Be careful who you co-work with on projects as it may end up with a lot of heartache
BY DR WAEL MY MOHAMED
What is a research collaboration and where is the boundary?
Let us look at the concept of teamwork in the dictionary. It means that people work together to reach a shared purpose.
A research collaboration may thus be described as the collaboration of researchers to achieve the shared objective of creating new science. Collaboration can take the form of a hierarchical arrangement, such as that between a professor and a graduate student or it can take the form of a cooperative relationship between two or more peers of similar standing.
Collaboration with other scientists can be exciting and enriching, but it can also be problematic and fraught with tension. Tensions and contradictions may arise due to the selection of research methods, data analysis and writing style, not to mention how each particular contribution should be attributed.
If the gaps in the relationship are not established early on, or addressed through direct communication, they may become controversial if the interpretations of researchers vary regarding new problems such as data access and usage or
To illustrate this issue, let me share with you my collaboration experience with my fellow colleague Prof X. We share the same nationality, same areas
of interest and even the same religious belief.
We had a fruitful research collaboration in neuroscience research for more than 10 years. However, he betrayed me.
He published data behind my back without including my name as a co-author. This puzzled me and I asked myself: Do being “birds of a feather flock together” matter? Yes, but the dilemma for me is Why? And Why now?
Research collaboration: The dark side
“As if the letters have become insufficient to describe the sadness within me from the betrayal of my best colleague”. Back to my sad story with my close collaborator and friend Prof X.
We did not have any written contract or guidelines for our collaborative work, it was just a word of honour. We did a lot of excellent work and activities together with good publication records. However, he betrayed me.
Further, he did not invite me to be a part of his work although I did invite him to co-work with me in all my research activities. I was very honest and loyal to him throughout our collaboration, but he was not.
When he published some of our data behind my back without putting my name as a co-author despite of my participation in this work, I talked to him and surprisingly he took this incident lightly and simply did not care.
This was a fatal mistake and a breaking point for me. I got depressed and frustrated but decided to move on and focus on my research.
For me, I describe cooperation as ‘‘social systems in which humans pool their human resources with the aim of generating intelligence”. Collaboration, according to this concept, does not have to be based on writing articles; in fact, collaborations are often more concerned with technical advancement, applications, or patents, and may have no publication goal at all.
It all boils down to intimate bonds, loyalty, friendship, and long-term commitment. Moreover, collaborations may also fail for social causes, such as exhausted resources, decisions to shift energy to a more promising study or incompatibility and disagreements among collaborators. There are many reasons why research partnerships fail.
In a perfect ideal world, collaborations will be treated with a handshake and an appreciation of each collaborator’s roles. This is not the easiest way to handle partnerships for a variety of reasons.
It is best, and entirely appropriate, to spell out each party’s rights and obligations in writing. When discussing rights and obligations, it is possible that attention must be extended not only to those relating to scholars, but also to the rights and responsibilities of their organisations. Written agreements are not just a smart idea; they are also required by hiring institutions or external research sponsors.
Most researchers work on the basis of unwritten understandings about the following facets of a partnership, unless institutional or academic backers demand otherwise.
Firstly, it is authorship and attribution. Where will the findings be shown and/or published? Who will be on the list of authors?
What will the order of co-authors going to be? Who would have ultimate approval power on presentations or publications?
Secondly, investigate accountability. What kind of access will collaboration partners have to each other’s initial data and/or notes? How much will the collaboration’s participants meet to discuss and analyse their results?
Take home message:
Often time, collaboration is based on personal traits which are demographic features of partners that can help or impede cooperation with other researchers. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, ethnicity, gender, and nationality. It is crucial to remember that these are quantitative indicators of human identification for scientists who collaborate on projects. Researchers will be expected to interact more often with scientists who have common demographic characteristics. This is totally wrong based on my experience. A successful collaboration should be based on professional needs and is guided by professional ethics regardless any other issue including stereotyping, religion, citizenship, gender…..etc. Further, personal connection between collaborators is totally wrong as shown from my bad experience with Prof X.
I was bonded with him emotionally and I considered him as my brother from another mother. However, this turned wrong because I did not evaluate him correctly and also this made me to waive many of my scientific/financial rights in favour of him. The first step in establishing a successful collaboration is building a trust and the first step in collaboration failure is eroding this trust. This is along with the potential for unethical behaviour in research collaboration. In conclusion, a successful collaboration should be based on a win-win relationship.
It is possible that cooperation, including human collaboration, can have detrimental effects for scholars, but it also appears likely that such collaborations can be extremely beneficial. The real challenge is the trade-off between advantages and costs, as well as the conditions that influence the consistency of the partnership experience. — The Health
Dr Wael MY Mohamed is with the Department of Basic Medical Science, Kulliyyah of Medicine, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).