In my previous role as a high school teacher, collaboration was relatively rare. Although I often collaborated with students, meaningful collaboration with my fellow teachers was uncommon. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I have had the opportunity to engage in numerous collaborative opportunities, most often when planning, conducting, and reporting on research. In this post, I explore models, benefits, and challenges related to collaboration in this context.
Models of collaboration at universities can be conceptualized as being either horizontal or vertical (Mann, Meyer, & Carney, 2012). A horizontal model is when team members are at approximately the same level in a professional hierarchy. These may take the form of faculty teams within a department, cross-disciplinary projects, or collaboration among students. This is contrasted with a more vertical model, which consists of researchers from different hierarchical levels working together, such as faculty-student collaboration or beginning faculty teaming with experienced members in a department. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but rather they are points on a continuum. Whereas an undergraduate working with a full professor together on a project would constitute a strongly vertical collaboration, professionals at similar places in a university hierarchy could be viewed as a blend of the two extremes. Many of the benefits of collaboration around research may be present in either model, but some are more frequently found in one or the other.
Drawn broadly, academic research benefits from collaboration in that the inclusion of more people leads to a more well-rounded and holistic perspective (Bakas, Farran, & Williams, 2006). Different individuals have different expertise to bring to the project (Bishop, 2014). Individuals also have different networks of contacts, so by working as a collaborative team, the access to potential holders of knowledge is greatly increased (Talja, 2002). This external collaboration can be very beneficial, as it can increase connections to individual holders of knowledge and resources exponentially. Enlarged networks are found to be beneficial in many models as well as different stages of research collaboration (Katerndahl, 2012).
As a graduate student working with experienced researchers, my collaboration model is most frequently vertical. In this model, individuals with greater and alternate experiences can assist those who are new to the field. The specific benefits are numerous. Everyone involved with the project gets a “step up,” no matter what their level (Mann et al., 2012). Beginning researchers get help with conducting the academic research process (Ritchie & Rigano, 2007). Motivation, productivity, and access to resources can all show an increase (Mann et al., 2012).
Lei & Chuang (2009) identify many benefits specific to the advisor / doctorate student collaboration model. The student receives experienced advice, personal network connections, and help maneuvering the political aspects of the institution and process. They also learn how to take a project from inception to publication, they get to know useful techniques related to the field, and their collaboration skills increase. The student’s work has the opportunity to make a larger impact as well, since it is tied to someone with experience in the field.
There are a number of benefits for the advisor as well. They are able to pay forward the benefits they received as a student (Ritchie & Rigano, 2007). Bishop (2014) spoke of how fulfilling it is to help other people launch their own careers, as well as the intellectual challenge that comes with the role. The advisor is also able to benefit from the division of labor that comes with having a student researching and reporting back specifically in their field (Lei & Chuang, 2009).
There are some challenges that come specifically with vertical collaboration. Clear and open communication may be a challenge, due to a power differential, be it real or perceived (Mann et al., 2012). The interpersonal dynamic may be awkward, and it can take time to figure out how the relationship works (Bishop, 2014). The student may end up doing more work for less credit, and indeed may not be seen as a true research collaborator (Lei & Chuang, 2009). Alternately, the person with more experience may be seen only as an expert, and not as a true collaborator (Bishop, 2014). Finally, conflict may arise around issues of authorship. Different advisors may have different attitudes and policies around who should be listed as the first author on student-collaborated work. These differences may arise from their experience, but may also result from institutional policies (Musoba, 2008). Further complicating matters in the educational domain, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) uses ambiguous language regarding student authorship: “A student is usually [emphasis added] listed as principal author on any multiple-authored publication that substantially derives from the student’s dissertation or thesis.” (“AERA Code of Ethics,” 2011, p. 154). The recommendation, although generally adhered to, is not universally applied (Musoba, 2008).
As with many challenges with collaboration, clear communication can help to minimize potential problems. Mann et al. (2012) suggest developing an action plan from the beginning of the project, with timelines, due dates, and clearly defined responsibilities. Bishop (2014) encourages thoughtful and sensitive interactions to help build confidence. Regarding authorship, the AERA suggests that “[e]ducation researchers specify the criteria for making [authorship] determinations at the outset of the writing process.” (“AERA Code of Ethics,” 2011, p. 154).
Reflecting on My Experiences
I am grateful for the collaborative opportunities that I have had in my research experiences. Working with experienced researchers has allowed me to meaningfully participate in structuring and conducting original research. These experiences have allowed me to learn by watching others, and to get valuable feedback on my contributions. Also, experienced team members have spotted potential roadblocks on projects and worked to address potential pitfalls before they occur. I have not encountered any serious issues around division of labor or authorship; clear communication from early stages of projects has minimized the potential for these types of conflicts. As I continue to build experience and skills, it pleases me to be able to continue to learn through rich, collaborative experiences.