Bring something to the collaboration
It is important that each person brings something of value to the collaboration. This point may seem obvious, but remember that a successful team often benefit from having individuals filling different roles. In my collaborations, I’ve valued when people bring ideas, methods, data, concepts, knowledge, or even motivation. There are many valid and useful contributions that one can make as a collaborator. Having a clear picture of what you bring to the collaboration will help everyone to appreciate your contribution, and in my experience if collaborators appreciate you then they will continue to engage you in future work.
Be timely and deliver
Everyone is busy, and the last thing we want to have to deal with is a collaborator who is late or does not do what they promise. If you commit to give comments, write a section of a paper, or progress some other aspect of a collaborative project, then do it! Of course, sometimes life gets in the way, and I’ve found that collaborators (at least the good ones) are very forgiving. But, in my experience being timely and delivering on my promises has been central to being asked to continue collaborating.
Set an example
All collaborations need someone to take the initiative. In my experience, initiative is always generously rewarded. Initiative isn’t necessarily just about leading on the fundamental research. It can be as simple as being pro-active about calling meetings, setting agendas, keeping track of the progress across different parts of the project. Set the example of how you want the collaboration to go—the more energy you can put into it, the more you’ll get out of your collaborators.
Provide ideas and answers
There is one type of person that no one likes to collaborate with: the ones who only ever raise problems but never give solutions. I’ve found this is most clear when it comes to editing manuscripts. Some collaborators only provide comments such as “This section is unclear” or “Needs an example”. Such comments invariably improve the final work, but remember that someone will have to take the time to make the improvements. As a collaborator you should be helping not only with identifying the problem but also with providing the solution. For example, if a section is unclear, then give some alternative wording (this can, at least, help others identify what it is that is unclear).
Be forthcoming with ideas
Successful collaborations are those that tackle truly novel questions. However, doing so often requires being willing to share your best ideas. For example, as someone who works quite a lot on developing or refining methods, I often get approached asking for help with methods. These researchers are often trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. On several occasions such requests have led me to share a methodological idea that I hadn’t yet developed—thus seemingly ‘giving away’ my idea. But I don’t see any value in holding back. In fact, these opportunities are the best use for my ideas as the ideas are employed by researchers who need them and have a practical purpose for using them.
Patience is critical to a successful collaboration. Here are some examples of why:
Open your mind to new ideas and different perspectives
Everyone, no matter how similar your disciplines, approaches a problem differently. Every researcher will have read different parts of the literature, or interpreted what they’ve read a bit differently. In my experience, there are always as many perspectives in a team as there are people. I’ve found it critical to keep an open mind to alternative ideas and points of view. It can also sometimes take time for others to understand my perspective on a problem, and being aware of the gap in perspective has often helped in situations where we’ve seemed to reach an impasse.
Inform others stakeholders
We rarely do our science in complete isolation. Every paper I’ve published has involved at least several people: my PhD supervisor, other PhD students and postdocs in the lab, researchers who collected the data (and maybe wrote the grant), and nowadays the students in my lab. Before embarking on any collaboration(s), or making too many promises, make sure to inform the other people that have been involved in the work or ideas you propose to contribute. There are few better ways to burn your bridges faster than to unfairly (at least in their eyes) neglect other stakeholders in such ventures.
Temper your expectations
Remember that everyone also has their own research career, and non-work life. Don’t expect the unreasonable. At this point, it’s also important to think about what is fair to expect from researchers at different levels. If you are trying to collaborate with someone more senior, remember that they are likely to have many demands on their time—so don’t ask them to do something you could do yourself. Give them every opportunity to provide you with what you need most from them. If you are collaborating with someone more junior, then think about what they need out of this. For example, don’t expect a PhD student within weeks of submitting their thesis to be writing a draft of a paper they can’t include as a chapter. Also remember that a student will take longer to draft a written section than a PI will.
Keep in mind that memories outlast collaborations
Finally, keep in mind that your contribution to a collaboration can just as easily harm your reputation as help it. After all, no matter how successful this one project is, the people you are collaborating with now will continue to be your peers and reviewers for years to come. So, make sure you treat your collaborators well. It can sometimes be difficult to judge how your collaborators perceive you. But in general, I’ve found that the best possible signal is when you are asked to contribute again. I certainly have some collaborators that I go back to again and again, and I’ve largely modelled the tips in this blog based on the qualities in these collaborators that makes me excited about working with them.