Good Practices in Collaborative Research & Innovation

Collaborative R&I ranges from international projects, potentially involving institutions from both countries in the developing and developed world, to mid-range collaborations involving several institutions within one country, through to projects involving two researchers from different disciplines. Collaboration includes R&I projects between researchers from different disciplines in the University, and projects between the University and other institutions in the UK and/or in other countries.

The distance between collaborating researchers can magnify issues that might impinge on a collaboration (e.g. cultural, language, financial, political). Key to effective collaboration is clear communication from the beginning between the researchers planning to collaborate, in order that expectations concerning respective roles, responsibilities, methods and analytical techniques, and standards of good R&I practice are clearly understood and accepted. Effective collaboration depends on the collaborators trusting each other and trust develops from regular, honest and open communication.

Minimal acceptable practices in collaborations, which the University expects to be followed:

i. A researcher’s goal should not only be to achieve the project’s scientific objectives, the goal should be also to strengthen the partnership with the collaborating researcher(s) so that by the end of the project there remains a legacy of goodwill which translates into a willingness to enter future collaborations. All collaborating parties should benefit fairly;

ii. When exploring who to collaborate with, researchers should seriously consider having in place confidentiality agreements to cover discussions of their ideas with prospective collaborators. Guidance: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/ris/contracts/nda

iii. With respect to larger, more complex research collaborations, recognising that at the beginning of the collaboration it can be hard to anticipate the exact roles and responsibilities of collaborators and contributors over the project’s lifetime, researchers should seek early agreement on principles to guide, or a framework to agree, the roles and responsibilities of collaborators and contributors and on the nature and manner for communications between all involved. Having an agreement provides an objective process for clarifying what collaborators and contributors can expect from each other. In collaborative R&I the division of roles and responsibilities should be realistic, and if and when changes are made over the project, these changes should be communicated to all involved. An agreement, which may be a legally binding contract, should clarify collaborators’ positions on the following issues (the agreement may refer to a plan which provides clarification):
a. A project time-frame, including key milestones for evaluating project progress;
b. Roles and responsibilities of the collaborating parties, including who leads each side of the collaboration (including leading discussions on authorship and acknowledgment criteria);
c. IP: Expectations about ownership of IP rights and access rights should be discussed from the beginning and reviewed periodically over the project’s lifetime. Researchers should be able to exploit the benefits of IP resulting from their individual contributions (or resulting from combined contributions) to the project. Researchers should be aware of any restrictions on the use of IP (e.g. disclosures related to IP that may be patentable);
d. Confidentiality issues;
e. Financial issues;
f. Resource sharing;
g. Where applicable, transport of materials;
h. Data sharing: Collaborating researchers should be able to request raw data from each other in order to see how results have been reached;
i. Conflicts of interest;
j. Authorship and publication practices: Contributions made by various collaborating researchers during the project may change, which will change the attribution of credit and order of authors;
k. Compliance with applicable regulations;
l. Procedure for reporting and investigating witnessed or suspected incidents of research misconduct.

iv. Collaborators should agree how they will ensure the integrity, access and stewardship of the research data, who will present the research data at meetings and how collaborators will apportion credit to other collaborators in presentations that they deliver.

International Collaborations

Undertaking international collaborative R&I particularly requires a cooperative and flexible attitude, an open mind and a willingness to learn about the culture and political context of the collaborator(s) country(ies).
Challenges can be more pronounced when collaboration is between researchers in resource-rich and resource-poor countries. Researchers in less developed countries may hold down several jobs to earn a living wage, may have different work and time constraints, and may require support from the resource-rich researchers in order to be able to contribute appropriately (e.g. to afford to travel to meetings to present research data).

Technical matters that may need to be addressed in order to undertake international collaborative R&I include having adequate insurance, a visa, and additional compliance requirements of collaborating countries.

Minimal acceptable practices in international collaborations, which the University expects to be followed (these are in addition to the practices expected of collaborations in general):

i. From the beginning, and throughout the project, the researcher should take into account several different perspectives, in particular that of the overseas collaborator(s) and the employing institution(s), the end-users of the R&I and, if applicable, the perspective of human participants participating in the R&I project, and local key decision-makers. This should help inform the planning and implementation of the project and help avoid and/or prepare for ethical dilemmas;

ii. Where collaborating researchers do not share the same mother language, care should be taken to ensure that misunderstandings do not occur due to inadequate translation, and to ensure that there is a shared understanding of key concepts and words. If there are different styles of academic writing, which could cause challenges to arise, then collaborating researchers should make each other aware of these styles;

iii. The researcher should attempt to strengthen knowledge of the culture and political and regulatory context of the collaborator’s country (e.g. cultural traditions may affect the importance attributed to hierarchy within a research team or may affect the position of female researchers, which may translate into differences in practice over, for example, approaches to authorship; for example knowledge of a country’s political climate may be necessary to avoid harm that otherwise may result from a lack of awareness of the climate);

iv. Researchers in different countries may follow different practices that guide how they undertake R&I, practices which may be influenced by culture; this can raise ethical dilemmas for collaborating researchers if they differ in their understanding of what constitutes acceptable practices (e.g. this may be around data quality or authorship).

Higher practices in international collaborations, which the University’s researchers should aspire to (these are in addition to the practices expected of collaborations in general):

i. It can be valuable, depending on the project, to take advice from experts in foreign affairs and international development who are familiar with the local context and/or have developed local contacts and knowledge (e.g. staff at the British Council);

ii. A procedure for reporting and investigating witnessed or suspected incidents of research misconduct should be clarified from the beginning (in an agreement between the collaborators). Best practice is to follow the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Global Science Forum Coordinating Committee’s boilerplate text for international collaborative research projects (see page 3 of the OECD document Investigating Research Misconduct Allegations in International Collaborative Research Projects: A Practical Guide).