Collaboration as an investment strategy.
When I was starting out in research, I was afraid to collaborate. I didn't think I could give something in return. That was naive.
Collaboration is about much more than just sharing data or sharing techniques. Many researchers, however, treat collaboration as something they 'should do' but don't really get around to it, like exercise or getting enough sleep. It comes down to one simple fact. They spend too little time thinking about how to get the most out of their collaborations.
Collaborations require a lot of effort. A lot of effort on meetings and conference calls. A lot of effort in writing proposals. A lot of effort soothing political sensitivities. Collaborations are big investments. Like any investment, you should do your utmost to maximise return. The question is how?
Maximizing your return on investment in collaboration
Quite simple, really. You can do one of two things
- Reduce the amount of effort you put into collaborations
- Increase the benefit you derive from collaborations.
Just reducing your effort is not a good strategy. Sure, in the the effort you invest in collaboration will decrease, and any and all benefits will eventually be lost as your collaborations fall apart.
An alternative strategy is to increase your operational efficiency. Efficiency is about getting the same or more benefit with less effort. You should focus on making every aspect of your collaborations better so that your collaborations deliver more value.
A good illustration of how you can do this is nicely detailed in this post written by Christian Jarrett. He points out that one secret weapon to taking your projects to a higher level is to "appreciate the psychological factors that turn a group of individuals into a cohesive team unit." There are many ways like this to increase your collaborative operational efficiency. There is, however, one thing you need to do first.
Gain an appreciation for the benefits of collaboration.
Understanding the benefits of collaboration
A good understanding of the specific benefits of a particular collaboration can deliver a double whammy. Such an understanding helps identify ways you can magnify delivery. For example, if one of the benefits of being in a collaboration is gaining knowledge on a particular topic, you should focus on meetings or communications on that topic and magnify delivery by making sure you attend all relevant meetings and asking insightful questions.
Off the top of your head you might not be able to list more than 2-3 benefits of collaboration. This gets easier when you spend most of your working life for the past 11 years trying to improve collaborations. Once you have a framework of the general benefits of collaboration it is easy to understand the benefits specific to any given collaboration. Here is a list of 20 benefits to get you started:
- Higher impact publications: There is a direct correlation between the number of authors and impact factor. Not much more needs to be said. This is probably more a reflection of the fact that good science requires the combined efforts of many good scientists.
- More creativity: Interestingly enough, when you study broadway musicals those that had a balance of people who had worked together before and complete strangers were the most successful. Collaborations tend to encourage such mixtures.
- Future: Collaborations are always filled with potential. Those you collaborate with today will think of you tomorrow when they are putting together a 20 million euro grant proposal.
- Less work: Done well, collaboration means less work for everyone without compromising on results.
- Criticism: Collaborators are more likely to tell you that in reality, you are not wearing any clothes. Debating ideas is also important for creativity and achieving Group Genius
- Ability to bring more experience to bare: Once you have conceived the idea for a project, the work becomes a series of problems you have to solve. Tapping into the distributed intelligence of a group increases your chances of solving problems more efficiently.
- Efficient learning: Papers, books, SOPs tend to tell you how to do something, but don't give you a sense of what it is to actually do that something. Seeing how a team of experts solves a problem is the best learning that there is. In fact, where else can you have such ready access to ask questions of people who are actually doing what you are interested in. Caution. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that your non-expert question will annoy the experts. Quite to the contrary, such questions are the highest form of flattery.
- A Wider array of techniques: Within any give lab group, department, institution, or company there are only so many techniques available to answer the scientific questions that interest you. Collaboration makes all techniques available.
- Deeper research: In a collaboration, you are forced to do more than clip the top of trees. A concern that is often raised is that others will steal your ideas. If your ideas are easily stolen, face it, they are not deep enough. If someone does steal your shallow ideas you should be happy. Then you can move on the deeper more interesting aspects.
- Funding: Getting funding in Europe and the US it is typically much easier in the context of a collaboration. Funding agencies believe in the power of collaboration, so should you.
- Increased number of publications: Related to #9 above, the deeper the research the more publications. Plus, your work is less likely to be a one-hit wonder when you already have a whole group of people working on the same topic.
- Students and post docs: There is no better way to find good staff than networking. There are no better and more concrete networks than the networks that are built through collaborations.
- Patents: In this day and age the increasing complexity of research technology and the explosion of measurable variables require multi-faceted approaches that can only be achieved in collaboration.
- Higher likelihood of having a spinoff: Similar to the above, its unlikely that working on your own you will know enough or have the ability to create a spinoff company.
- Fun: When we first got word that we were successful with the U-BIOPRED proposal, the Coordinator, Peter Sterk said "This is going to be so much fun." It is no fun to party on your own. The same is true for research.
- Knowledge of what others are doing: You can read papers or look at patent filings, yet there is no better way to know what others are doing than talking to them. In industry and in research it is always best to be where everyone else is.
- Less risk: There are many more degrees of freedom with a collaborative network than there are with a single lab following a single line of research. Risk mitigation is much easier when you have a whole group to draw upon.
- Agility: When you are working in a collaborative network and you come across an unexpected finding, it is far more likely that you can exploit that finding in the setting of a collaboration.
- Early adopters: You collaboration partners are almost by definition your early adopters for your novel approach, new technology, or new hypothesis. You can also think about it as the best way to foster paradigm shift. It all begins with a dedicated group of core believers.
- Impressing investors: That what you are doing is accepted by a group of leaders in the field is no better argument for convincing investors. This is also true for funding agencies.
Each and every one of these benefits is a reason why you should invest in the process of collaboration. Decide which benefits are most important for you and then use them guideposts for how you can increase operational efficiency and maximise delivery.
Like most things in your bin of 'should do more of' collaboration is a proactive investment that pays enormous dividends. Collaboration is one of the best ways to increase the impact of your research. The math is simple, collaborate less effectively and the dividends will be less. Optimize your collaborations and your returns will far outstrip your investment.
Bridging the translation gap
If you want your life science innovations to really change the future of medicine you have to bridge the translation gap between scientific proof of concept and clinical implementation and collaborations can increase the chance that you will bridge that gap. If you want to learn more about how to make collaborations an effective way to bridge the translation gap, get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
- * This post was updated and modified on 11/6/2017