Jeremy Côté

Research Collaborations

Working on cutting-edge science is fun, but it’s even better when you can do it with a bunch of enthusiastic scientists who push each other to their potential. Having a group of scientists working on a single goal means its easier to move past barriers that might have blocked a scientist working on their own. Even better, each researcher in a collaboration brings their own skillset, which means a team can accomplish more together than on their own.

Sounds great, right?

But research collaborations are hard work. They don’t form spontaneously, and they take active effort to maintain. Research collaborations can bring a lot of forward momentum to a question, but it’s also easy for things to fall by the wayside, dissolving into nothing.

I wanted to highlight a few points to keep in mind as you look to jump into your next research collaboration. Keep in mind that I’m coming from a physics background, and I’ve collaborated with up to about five others on a single project at a time. In other words, I haven’t worked on something like the ALICE project.

Focused time

Having a period of focused time is my gold standard for collaborations. Ideally, you want everyone to put all of their energy into this project until it’s done. This means everyone can be in sync with each other, and there’s no languishing on the project.

If you can, get everyone on board with 100% focus. This usually means the time period is short, since researchers often have multiple projects they’re working on at once. For example, I spent last summer working for ten weeks with quantum scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory on a research collaboration. During those ten weeks, I was focused on the research, dedicating basically all of my time to it. The result was that I made steady progress, and this helped spur me on to keep going.

However, I also wasn’t able to finish the project within those ten weeks. And as soon as I shifted my attention elsewhere, the project languished. I still worked on it, but because I and the other researchers weren’t focusing on it like in the summer, this meant progress was much slower. As I’m writing this, we’re in the midst of wrapping up the project. So you can see that while I made a ton of progress in those ten weeks, it slowed to a crawl after.

The lesson I take from this experience is that collaborations work best when everyone is showing up with all of their attention. You can still make progress by working on the project as a side hobby, but it’s much slower. Not only that, but by being a part of too many collaborations, you sap away any energy you could use to go all-in on one project.

Regular check-ins and next steps

Unless you’re holed up in a room with your collaborators and not allowed to leave, you each will have your own responsibilities outside of the project. Even if you’re dedicating most of your time to the collaboration, there will be other distractions in your life. Or perhaps your team can only dedicate focused research time once a week.

It’s critical to establish regular check-ins with the group. This is for two reasons. First, it ensures nobody forgets the directions the team is pursuing. Second, it keeps people accountable to the project. In my experience, I’ve seen projects fade away because nobody knows what’s going on anymore, and nobody is in charge of keeping the collaboration going.

Having these check-ins is even more important when your collaboration is asynchronous and remote. It’s easy to forget about the responsibilities you have if nobody ever reminds the group of them. So having a person who will create these check-ins can go a long way towards keeping a collaboration going.

One way to do this is by having someone post “next steps” after any meeting in the group. This ensures everyone knows where the project is at and what each person has to do.

Where do you put these next steps? This brings us to the last point.

Notes and a shared repository of information

Having a repository of information reduces the need to explain an idea or some result multiple times. There are plenty of tools to make this happen. You can use a shared space like Slack or Microsoft Teams, you can use a shared Google Doc, or many other available tools. The point isn’t the tool, but that you have some place to capture what the group discovers. In business language, this is called a “knowledge base”.

The easier it is for each member of the collaboration to get up to speed on any new developments, the faster you can move forward. You can sort of get away with this if there are fewer people in the team (since the costs of explaining are lower), but even then I would recommend it. In fact, I recommend having a repository of information even when you’re working alone.

This repository will also be the raw material you use to construct your paper later on, so it’s good to start it as early as possible.

In any project, it’s easy to get excited in the beginning, and then frustrated as you climb over obstacle after obstacle. With multiple people on a project, this effects multiplies. A successful collaboration minimizes this frustration by leveraging the multiple perspectives of the group to keep the project moving forward.

In my experience though, someone has to take the step to move it forward. And unless the project is something they’re depending on, it’s unlikely someone will take that initiative. However, you can take initiative, and from my experience, this helps move things along.

Nurturing the forward progress of a collaboration is a project on its own. Getting people to focus their attention synchronously on the project, regular reminders, and a shared repository of notes go a long way to creating success.