Collaborative Science

Researchers increasingly collaborate with colleagues who have the expertise and/or resources needed to carry out a particular project. Collaborations can be as simple as one researcher sharing reagents or techniques with another researcher. They can be as complex as multi-centered clinical trials that involve academic research centers, private hospitals, and for-profit companies studying thousands of patients in different states or even countries.

Any project that has more than one person working on it requires some collaboration, i.e., working together. In most projects, however, one person, commonly called the co-principal investigator or PI, is in charge. Others work under the PIs direction. In this chapter, the focus will be on groups of researchers who are all more or less equal partners working on a common, collaborative project.

Roles and Relationships

Effective collaboration begins with a clear understanding of roles and relationships, which should begin the day the collaboration is established by discussing and reaching agreement on the details of the collaborative relations. Before any work is undertaken, there should be some common understanding of:

  • the goals of the project and anticipated outcomes;
  • the role each partner in the collaboration will play;
  • how data will be collected, stored, and shared;
  • how changes in the research design will be made;
  • who will be responsible for drafting publications;
  • the criteria that will be used to identify and rank contributing authors;
  • who will be responsible for submitting reports and meeting other requirements;
  • who will be responsible for or have the authority to speak publicly for the collaboration;
  • how intellectual property rights and ownership issues will be resolved; and
  • how the collaboration can be changed and when it will come to an end.

Clear understandings in advance are the best way to avoid complications and disagreements later in a collaboration.

Obviously, situations can arise during a collaboration that could not have been anticipated in advance. For this reason, it is important for effective communication to continue throughout any collaborative project. Collaborators should:

  • share findings with colleagues in the collaboration and pay attention to what others are doing;
  • report and discuss problems as well as findings;
  • make other collaborators aware of any important changes, such as changes in key personnel; and
  • share related news and developments so that everyone in the collaboration is equally knowledgeable about important information.


When a PI is in charge of all of the work done on a project, the lines of responsibility are clear. The PI is ultimately responsible for all aspects of the project, from financial expenditures to staff training, data collection, reporting, and wrapping up the project. In collaborative research, the partners in the collaboration share responsibilities. Under these circumstances, an effective management plan is essential.

Financial management

The expenditure of Federal research funds is subject to financial management rules issued by the Office of Management and Budget in Circulars A-21 and A-110 (see boxes, below and next page). A-21 covers all aspects of financial management, from accounting procedures to reporting requirements. For example, one section carefully describes, in fairly technical terms,allowable and unallowable expenses. Some travel costs are allowed; others are not. A-110 sets out rules for issuing government grants and contracts. It explains how equipment should be purchased and used, even after the project has come to an end.

Every federally funded research project must adhere to the rules set out in A-21 and A-110. Therefore, collaborative projects must be managed in ways that assure that all expenditures are in compliance, from those incurred by the primary investigators working at major research institutions to survey workers or clinicians working in the field.

Training and supervision 

Wherever they work, research staff should be properly trained and supervised. In some instances the training is mandatory. Anyone who works with research animals or human subjects must have formal training. The same is true of staff who work with hazardous substances or biohazards. These requirements extend to everyone working on a collaborative project, whether they are at a different institution, in another state, or even another country. Management plans for collaborative projects therefore should include the training and supervision of all researchers and staff working on the project.

Formal agreements

Some aspects of collaborative projects must be worked out in advance in formal agreements. For example, when research is carried out in more than one place, it is sometimes necessary to transfer materials from one institution to another. Since many materials are carefully controlled, to protect either safety or ownership, the terms of transfer should be carefully spelled out, including (see NIH-recommended provisions below):

  • who owns the materials,
  • the use to which they can be put, and
  • proper acknowledgment of the source.

These agreements help protect the interests of the collaborators by assuring that ownership will be respected and that the materials will be properly used.


Increasingly, research institutions must in one way or another certify that they are in compliance with specific research regulations. When research institutions are involved in collaborative projects, an institutions responsibility for compliance can extend to other institutions. If the other institution is a U.S. university with a large research portfolio, that institution most likely already has a compliance plan in place. However, if the other institution does not do a great deal of research or is located in another country, it may not have thought about its compliance responsibilities. Management plans for collaborative projects must take into account the need for meeting compliance responsibilities throughout the project sites and not just at one institution.

Research Settings

Most researchers devote their careers to one field of research and spend their time talking with colleagues with similar interests. However, science is increasingly best served when researchers work with colleagues in other fields. Physicians and engineers have teamed together to develop miniature wireless devices that can gather information while passing normally through the body. Computer scientists are working with organic chemists and biologists to develop faster computers and more flexible display devices. Collaborative projects encourage researchers to pursue interdisciplinary research.

For the most part, interdisciplinary research follows the same rules and practices as disciplinary research. There are times, however, when researchers in different fields bring different practices or expectations to a project. When this happens, researchers might think of adopting two common-sense rules:

  • do not ignore any responsibilities, and
  • when there are choices about appropriate action, select the most demanding option.

Different expectations can enter a project in a number of ways, especially when judgments about responsible practice are involved. The government and some research institutions allow researchers to earn up to $10,000 through consulting or other outside employment before they have to declare a potential conflict of interest.Others institutions use lower thresholds, in some cases requiring researchers to report conflicts of interest if they have any outside financial interests. Different institutions also manage conflicts of interest in different ways, from supervision or reporting to outright prohibition. When there are differences in reporting policy, the prudent course of action is to go with the lowest financial threshold and accept the most stringent management plan, even though some researchers working on the collaborative project may not be required to do so.

Ownership issues also raise questions about which rules to follow. One party to a collaboration may have no interest in reporting a promising idea for development; another may feel under an obligation to do so, following either a universitys or Federal policy. There may also be different understandings among the different institutions that are part of a collaboration about what constitutes disclosable information and who owns the information once it is disclosed. Given the consequences of disputes that can erupt in these situations, it is essential that every collaborative project settle disclosure and ownership issues early in the project before disputes arise. Waiting longer opens the door for misunderstandings and disputed claims when one of the parties in the collaboration makes a valuable discovery.

There are significant differences in the way researchers in different fields and even different laboratories carry out the routine business of collecting data and publishing results. Some still collect data in bound laboratory notebooks; others use computers. In some fields, it is common practice to circulate early results in newsletters and/or abstracts; in other fields, journal publications are the preferred mode of communication. Different fields have different ways and standards for listing authors. These and other differences should be addressed openly and early in any collaboration to assure that misunderstandings do not arise later over data collection and publication.


The Graduate School wishes to thank the Office of Research Integrity for the use of the mentoring material above. The source is the text book, ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research, by Nicholas H. Steneck, Ph.D., HTML Version, September, 2006, updated from Revised Printed Edition, June, 2004.

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