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.