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The Academics' Forum

Qualities of the Best Research Collaborator

Satoris S. Culbertson
Kansas State University

I can’t remember when I first started making New Year’s resolutions, but it feels like I’ve done it my whole lifetime. I tend to be very focused and goal oriented, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was making resolutions as an infant to kick the ol’ pacifier habit or as a toddler to create more fridge-worthy artwork. What I do know, however, is that since adulthood, my resolutions have typically been in line with the most common New Year’s resolutions of losing weight, exercising more, and quitting smoking. That is, I’ve certainly resolved to exercise more and eat healthier (usually aimed at weight maintenance or loss), and whereas I’ve never been a smoker, I’ve targeted my own drug of choice, resolving to consume less caffeine.

This year, I decided to change things up a bit and target something work related. Namely, I resolved to be better research collaborator. This isn’t to say that I see myself as a poor collaborator. On the contrary, I think I have some qualities that make me a good collaborator. I just think that I can become a better collaborator. Of course, this made me think: What is a good research collaborator? And what do others think?

With this question in mind, I sent out a request to people, some with whom I’ve collaborated and others I haven’t, and asked them to complete the sentence, “The best collaborator I’ve worked with...” I asked them to not share the name of the person they had in mind but rather to simply describe the qualities that make that person so great. I was fortunate to receive responses from a number of individuals, including Ron Downey (Kansas State University), Allen Huffcutt (Bradley University), Ann Huffman (Northern Arizona University), Robert Jones (Missouri State University), Edgar Kausel (University of Chile), Russell Matthews (Bowling Green State University), and YoungAh Park (Kansas State University). Below, I share their thoughts, along with my own, centered around several main themes.

The Best Research Collaborator...Shares the Load

The most consistent comment from individuals is one that may seem the most obvious: the best collaborators are those that do their share of the work. As Huffcutt noted, his best collaborator “is always willing to jump in and share the workload.” Kausel referred to this as the reciprocity principle, noting that his best collaborator is willing to work fast if he’s working fast and actually rewrite sentences or paragraphs rather than just stating “rewrite this.” Similarly, Park saw this in terms of effort and being proactive, noting that her best collaborator provides input proactively and demonstrates a willingness to put forth his or her best efforts. Along these lines, Downey noted that not only do you want someone who will do their part of the project, but you want someone who motivates others to get their parts done. So, beyond simply sharing the load, he saw the best collaborator as one who espouses the adage “many hands make light the work” by encouraging group participation.

The Best Research Collaborator... Considers Authorship and Credit Issues

According to my ad hoc panel, not only is it important to do one’s fair share of the work to be considered a good collaborator, but it’s also key to consider issues of credit and authorship. For example, Matthews noted, “ The best research collaborator I’ve ever worked with is sensitive to balance contribution to authorship order issues. Authorship is always a tricky business when it is addressed at the end of the relationship. Having an open and honest conversation about authorship is important and should be upfront.” Taking this further, Jones noted that the best collaborator he has worked with “had no particular urge for credit—in fact almost always offered to take second authorship, even before his/her career was fully established.”

The Best Research Collaborator... Complements My Skills and Interests

Another important characteristic for a great collaborator has to do with what they bring to the table. That is, Huffcutt, Downey, and Matthews each noted that their best collaborator was someone who complemented their skills and interests, with strengths that offset their weaknesses. Matthews explained this in greater detail, noting, “my interests generally revolve around the methods and results sections. My weakest area is on the introduction side of things. Having someone who enjoys writing introductions while I work on the methods/results is ideal for me and leads to a more productive relationship.”

The Best Research Collaborator...Is a “Good Person”

Many of my ad hoc panel noted some intangible, interpersonal qualities that created a good collaborator. For example, Jones noted that his best collaborator “always treated others’ ideas with genuine respect, good humor, and occasionally enthusiasm.” Similarly, Park described her best collaborator as one who “did not focus on his or her ego but instead focused on constructive discussion if there’s any differences in opinions and perspectives to write up a paper.” Respect, from Kausel’s view, and worthy of the good collaborator designation, is manifested in part through actions: “If s/he’s the first author, s/he sends updates about what’s going on with the paper.” Finally, taking a more holistic approach, and one that I personally like and can relate to, Huffcutt commented that the best collaborator he has worked with “became a friend along the way.”

The Best Research Collaborator... Can Give and Receive Constructive Criticism

Related to the above point is the idea that good research collaborators are able to generate and tolerate constructive criticism. Embodied in this idea is the notion that one can not only generate constructive versus destructive criticism but also feel comfortable enough to share the criticism. As Huffcutt noted, “my best collaborator is not afraid to tell me when I propose a bad idea.” Similarly, Jones noted that the best collaborator he has worked with “found creative ways to address criticism s/he had identified in such a way that his/her solution was more the emphasis than the critique.” Furthermore, this collaborator “accepted criticisms (and solutions) with similar creativity, good humor, and grace.” I want to work with this person. No, I want to be this person.

The Best Research Collaborator... Has (and/or Can Get) Great Ideas and Perspectives

According to Downey, “you want someone who brings new and different ideas to the project.” In the event that the ideas aren’t coming from you or your colleague, however, a good collaborator knows how to find the ideas. For example, Park noted that the best collaborator is one who “whenever we ran out of our ideas, he/she seeks further perspectives from the people that he/she knows.” In this manner, Park noted again that being proactive is a key quality for a top-notch research collaborator.

The Best Research Collaborator...Is Timely

A few individuals noted the importance of being timely in communications and actions, which is certainly something that many people, including myself, can appreciate. For example, Park noted that her best research collaborator “had a timely turnaround/responses and communications, which made things go on time.” Similarly, Kausel noted the need for timeliness when describing the characteristics of a good collaborator. Specifically, he commented, “ If I’m the first author and ask him/her to do something, s/he promptly answers whether s/he can make it by the deadline (and of course meets the deadline, with a small error margin).” That said, he also noted the need for understanding if a timeline cannot be met, noting, “ if s/he’s the first author and asks me to do something by a certain deadline, s/he understands if I have a good reason to change it.”

The Best Research Collaborator... Is Experienced Working With Others

The adage “practice makes perfect” comes to mind with this next quality that was mentioned for top-notch collaborators. According to Matthews, “The best research collaborator I’ve ever worked with has collaborated with other folks as well.” He explained, “I have found that people who have not collaborated with other folks tend to have a more narrowed focus on research. By working with other people you learn a lot more not just about the topic of interest but how to do research and how to publish research.”

The Best Research Collaborator... Makes Me Want to Be a Better Collaborator

This point is one that really resonates with me and is what prompted this resolution/column topic. That is, a great collaborator is one who makes me want to push myself to be a better collaborator. As Huffcutt noted, “My best collaborator challenges and inspires me to work even harder.” Similarly, according to Huffman, who hit on many of the above points, “the best research collaborator is the one that makes me question myself….Have I contributed fairly to this project?” It is this type of collaborator who is always on top of the game. They are helpful, responsive, and thoughtful, and this leads me to ask myself: Am I doing the same?”

The Best Research Collaborator... Is Someone I Want to Work With Again

According to Matthews, this is “perhaps the most important intangible out there.” And it makes sense. If someone is a great collaborator, you’ll want to work with them again—and again and again. In addition, if you work well together, with skills and interests that complement each other, you’re more likely to have more successes. As Jones noted, he and his best collaborator have generated “way more hits than misses,” with no plans to stop their collaborative efforts.

In sum, I really do have a resolution to be a better research collaborator. That said, I must acknowledge that I’m not always the best at keeping my resolutions (said the Diet Pepsi addict who vowed to cut back on caffeine many years ago). Thankfully, with the assistance of some very helpful colleagues, I have a better understanding of how to be successful. In many ways, I feel like I’m doing alright already. Some of the comments, for example, could have been describing me. But then, I’m so vain I think that Carly Simon song is about me. Of course, I saw other areas where I know I could improve. And so I’m going to try to become better this year and make my collaborators want to continue working with me.