t look at today’s researchers; your judgment will be a bit clouded and biased. Instead, look at the research from 20 and 30 years ago. Obviously, there are many different areas of science where people might publish, yet when you stand back, you might see something like this:


One-author papers typically have a strong bent of theory. These are often major papers of a theoretical sort although, of course, not always. A lot of very important theory papers seem to be written by one author, even when, as a general rule, the author tends to collaborate with others. If this observation is true, then why do you think it happens? A good possibility is that people do not like to collaborate when they set forth ideas that they believe to be critical, even ‘game changing.’ Despite the professionals’ affiliation needs, which lead to collaboration, all are not selfless. When an experienced researcher feels that he is ‘on to something big,’ you won’t see collaboration. You’re more likely to see a relatively longer, one-author paper, even if that single authorship is out of character.


Papers that seem to be the ‘next’ or nth iteration of a particular topic tend to have multiple authors. These papers seem to be laying the groundwork for the field by another parametric study. These studies, the bedrock of normative science, do not break new ground as much as fill in the gaps of knowledge. They extend what we know in a quantitative or qualitative manner. These papers tend to be, more often than not, shared by several researchers. Again, the reason will become clear when we think about the contributions of these papers. The papers don’t break ground. Rather, they are the basis of normative science. No one establishes a career or reputation by authoring these papers, other than by being appreciated as a competent researcher.


Papers that deal with equipment or methodological issues also almost always have several authors. They present the use of new pieces of equipment or methods for analyzing data. There are some good reasons why these methods papers have several authors. One reason is that they are usually very simplistic papers. They present facts and approaches, but not as new ideas. They are simpler because they are sharing a method or a piece of equipment, rather than trying to understand the world. There is usually not much glory in such papers. A second reason is that such methods usually result from the collaboration of different individuals, so the paper is a good way to reward the collaborators. A final reason is that the papers typically appear in methods journals, which do not generate a lot of professional prestige, unless the method becomes ‘hot’ and leads to major discoveries. At that point, you’re likely to see individual authorships using the method, but they are published on ‘hot new topics.’


So what should YOU do?


Given the nature of professional collaboration, it is probably a very good idea to have a number of early papers where you are a co-author. No one will expect you to have great ideas early in your career. And, when you collaborate, it’s a way of showing the scientific community that you are a team player, that you understand the rules, and that you are ready to ‘play well with others.’


Over time, however, you will be better off becoming the first author, where you publish a number of papers which are yours alone, and when you begin to separate the topics you write about alone from the topics that you wrote about as part of the team. These steps establish your own identity, separate from the collaborative team of which you are a part. To the degree that you can do both, collaborate with others on some topics, but be the first/solo author on papers dealing with other topics. This will help you establish your own identity. The collaboration will show you as a member of the community, while the solo papers will demonstrate that you have come of age intellectually and professionally.