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Posted 8/15/2022

“Hey, we should collaborate!” is a common refrain in research environments, often uttered by colleagues or conference-acquaintances. Collaboration is valuable or essential for many problems. But not all work requires collaboration, and not all people are good collaborators. Initial enthusiasm can devolve into utterances of “they promised to finish their part by last month, but they haven’t, and now I’m stuck.” Fortunately, a little up-front planning can facilitate productive collaborations.

Collaboration is a research effort where parties work together to achieve a shared outcome. Asking for advice or a paper review isn’t collaboration in the sense discussed here. Giving someone your code to use for their own study isn’t collaboration. Those interactions are also healthy and useful, but don’t require the planning discussed below.

When considering a collaboration, identify what you want from the engagement and what you have to offer. You may need a specific resource or expertise to move your work forward. You may be advising a junior colleague, and collaborating serves to educate them while advancing your work. Perhaps you can take on a more ambitious project while enjoying a shared effort. Contributing to a team can also help demonstrate your capabilities and build your reputation. Conversely, identify what you have to offer and point it out early so your colleague will see your proposal as an opportunity.

There are several reasons to avoid collaborations. First, collaborative work is more complex. Communicating, coordinating, resolving differing opinions, and jointly producing outputs takes time and effort. Second, collaborative commitments can create conflicts. Your collaborator may want to move in directions contrary to your plans or your project funding. (If you are a graduate student pursuing collaborations, communicate early and often with your advisor to manage this potential challenge.) You may also make commitments that you later regret but can’t drop because someone depends on you. In the beginning, opportunities are obvious while these potential complications lurk in the shadows.

The right collaborator can make or break an effort. Look for people with complementary skills and perspectives. Working with people who share your interests and training is comfortable, but may incur collaboration overhead without the benefits of varied expertise. Try also to find collaborators that treat others well and share credit. You may get a sense of this from talking to their colleagues and checking whether they often publish with others. Ideally, they should have the resources, time, and motivation to achieve the desired outcome. Missed deadlines and unresponsiveness can drain a project, even if the collaborator is technically capable.

Near the start of a substantial collaboration, agree with your collaborators on a plan. Items to discuss include:

  • The objectives of the effort.

  • The scope of work, tentative schedule, and expected contributions from each person.

  • Workflows and sharing:

    • Will someone lead and coordinate the effort, or will these responsibilities be split up?

    • How and how often will you communicate?

    • What resources will be shared? What tools will be used to share documents and data?

  • Will everyone be free to use research products for future studies, or will some products be “owned” by some individuals?

  • Anticipated authorship of resulting work.

Put your agreement in writing to flush out details and to use for future reference. If the plan is simple, this may be easiest to do via e-mail, writing something like ‘To confirm our conversation today, here is my understanding of our plan: Please let me know if I misunderstood anything or if you have proposed revisions.” Writing a grant proposal together is another natural way to develop an agreement.

It is tempting to avoid the agreement conversation if your effort arises from casual discussions or if the collaborator is a friend. It may also feel premature to make an agreement if plans are still evolving. But discussing these items is a good way to advance the work, and the agreement can always be updated to reflect changing circumstances. It’s also fine to make a short-term agreement: “let’s push a few more weeks until we get our preliminary results, and then we can decide whether to drop this or get more serious about proceeding.”

Finally, have an exit plan. Most people start with good intentions, but some won’t deliver fully on their promises. Your collaborator might fall behind schedule or fail to deliver, so be vigilant when you have a schedule constraint such as a thesis deadline. If faced with a lack of progress or diverging goals, consider writing up your current work and moving on separately.

A good foundation for collaboration can support productive and fulfilling projects. As you proceed, monitor and acknowledge your partners’ efforts. We naturally notice our own efforts more than others’, so it is easy to over-value our contributions (“I’m doing everything myself…”). Ward off discontent by documenting individual contributions in your agreement, and consciously appreciating your partners’ efforts. And while you are working, make sure to ask questions and learn from your collaborators. Growing as a scholar can be as important as the outputs you produce. With planning and effort, your opening “hey, we should collaborate!” remark will hopefully conclude with a “that was so productive and interesting!”



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