Collaborations: setting the terms

Jan 09 2014 Published by under Careers

Over the years I've been involved in quite a few collaborations of various sorts. Many have turned out to be productive. Some have just fizzled. Others have been a royal pain in the arse. And yet others... well, it's too early to tell.

Thing is, nobody really tells you how to go about setting up a collaboration to maximize its chances of success. I don't mean the whole "identify a putative collaborator and contact them" process, more the "okay, we've agreed to collaborate, now what?" side of things. And yet that's often the most crucial part of it all.

Obviously you want to set things up in a way that benefits both you and your collaborator. But it can be hard sometimes. If your collaborator is more junior you don't want to stomp all over them,* and if they're more senior/prominent sometimes it can be a bit daunting to propose something where you're equals or with you, the more junior person, with the larger/leadership role.**

Interestingly some of the most dysfunctional collaborations I've seen have been between peers. It's not always clear to me why. May be something to do with both participants being under the same pressures.

No matter the circumstances, you've got to do what's best for the collaboration.

And that's what counts in these things - the collaboration.

So right at the start you need to have what can sometimes be a difficult conversation. Or conversations. Before anything really gets started. Don't wait to do this.

Here's what you need to thrash out in advance:

1) Who is going to do what.
Okay, it might seem obvious who is going to do what, right? After all, you've likely set up the collaboration because you need expertise or a system you don't have. But it never hurts to be very clear about the scope of the collaboration and what the expectations are for each participant. Also talk about what personnel in each lab are going to be assigned to do the work. Don't take it for granted that your collaborator has someone who can start on things immediately.

2) Timelines.
When you're hoping to get things done by. Everyone recognizes that science never goes as planned and timelines are at best wild guesses, but deadlines, even squishy ones, help get things done.

3) Authorships.
This is a biggie. Many a collaboration has been derailed at the publishing stage. And the authorship battles can be nasty indeed. Try and head them off by settling on some guidelines for first and last (senior/corresponding) authorships. And everything in between. Obviously you'll need to revisit things with each publication, but it helps if you start with some broad guidelines.

4) Status on grant proposals.
In my experience most collaborations are started with a view to obtaining funding. Who is going to be PI? Co-I? Will it be a multi-PI proposal? Or are you thinking sub-contract? Obviously that can all change as the collaboration evolves, but again, starting with a general idea of how it's going to work can prevent a whole world of hurt down the road.

There's probably more, but in my mind those are the big four. Finally, if you have that conversation in person or by phone, send a follow up email outlining everything you agreed on. Six months or a year on you don't want to have a disagreement over what you agreed on. Create and keep a (e)paper-trail.

A good collaboration is a wonderful thing. When you're embarking on one, make sure you do the legwork necessary to give it a chance to be successful.


* Unless you're a dick.
** Pretty, pretty please Herr Professor Biggus Wiggus, if it's okay with you, and I'm alright if it's not, but it would help me a lot if I were, let me be PI? Maybe? Perhaps?

11 responses so far

  • joatmon says:

    I was wondering if you could elaborate more on Authorship. E.g. the rules/guidelines had worked for you and the challenges you had faced in the past.

    • odyssey says:

      I'm in biomed, so first authorship is generally easy - whoever contributed the most in the lab. I make it clear I have no interest in co-first author nonsense. Second, third etc. are in order of contributions.

      Last/senior/corresponding authorship has the potential to be difficult. I try to go by whose lab contributed most. This isn't always easy to parse out. I don't do the "it's my project, so I'm senior on all pubs" bullshit. That's a great way to piss off a collaborator. Collaborating means sharing at least a part of the project. Fortunately I personally haven't had issues with this, although I am aware of others who have.

      The most contentious for me have been when a collaborator wants to add someone as an author and I don't think they've done enough (or anything) to earn it. My somewhat squishy rule of thumb is you need to have contributed at least a figure's worth of data. The rule needs to be squishy (although don't tell the collaborator that!) - sometimes you need to give a little to maintain the collaboration. I would never list an author who didn't contribute, but I'm not past altering the standard just a little for the sake of diplomacy. Key words here are "just a little." Ultimately I've only had to do this once.

      I've been lucky. I've had very few authorship disagreements, they've all been minor, and all have been settled without someone ending up majorly pissed off. To what extent this is due to trying to sort things out in advance I don't really know.

  • Very good advice, especially the put everything in writing so you can go back later.

    But what do you do if you have a collaboration with someone who at some point runs out of money or decides to leave academia? I have put in a substantial amount of work for someone who now doesn't have funding anymore. The size of hir lab is reduced to one person (the PI) and I don't see a paper coming out of this anytime soon. I'm afraid my work is not going to be published and I have put in effort for nothing. Any advice on how to prevent this from happening or how to fix this if it has happened? (I'm pretty sure there's nothing I can do now, as the data we've gathered are not enough for a paper).

    • odyssey says:

      Sadly more and more people are failing to get renewed. No one deliberately plans for that to happen. It's not clear there's much you can do to protect yourself beyond asking about their funding situation at the beginning. But even then, should you say no to a collaborator who is near the end of their grant? Maybe the collaboration helps their chances of renewal. Who knows.

      Are you sure you can't eke out a short paper? Maybe in a lower profile journal (but not crap) than you normally aim for? Have you talked to your collaborator to see if they have some unpublished data they could meld with yours to cobble together a paper?

      • What happened is that I helped them (a lot) to with an experiment, but we would need to add at least double the amount of animals to get to something publishable (even in a low IF journal). Also, they did the experiments (even though I showed them how to do it, trained them and practiced with them), so the data are not mine. I guess this was a good lesson in doing even more negotiating beforehand. (worst part is that my PI said the other day that ze saw this coming a long time ago….)

        • odyssey says:

          Sounds like there's not much you can do. Sorry.

        • drugmonkey says:

          I don't think you can expect every collaboration to pan out, just as you don't expect every thing you do to pan out. Sounds like in iBAM's case, the collaborator was trying to generate preliminary data to get funded? was this not clear from the start?

          • It seems like this was clear to everyone but me. I asked about authorship (in an email), where in reply I got: when this is published you will be an author.
            I learned my lesson...

  • I think that junior people entering a collaboration do well to talk it over with a more senior, and uninvolved person. Lots of times the junior has a technique/method/analysis that the senior needs. "It's just a bagatelle" and "this won't take you but a minute" and "this will make a huge difference to me". It's worth not saying yes immediately and assessing the cost in time and energy (a junior faculty's most precious resources) relative to the benefit you will get. A good benefit will be more than a pub, and can be a lifelong collaboration, access to work you wouldn't have otherwise, and even a new mentor.

    • odyssey says:

      Great advice.

    • GMP says:

      "It's just a bagatelle" and "this won't take you but a minute"and "this will make a huge difference to me"

      Oh man, did I get duped by this, time and time again. And two years and a ton of work later I am a middle author on a glitzy pub. It sure helped the senior person, that much is true.