There’s no denying that collaborative research is at the heart of scientific advancement. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with dozens of researchers from around the world. In this blog, I want to share some of the ways that I’ve benefited from these collaborations. I particularly want to highlight that the benefits I have gained go way beyond increasing the length of my publication list, but are central to my development as an independent researcher.
Expanding my horizons
If I had to pick the single most important benefit I’ve gained from working with collaborators it is that I’ve learnt so much from them. Everyone has a different and unique perspective of a problem—we all read slightly different parts of the literature, retain different key points, and vary in how we apply logic to a problem. Collaborating with researchers from different fields, or even just different parts of my own field, has substantially expanded the scope of our shared works. In turn, working with researchers that span multiple areas of the life sciences has greatly expanded the breadth of my knowledge and understanding, way more than I’d ever get from reading books (my latest venture includes working with a group of psychologists to conduct parallel experiments in birds and humans). This knowledge is now more valuable than ever—now that I advise a team of students and postdocs I find that I have to use this knowledge every day. This is beneficial not only because the members of my lab are tackling questions that sometimes go into areas outside of my expertise, but also because their perspective on a problem is often different to my own.
Identifying links between my core questions and others
Discussing scientific questions with researchers from other fields can often seem like we work on completely different planets. But each time I’ve had a chance to dig deeper into a question with someone that has different expertise to me, I’ve found surprising and widespread parallels. These discoveries have really helped build my confidence that the research I’m doing has relevance and is of broader interest to the scientific community. Further, discovering these parallels has, on occasion, opened up an entirely new set of literature that I was completely unaware of. While this can itself be a daunting prospect as well, for me it has helped provide me with a better understand how my work fits into a much broader context.
I have a lot of ideas, some crazier than others, and many more than I could ever collect the data to test. There are several occasions when during the course of a discussion about ideas, or even when already working on a collaborative project, I’ve discovered a dataset that is perfectly suited to testing a question I already had in mind. Such discoveries have led to very easy and very quick papers—in one of the more remarkable examples, we analysed the data, wrote up the manuscript, and submitted the paper in just 5 days (and it was accepted first time in an excellent journal).
Doing science is getting ever more difficult as costs rise and funding rates tumble. Having a good set of collaborators can really help navigate financial hurdles. In the simplest sense, listing collaborators with relevant skills on a grant application can significantly improve the chances of being funded (especially when paired with a demonstrated history of working together). At the other end of the scale, long-term collaborations can provide multiple opportunities to apply for money to do the research or open up new grant opportunities. I predict that multi-PI projects (especially with PIs from different countries) will become much more common. Finally, there’s good evidence that papers with more external collaborators are cited more often.
Forming new friendships
On a much more personal level, several collaborations have turned into long-term friendships. In fact, I’d say that my closest friendships were spawned from discussions with other postdocs at happy hour and over lunch that involved discovering overlapping research questions. Nowadays, maintaining these collaborations has even become one of the means by which we can find the time and money to catch up regularly as we step up the academic ladder (in large part propelled by the success of our collaborations).
How do collaborations come together?
There is really no secret to how to start a collaboration—and I hope that answer is becoming obvious from the points I made above. All the best collaborations come from talking openly about science. The short of it is that finding collaborators requires little more than a willingness to openly share your current ideas and your current research. Context matters as well, and one aspect of human nature is that chatting openly is often more natural in more relaxed social contexts—over drinks, group lunches, and conference breaks. This is, unfortunately, more challenging for some people than for others. But using these opportunities to find collaborators is not just about being an extrovert. In my experience, the biggest determinant of how widely a researcher collaborates is not their personality, but rather it is their willingness to talk science and their openness about discussing their own most interesting questions.
Collaborating isn’t really about increasing one’s publication list. It’s much more about personal development in terms of pushing your thinking beyond the bounds of your own imagination. In the next post I will delve more into what it takes to be a good collaborator—or how to make collaborations successful. The most successful collaborations are often also the most fun ones, and I am convinced that having fun is the causal driver of success. I guess what becomes clear is that a good collaboration is a natural one, where the work is enjoyable, and done with a positive team spirit. Look out for some future collaborators (and friends) when the next opportunity comes up to meet some new science folk!