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Jul 1, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 13)

Preventing Discord in Research Collaborations

Key to Success Lies in Communicating Expectations to Your Partners

  • Years ago the norm was for most scientists to perform their own experiments alone, in their own labs, without help from others. The current trend, however, is for scientists to work together in teams, sometimes within a department or university but just as often with scientists at an institution in another city, state, or even country.

    These research collaborations are behind many of the key breakthroughs achieved in science every year. Research dream teams come together representing not just two labs but sometimes five or even 10 organizations. They can be between academic labs, industry, advocacy organizations representing specific diseases, government or private consortiums, or any combination of these groups.

    Unfortunately, attempts to arrange scientific dream teams sometimes produce nightmarish results. This is true whether the research aims are of academic or commercial interest.

    Research collaborations don’t always run smoothly, leaving wounded reputations and hurt feelings in their wake. Numerous problems can crop up that derail research efforts and create friction between lab groups or individuals. Albert Einstein famously remarked, “A clever person solves a problem; a wise person avoids it.”

    My goal in setting forth the advice in this article is simple: to help you avoid problems that arise in the process of setting up and carrying out your scientific research collaborations.

    Research collaborations can be a great benefit to your career. They can lead to new biological findings, exciting publications, additional grant money support, and enhanced patent opportunities. They can also serve as an excellent recruiting tool for your lab or organization. Regrettably, many research collaborations don’t always produce stellar results of this type.

    People usually enter into collaborations with the best of intentions. What can go wrong? Plenty! (See Insert).

    Is there a guaranteed way to prevent these problems from happening? Unfortunately, the answer is no. There are, however, two key elements that, if properly utilized, can strongly increase the odds that your collaboration will be successful. These elements are communication and expectation. If each party clearly communicates to the other their expectations when entering into a collaboration, then both groups are more likely to be satisfied with the eventual outcome.

    The primary way to facilitate a successful collaboration is to draft an agreement at the outset that defines the goals, obligations, and boundaries of the work. Do this by establishing formal written collaboration guidelines, which let both parties know what will be expected of them.

    These guidelines can be as simple or as detailed as you and your collaborator decide you want them to be. Most scientists wouldn’t hire someone to paint their homes without having a written contract specifying the details needed to complete the job (e.g., when will the house be painted? What brand and type of paint will be used? One coat or two?). Yet they will put their careers at risk by setting up collaborations (sometimes with someone they have never personally met) without tying down even the most basic details of how the collaboration should ideally run.

    Therefore, I suggest that you draft a document that spells out all of the important details. This may cover any and all of the issues detailed above. Depending on where you work, you may want to involve your technology transfer group, company lawyers, or alliance-management professionals.

    In general, there are no right or wrong answers as to how many of these collaboration issues are handled. Most of the problems outlined in this article may never present themselves in your particular situation.

    If both labs have similar thinking as to how authorship will be apportioned and appropriate timelines for the writing, review, and submission of abstracts or manuscripts, so much the better. Don’t simply assume at the outset, however, that your collaborator will have a viewpoint on any of these issues that is identical to yours.

    Problems arise when two collaborators find themselves at loggerheads because of different expectations or interpretations of what is the proper thing to do.

    Therefore, anything that you can set in writing at the onset of the collaboration that defines expectations will go a long way to alleviate any misunderstandings that may arise later. Grounding your collaboration with a proper foundation document will help ensure that you avoid many of the common problems.

  • What Could Go Wrong?

    People usually enter into collaborations with the best of intentions. What can go wrong? Plenty! The following list is based on actual experiences of some of my colleagues:

    1. Experiments don’t get done at all or are done too slowly to be useful.

    2. Experiments are done outside of the scope of the agreed upon studies.

    3. Your collaborator misinterprets your shared data and publicizes it without your knowledge and/or approval.

    4. Your unique reagents are shared with third parties without your knowledge or permission.

    5. Your valuable reagents are lost, contaminated, or misused.

    6. Your collaborator files for patents based on experiments done using your materials without notifying either you or your technology transfer office.

    7. Abstracts and/or manuscripts based on the shared work are submitted without your review, knowledge, or permission.

    8. Authorship is not properly attributed. Your name is either left off a paper that you were expecting to be included on, or your collaborator’s trade on your reputation to help publish their often poorly written paper by putting your name on it without first notifying you or allowing you to review it.

    9. Derivative materials (e.g., transgenic mice or radio-labeled proteins) are made (and possibly distributed) without your permission.

    10. Data is generated without benefit of experiments (i.e., faked).

  • Stewart Lyman, Ph.D., is manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting.

    Web: www.lymanbiopharma.com. Email: lymanbiopharma@comcast.net.


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