Collaborative Librarians

Data don't tell the whole story.

Coordinating Centers April 28, 2008

Filed under: Coordinating Centers — Betsy Rolland @ 12:24 pm

One of the most undervalued – even often ignored – elements of a well run collaboration is the coordinating center. A coordinating center can take many forms but is generally responsible for ensuring the smooth operations of the collaboration. Some coordinating centers also contribute to the science, either via a scientific director or liaison or by also hosting a statistical and data management center that manages the data analysis.

Communication within a distributed research collaboration, particularly those with international members, is always an enormous challenge. There are time differences and language difficulties to deal with. Electronic communications leave much to be desired. If the collaboration is especially large, it can be difficult to know who to include in an email thread or a conference call. CCs can help by developing tools to make communication as effortless and inclusive as possible. These tools may include a collaborative portal, email lists, organizing and hosting conference calls and distributing documents. CCs can also help by keeping tabs on who needs to be involved in various activities and connecting those who need to be connected.

Possibly the most difficult issue in managing a distributed research collaboration, however, is that of trust. Scientists have traditionally competed fiercely with one another for a limited pool of funding. Long-standing rivalries are common and can bring down a collaboration if a concerted effort to build trust isn’t made. Here, too, CCs can help by serving as a mediator, building community by shepherding collaborators through the process of working together. It can require a tremendous amount of negotiating skills, but in the end the collaboration emerges stronger than before.

While not every collaboration is big enough for a dedicated coordinating center staff, every collaboration can benefit from having someone designated to keep things running, even part-time. Collaboration seems so effortless, but once we actually dig in and get started, there are so many details that need attention. How will expenses be shared? Who’s paying for travel costs for meetings? Who decides on the schedule? What is the publication policy? Having someone charged with at least thinking about these things is crucial to the success of your collaboration.


Scientific Research Collaboration and Collaboratories April 26, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Betsy Rolland @ 10:21 pm

The phenomenon of scientific research collaboration has been studied extensively, though remains poorly understood. Defining what exactly constitutes a collaboration is tricky. Is it a casual conversation in a hallway that leads to a new research direction, or does it require a substantial contribution of time and resources? Who can be considered a collaborator? Generally graduate students are not considered as true collaborators until they have been granted their PhDs, despite possibly making significant contributions (Katz, 1997).

Most collaborations are born of existing social connections, “begin informally and are often the result of informal conversation [which then leads] to increasing commitment to co-operate” (Katz, 1997). Scientists tend to collaborate most frequently with people they already know, either from graduate school or a previous job. This speaks to a level of trust necessary to collaborate successfully. Scientists also tend to collaborate with researchers who are geographically proximate, as this simplifies the process of coalescing as a collaborative unit. Easier access means casual conversations are more frequent, keeping researchers on the same page in terms of their research. Misunderstandings are fewer as researchers can communicate face-to-face and utilize social cues missed out on by technological communications. Trust is more easily developed when people are interacting in person (Gallie, 2005).

There are great benefits to collaborating on research. Researchers are able to take advantage of each other’s skills and knowledge, learn new skills and methods (especially tacit knowledge), challenge their own thinking by collaborating with scientists with different viewpoints and backgrounds, work with others who are passionate about the same interests, gain new contacts, and potentially gain greater visibility for their work (Katz, 1997). As with any social construct, there are also possible costs. These could include additional expenses when the team size increases or when travel is necessary, an increase in the time needed to do the research due to increased negotiations over meaning and results, increased administrative needs and costs and reconciling different cultures if the collaboration involves more than one entity such as a university or research center. (Katz, 1997).

There are areas of this process where technology can help and areas where it not only cannot help but might actually hinder the research process. Where the knowledge that needs to be shared is explicit, meaning that it can be clearly written down and codified, communication by online tools can work beautifully. However, when a discussion needs to take place that revolves around tacit knowledge, that which cannot be easily codified, electronic means are less than ideal. When ideas and results need to be hashed out, defined, and clarified, face-to-face communication is still better, as it allows for nonverbal communication to take place, as well. It’s simply easier to iron out confusion in person (Gallie, 2005). One way to combat this in an online tool is through the use of forums where differences can explicitly be ironed out through in-depth discussions. Kouzes advocates for “…support for the discussion of unfamiliar concepts so that misunderstandings can be corrected” (Kouzes, 1996).

Collaboratories were defined by Kouzes as “…laboratories without walls” and used to explain the concept of collaborating across institutional, geographic and disciplinary boundaries. Numerous research studies have been funded to try to create a framework for building collaboratories. Thus far, this has not been successful. This is due to the fact that each research collaboration is unique and requires its own set of tools to manage the collaboration. Each project has its own set of data, its own set of processes and procedures and its own unique social structure. One size does not fit all (Schleyer, 2001). And yet, some basic requirements can be defined. Look for that in an upcoming post.



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