Thing 23: International Collaborations


It's our final Thing!!!

Probably we should have started with this one, but hey...


Woman sitting on a doorstep outside a brick building, wearing a coat and glasses. She is shrugging sheepishly.
Oops.


This big finish, on International Collaborations is brought to you by Dr Dawn Duke, Head of Researcher Development, AREF.


Increasingly, researchers are needing to develop broader and more complex relationships to address the complex research challenges of today. There is recognition that international partnerships have potential to address research questions in a way that is often impossible from one country’s perspective. Certainly, the broadness and the global impact of the WHO sustainable development goals provides a good example of this. Research funders recognise this and are launching calls that explicitly require researchers to work as part of international teams.

This can be daunting for a researcher at the early stages of their career. How do you make the connections necessary to form these relationships? Will people take you seriously on an international stage? Will your contributions be valued and appreciated?

This blog will take you through all the stages of an international collaboration, helping you identify skills and practices for collaborative success.


Getting Started

Tip: Start creating international relationships early

The best time to get started building potential collaborations is before you need them. Before there is a call, before there is an idea. Building on several of our other Things, a strong international network gives you the variety of people with similar interests and different specific strengths necessary to build good international collaborations. A cold ask for a collaborative partner is a lot less likely to result in a ‘yes’ than an ask from someone already part of your network. Therefore, your first step for this ‘Thing’ is really the previous Thing, Thing 22 J. Start there and pay special attention to how you can build a network that includes people from a variety of different countries.

When people are looking for collaborations, they often think of the biggest, most published person in their field. There are a few reasons they may not be the best collaborator for you. First they are likely to already have many other collaborations and therefore not have that much time to work with you; second it may not lead to as equitable a collaboration, i.e. they may either purposefully or inadvertently take most of the glory. It can be important for early career researchers to collaborate with more senior people to learn from their experience, but there is huge benefit to working professionally with people at your own career level, or maybe just one step higher. These relationships are more equal and they may last the whole of your professional career, so your 23 Things buddies are truly an ideal place to start.


Tip: Get on LinkedIn to maintain connections as people change

For maintaining international relationships, I can’t recommend LinkedIn enough (See Thing 16). As you meet people at conferences, events, international online courses (like this one), connecting with them on LinkedIn allows you to keep track of them as they move through various career changes. It also allows you to learn more about their interest and their passion through their post.

Activity: If you haven’t done so already, create a LinkedIn page. Now invite as many people as you can from 23 Things International to be connected with you. It is often helpful to let people know where you know them from when putting in a connection request, so do include a short note like: We are doing 23 Things together, would you like to connect?

You could get connected with me too if you like. I have a large network of international researchers. The cool thing about LinkedIn is that as you connect with people, you also start to get connected to people they know as well, through their posts.


Tip: Start small. Small projects can help you learn how well you work together


As you expand your international network, it may be good to ‘try out’ some of these relationships. If opportunities come up to do short projects, particularly virtually, like organising a seminar, or writing a blog post, or running a short course, these may be good tester projects for a collaboration. Say yes and see if you can’t get an international partner or two on board. These types of small collaborations can help strengthen your relationship and learn how best to work with each other. Equally, you may learn that someone doesn’t really hold up their side of the collaboration and leaves you with all the work. The latter is not particularly nice, but it is certainly better to learn during a small project than in the middle of a large multi-year endeavour.


Co-Creation and Expectation Sharing

Moving forward now to when bigger opportunities or ideas for research collaboration become available. If you are approached to be part of a collaboration, how do you know this is something that is worth your time and will benefit your career and your research? If you are the one wanting to lead the collaboration, how do you bring a strong team together and make it work?


Tip: Co-create projects and proposals whenever possible

The first step to creating strong equitable collaborations is co-creation. The best working partnerships are the ones where all member’s contributions are valued and acted upon. It is not uncommon in academia to have quite hierarchical collaborations, where the Principle Investigate (PI) comes up with a research idea, starts putting together a grant and then invites specific people to come in to support their agenda. These types of collaborations can work, particularly if the ‘co-investigators’ (CIs) are more junior and within the same research institutions or group.

However, the bigger/broader the collaboration, the less well a strictly hierarchical style of research works. This is because all members of the collaboration are not equally invested in the idea, and in fact will be spending most of their time in their own country, probably more focused on their own research, and this big project that the PI cares so much about will just be a side project to them.

To get all members of a team invested in a collaborative project, co-creation is key. This gives people ownership, not just over the part of the project they are directly working on, but also over the project as a whole. They will understand better how everything fits together and know that they had a key role in the shape and direction of the collaborative project. This leads to greater investment of time and energy from all team members. Tip: Create shared expectations of roles and responsibilities During this time of co-creation, it is also important to openly share expectations. This should include expectations about:

Roles and responsibilities (PI, CI, post-docs, PhD students, etc.) Availability (How much time can be dedicated to this project? Other key commitments?) Resources (What does everyone have access to, what can be shared, what can’t?) Deadlines (Realistic? What happens if problems arise) Communication frequency and mode (How often do we meet? What is expected at meetings? How to communicate challenges?) Publication/research output (Who gets first author? Who gets last author? How are outputs shared equitably across the team?)

Perhaps you can think of some other important expectations to share? Tip: Strive for equity in your collaboration. Just a note on equitable collaboration: it is very important for researchers from high-income countries (HICs), particularly those that are English-speaking to recognize the publication disparity that has been found when working with low- to middle-income countries (LMICs). Studies show that when an international collaboration involves HICs and LMICs, the key author spots (first and last author in science disciplines) disproportionally go to authors from the HICs (Schneider, 2018; Ghani, 2016). To create equitable collaborations, it is critical that all contributions are equally valued and all members are able to equally benefit. Having conversations about authorship early can help address imbalances that may arise (Morton et al 2022).

Tip: Discuss publications and other outputs early Publications can be the most important output of a project, but also the most time consuming. Have a clear plan from the start, including spreading responsibilities over the group, the likely places of publication, and the timeline for the work. This keeps everyone on board for the core targets, and makes sure there are no nasty surprises as one person finds they are expected to pump out multiple papers in quick succession, while others in the project are no longer available. Agree on a project plan that includes key milestones and outputs (even if these are necessarily provisional). ________________________________________________________________________________ Reflection: Think about the various research groups/collaborations you have been involved in. What worked well? What didn’t work as well? Why? This type of reflection can help you to build your skills and leadership toolkit.


Managing the Challenges

Every collaboration will have its challenges, and the distant nature of international collaborations can add to the complexity of spotting and overcoming these challenges. However, if you started off your project by sharing expectations and establishing good lines of communication, you are in a good place to address challenges or misunderstandings, because you already have established the groundwork necessary for dealing with these issues. Most research challenges are due to unclear (or changing) expectations or lack of communication, not the actual research. If a certain aspect of the research doesn’t go to plan, but this is communicated to all the partners in a timely manner, then most of the time the team is able to work on the problem as find a way forward. It is when the communication isn’t open and timely that real problems arise.


Tip: Be honest and supportive when conflict or challenges arise

Create an open and supportive environment within your collaborative team. If deadlines are agreed and understood by everyone things will go smoother. Also, if there is an explicit understanding that there may be times when deadlines may slip or something unexpected may happen, but an expectation that this will be communicated early and collaborators will act supportively (not blaming) in such cases, you are more likely to have the open communication you need to make collaborations work. It may be a bit annoying if things start to go off track, but it is so much worse if you don’t find out about it for several months, which can happen if people feel unable to communicate without blame.


Tip: Be sensitive to cultural differences

All too often, we think the way we do things in our country (or institution, or discipline), is the ‘right way. However, there are always many different ways of doing things and none is right or wrong, they are just different. One thing that is so ingrained in people that they don’t even realise that it is a matter of culture, is the concept of time. And let me tell you, I have seen many collaborations and relationships strained by different approaches to time! Cultural views of time can be very different, which can be broadly classified as monochronic or polychonic. Monochronic cultures tend to focus on one aspect of a project at a time and move linearly from one objective to the next. Time deadlines are extremely important for them and they find it rude to be late to a meeting or to miss a deadline, even by a small margin. Although it’s always risky to generalize, some monochronic countries include: Switzerland, England, Germany, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries and the USA. Polychronic cultures tend to multitask, doing many different projects or aspects of a project at once; they value relationships and individuals over time and can often see deadlines as flexible and meeting times as approximate. Many Southern European, African, Arabic and South American countries tend to be polychronic.


(Side note: People may have a different personal relationship with time than the culture they are in. My poor English daughter is definitely polychronic by nature but has been stuck growing up in very monochronic England.)


However, just because collaborative partners may have different cultural concepts of time, this does not mean they can’t work together. What is important is keeping an open mind, and not considering any one way ‘right’. This seems to be hardest for those of us in monochronic cultures... If there are deadlines that need to be meet, it is important to communicate why these deadlines are hard deadlines. Polychonic people do meet hard deadlines, and it is often deadlines they feel are arbitrary which they give greater flexibility too. In general, working across culture requires acceptance and flexibility on all sides.


Of course, there are other cultural challenges that can arise. There can be things ‘lost in translation’ when working with people whose first language is different. But it is not necessarily the specific words that are the problem, it often how the words are used that can cause the miscommunication. As an American who lives in the UK, I can tell you we do not use the English language in the same way (see https://greatbritishmag.co.uk/uk-culture/what-the-british-say-and-what-they-actually-mean/ for a laugh). British people use English in a more indirect way than Americans or Australians. This is not just true of English-speaking nations; cultures across the world vary in how direct/indirect they are in the way they speak. This is often complicated by hierarchy and status. People who use more indirect language to communicate can find direct language harsh or rude, whilst those who use more direct language can totally misunderstand the meaning of indirect language usage.

Activity: find a friend or colleague from a different country and talk to them about cultural differences. How do meetings work in their country? What do they find rude? Are they able to say ‘no’ to someone higher up than them?

Exploring, understanding and accepting cultural differences can be fun and it will make you a better international collaborator.


Tip: Give all members of the team credit for their hard work

As you learn about the cultural differences of those you work with, you can negotiate ways of working that take into account and even celebrate these differences, as well as the individual contributions of each team member. Equitable international collaborations require an understanding of the various members’ culture and context and an appreciation for different types of contributions. It is important that all partners see and value the work of the whole team. This can be done through presentations at project meetings and through fair distribution and credit on project outputs. This is of course true of all collaborations. Arguably, it is more challenging with a larger international collaboration, and with people working at a further distance from each other. Therefore, it is important to take just a bit of extra time and effort to really learn to understand and appreciate all of your collaborators, whether you are the PI, CI or a postdoc or PhD student on a bigger international project. This time and effort can pay off in creating strong collaborative relationships that can last your professional lifetime.

Final Top Tip: Care and maintain those relationship that work well. Let those that do not add value or are not equitable go.


Person in a bear costume outside a concert venue
I'm sorry Geoff, this just isn't what I signed up for.


References

Ghani M, Hurrell R, Verceles AC, McCurdy MT, Papali A. Geographic, subject, and authorship trends among LMICbased scientific publications in high-impact global health and general medicine journals: a 30-month bibliometric analysis. Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health 2021; 11: 92–7.


B. Morton,1 A. Vercueil,2 R. Masekela,3 E. Heinz,4 L. Reimer,5 S. Saleh,6C. Kalinga,7

M. Seekles,8 B. Biccard,9 J. Chakaya,10,11 S. Abimbola,12 A. Obasi13,14 and N. Oriyo15

Consensus statement on measures to promote equitable authorship in the publication of research from international partnerships Anaesthesia 2022, 77, 264–276


Schneider H, Maleka N. Patterns of authorship on community health workers in low-and-middle-income countries: an analysis of publications (2012–2016). British Medical Journal Global Health 2018; 3: e000797.

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