As a graduate student, I once went out to lunch with a new post-doc in our department who had similar research interests to mine. We were having a nice chat about personal and professional topics, and at one point I said, “we should think about writing something together.” This clearly made them uncomfortable, and they said something to the effect of, “let’s wait and see if something relevant comes up.” I was a bit confused at the time, because I thought this is what academics did. I thought that “we should collaborate” is academic-ese for “we should be friends.” After some time, I realized how mistaken I was, and how wise they were to be cautious about entering into an unspecified collaboration with someone they barely knew. Over the years, I have now learned this lesson many times over. The purpose of this post is to share some of those lessons on why we should all be cautious about scientific collaboration.
Collaboration and “team science” are all the rage in psychology these days, which has traditionally valued a singular, “do it all yourself” kind of academic persona. When I was in graduate school, it was clear that the single-authored paper was the ultimate sign of academic greatness. Plenty of people still think that way, but change is certainly afoot, and there are many excellent articles on the benefits and practicalities of collaborative team science (e.g., Forscher et al., 2020; Frassl et al., 2018; Ledgerwood et al., in press; Moshontz et al., 2021).
Amidst the many discussions about the benefits of team science, there is relatively less coverage of potential pitfalls—what to watch out for as you think about collaborating with new people. How do you know whether to engage in a particular collaboration? How can you ensure that the experience is a positive one? A recent column by Carsten Lund Pedersen on How to pick a great scientific collaborator outlines a framework consisting of three traits to ensure success: choose collaborators who are fun to work with, contribute to the work, and have the same ambition. This is a useful and accurate framework, albeit incomplete (e.g., trust is a key aspect of collaborations, especially within cultural and ethnic minority research; see Rivas-Drake et al., 2016), but sometimes you don’t really have sufficient information about these traits of your collaborators until it may already be too late. It is critical to attend to possible warning signs in the earliest phases of a collaboration.
Thus, what brought me to write this entry today: when to run away from any potential collaborations. The following examples are from my personal experience, and so of course does not constitute an exhaustive list, but nevertheless it can be a handy list of the kind of things one should watch out for when establishing new collaborations.
When you receive vague invitations to collaborate. Successful collaborations are nearly always either a) specific to an existing or planned project or b) an extension of an existing collegial relationship. It is not uncommon for people to propose a potential collaboration, via email or in person at conferences, with no additional details about what the collaborative project might be. These are invitations to collaborate on some unknown future project with someone you don’t really know. This is the type of invitation I described making at the outset of this post, and is generally a bad idea to initiate or accept them and a good idea to run away.
When you observe inklings of anti-social behavior. Not long ago, I was asked to be part of a project by someone who I like and respect a great deal on a topic I am enthusiastic about. So far, so good. This person, who was the lead on the paper, shared a 500-word abstract to the authorship group to be submitted for a special issue. Another person on the team, who I did not know at all, responded with an extremely long and detailed email (2608 words long, to be precise) that heavily centered their own work. I wrote back privately to the lead, essentially saying, “count me out of this business.” To me, this was anti-social behavior, but I acknowledge others would have no qualms with it whatsoever. There is no objective standard for what constitutes inappropriate academic behavior of this kind, but if you don’t feel good about it, if something seems off to you, better to jump ship early and save yourself further trouble. The team went on to write a fantastic paper, and when it was published I had a brief tinge of regret, but I know I made the right decision to run away based on my initial feelings.
When you do not want to work with one of the other collaborators. Similar to the previous story, not long ago, I was asked to be part of a project by someone who I like and respect a great deal on a topic I am enthusiastic about. I immediately agreed to be part of the team. When the follow-up email was sent to the full authorship team, however, I saw that one of the other collaborators was someone with a poor history of collaboration, mentorship, and collegiality. I was simply not willing to work with this person. I wrote back to the lead, and regretfully rescinded my involvement, explaining my reasons why. This experience highlighted how you should always find out who else will be involved with a project before agreeing to participate. As I wrote in my email, “I treasure my collaborations and always seek happiness and positivity from the work that I do, and part of that is knowing when something is a bad idea.” If you fear that the collaboration will not bring you happiness, it is best to run away.
When your views are not being respected. Collaborations can be extremely difficult, because we do not all see the world or our disciplines in the same way, and some collaborations involve multiple people who are accustomed to being “in charge.” It can sometimes be impossible to adequately represent everyone’s views. A paper I contributed to involved bringing together multiple groups of people who each had some experience with others on the team, but not everyone had previously worked together. There was a clash of styles in the approach to writing the paper, and one of the authors did not feel that their views and contributions were being respected by the lead author. Accordingly, the author who was not feeling respected decided it was best to cease the collaboration and be removed from the paper. This can be a difficult decision, but it is almost always the correct one. There are many opportunities out there, and if you are not enjoying what you are doing, not feeling respected by your coauthors, and not feeling like you can maintain your integrity through the collaboration, then it is best to just run away.
When you cannot be a good collaborator. My previous warnings focused on other people and their behavior, but sometimes the problem is you. Sometimes, you are just not in a good position to be a productive collaborator. The major culprit here is time, and our tendency to over-extend and take on too much. In recent years, I have taken to thinking really hard about whether I have the time and energy to engage in the collaboration, and try to do so in a realistic way. That is, I no longer fall prey to the fallacy that I will have more time in the future than I do now. That is always false. So, now I frequently decline invitations, or do not pursue opportunities, because I know that I will be a bad collaborator: I won’t respond to emails, I won’t provide comments, I won’t make any of the deadlines. For some projects that I do agree to, I am still clear about my capacity and what I can actually contribute. If you feel that you can participate in a project, but only contribute in a minor capacity, say so up front! That will save a lot of heartache down the road. But, as always, sometimes the wise move is to just run away.
When you want to say what you want to say. I have been involved in a couple of relatively large, big-ego type collaborations that resulted in some published position papers. These collaborations were extremely valuable and constitute some of the major highlights of my career. But the papers we produced were not very good. Team science and diversity of authorship teams have many, many benefits, but it is also difficult to avoid gravitating to the median, centrist view (see Forscher et al., 2020). The result is that the views become too watered-down in order to appease the other co-authors. If you want to argue for something radical, that will often be difficult to do with ten co-authors who also have strong opinions. Sometimes, you just need to go at it on your own, or with a small group of like-minded folks. To be clear, I am not saying that all big collaborations lead to conservative outputs. That is clearly not the case. But it is a risk, and you should assess whether you will be happy with that outcome, or if you should run away.
When you realize there are few things better than lovely collaborators. Ok, this is not a warning sign at all, quite the opposite! I do not want readers to take this post as anti-collaboration. Rather, it is a plea for engaging in highly selective collaborations. I do not want to engage in collaborations that do not bring me happiness. I need to have fun. I need to love the work that I am doing, and I need to love the people I am doing it with. I am fortunate to have three continuous, life-long collaborators in Linda Juang, Kate McLean, and the Gothenburg Group for Research in Developmental Psychology led by Ann Frisén. Working with these folks, and many others—especially current and former students—is among the great joys of my work. Indeed, collaboration can be the highlight of our academic lives, but only if they are done thoughtfully.
There are certainly plenty of other red flags to watch out for or reasons to not collaborate. This is not an exhaustive list, but a few lessons from my own experience. Please share any additional experiences that you have, and perhaps I will update this post, giving you credit of course (hey, a potential collaboration!).
Forscher, P. S., Wagenmakers, E., Coles, N. A., Silan, M. A., Dutra, N. B., Basnight-Brown, D., & IJzerman, H. (2020, May 20). The benefits, barriers, and risks of big team science. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/2mdxh
Frassl, M. A., Hamilton, D. P., Denfeld, B. A., de Eyto, E., Hampton, S. E., Keller, P. S., ... & Catalán, N. (2018). Ten simple rules for collaboratively writing a multi-authored paper. PLOS Computational Biology, 14(11), e1006508. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006508
Ledgerwood, A., Pickett, C., Navarro, D., Remedios, J. D., & Lewis, N. A., Jr. (in press). The unbearable limitations of solo science: Team science as a path for more rigorous and relevant research. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/5yfmq
Moshontz, H., Ebersole, C. R., Weston, S. J., & Klein, R. A. (2021). A guide for many authors: Writing manuscripts in large collaborations. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 15(4), e12590. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12590
Pedersen, C. L. (2022). How to pick a great scientific collaborator. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01323-9
Rivas-Drake, D., Camacho, T. C., & Guillaume, C. (2016). Just good developmental science: Trust, identity, and responsibility in ethnic minority recruitment and retention. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 50, 161-188. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.acdb.2015.11.002