How to Build Productive Collaborations
James Geddes, vice dean for research at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, says, “Some of the most rewarding studies I've been involved with have been collaborative projects — either ones where I've approached others to collaborate, or where I've been approached to contribute. Collaborations help you think about new areas of research, expand your horizons, and have fun.” In this interview, Geddes shares the basics of collaborations, from why and how you should set one up to what to do if issues arise.
In what ways is collaboration important to neuroscientists in academia, either on a research track or those working in academic administration?
Collaboration is absolutely critical in today's research and grant environment. Many grants are multidisciplinary, so if you can attack a question using two approaches, it's much stronger than attacking it using a single approach. That leaves investigators with two choices: They can try to master every technique within the grant in their own lab, or they can collaborate with an expert. Usually, collaborating is much faster and more productive.
I haven’t always collaborated enough. I've often underestimated the time and resources involved in technique development and I wish in hindsight that I had reached out and collaborated more rather than trying to develop techniques that would have a fairly limited application in my lab.
How does collaboration factor into your role as dean of research?
I’m often trying to bring investigators together to work on multidisciplinary projects and go after larger or multiple PI grants. Collaborations are also important to pursue to demonstrate a track record of collaboration, which can be essential for multi-investigator grants.
How do you approach starting a collaboration for your own lab?
SfN’s annual meeting is a helpful starting place to put faces to names and break the ice before a phone call. On the poster floor or at a presentation, you can plant the seed with people about your interest in their research and share a little about your research. You can then indicate that you have a collaboration idea that might be helpful for both of you.
On the phone, or face-to-face, I like to describe the research idea, letting the person know where we're hoping to take it and where we need help. Be honest with what level of commitment you’re asking of the other person. Also accurately state where you are in the project timeline: Are you close to a paper and need one more piece of data, are you close to a grant application, or are you testing feasibility in a pilot stage? Then be honest about what the collaborator's role will be and discuss what level of compensation would be appropriate during the pre-grant stages and then what their role on a grant would be.
How have collaborations factored into the advancement of your lab’s research?
Throughout my career, I've shifted somewhat in disease focus and techniques, and each step along the way I've had to either develop techniques or collaborate. To pursue new areas, collaborations have been absolutely essential.
For instance, my lab is part of a Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center, and for research in spinal cord injuries we developed capabilities in the lab. Fortunately, we recruited some very talented investigators. However, for traumatic brain injury studies, I've relied on extremely productive collaborations with other faculty in the Center. They've led to a program project, multi-PI, training, and P30 grants.
Another example comes from calpains, a focus area of my lab. We've recently been studying Calpain 5, but to pursue this, we needed expertise in structural biochemistry, classical biochemistry, and proteomics — areas in which I did not have strength. By establishing collaborations and having those collaborators as co-investigators on the ground, we were able to obtain an NIH R01 grant.
Collaborations work both ways. It's been very rewarding to participate in collaborations where our expertise in certain areas was sought after. These instances have led to some of the more high-impact papers in which I've been involved.
Still, while we always want to be helpful in collaborations, not all collaborations work out. In some circumstances, we've had to say no because we didn't have enough staffing or resources. It's also important for all investigators to make sure the project doesn't compromise their individual research focus.
Delving further into collaborations that haven’t worked out, what happens when issues arise mid-collaboration?
The results aren’t always what you expect them to be. You can go into a project with good intentions and hope to find results with significance. If that occurs, fantastic. But if the study doesn't work out the way you anticipated, you have to make a decision: Do you allocate more resources?
I think there's a difference between overcoming obstacles and troubleshooting them when parts aren’t working out, versus, for example, having the assays work but not getting results as robust as you expected. At that point, you just have to make a decision to move forward with the project or to say, "This is not what we'd hoped. It may not pan out, and it may be very difficult to develop this into a fundable project."
That sounds like that might be a difficult conversation. Do you have any advice for how somebody might approach a collaborator to say, “I’m not sure this is working out anymore?”
Collaborations are built on transparency, communication, and trust. If your collaboration has these attributes, then you're sharing the results, discussing problems as they arise, staying open about timelines, and talking about what's working and what’s not working. Still, if issues arise and you have difficult conversations, both sides will have an understanding through your already established transparency, communication, and trust.
If those elements are not in place, it can become quite hard to address issues, and motives may be questioned.
What last advice do you have for people to establish and maintain productive and equitable collaborations?
For all collaborators, the project has to fit with their research goals and be something that they're willing to dedicate their time and energy to. If only one side will benefit from the collaboration, it's probably not going to be successful.
It’s also crucial to honor commitments. If you say you're going to collaborate by committing resources and conducting studies, then it's important that you put in a good faith effort to meet those obligations.
While setting up collaborations, be honest about what the expectations are on both sides. What are you asking me in terms of the collaboration? Is it helping to establish a technique in your lab, which might be a fairly minimal time commitment, or are you asking for the other group to conduct some studies, either towards a paper or towards a grant application where they have to allocate resources and staff?
Additionally, as appropriate, include collaborators as co-PIs on grants and as coauthors on papers to allocate resources fairly and appropriately. If the collaborator does that as a favor to you, help cover their costs if you have the ability. If one side starts feeling that they're being taken advantage of, then that's when you start to see the beginnings of a non-successful collaboration.
Lastly, I don't see a huge difference between collaborations within the same home institution or elsewhere. It may be a little easier to initiate a collaboration at the home institution because of the ability to have a face-to-face meetings and follow-up lab meetings, but with technology now, you can do that via Skype or other methods.