Collaboration: Friend or Foe

This article originally appeared in our magazine, Physiology News.

By Mike Tipton, @ProfMikeTiptonUniversity of Portsmouth

It can be argued that, in the broadest sense, we would not exist without collaboration. It is also easy to argue that our future health, prosperity, and indeed, survival will be dependent on collaboration. However, collaboration is something of a conundrum. Its meaning and usage are so broad as to be almost meaningless, and as a concept it covers a multitude of scenarios, not all of them good. So how do we foster enduring, productive collaboration in science? 

Many people love the idea of collaboration, they pursue it with vigour, offering their services and proclaiming their interest in a project.Others are not keen on collaboration. For most, their view of collaboration largely depends on past experience or worries about future recognition. The problem is that there is a contradiction that runs through “collaboration”, right down to its definitions: a. The action of working with someone to produce something b. Traitorous cooperation with an enemy. Hopefully academic collaboration falls under the former rather than latter definition, but perhaps not always.

Collaboration in nature: lessons for scientists

There is no doubt that collaboration can be a driver for advancement, and even optimal advancement. This is easy to demonstrate in biological terms; for example over a billion years ago one bacteria became host to another, obtaining shelter in return for the production of energy from food and oxygen. Eventually the bacteria merged into a single cell that became the ancestral powerhouses of all multicellular life and the precursors to mitochondria. Today, examples of successful collaboration abound, from the African Oxpecker, and their aquatic equivalent, cleaner fish, to bacteria such as Lactobacillus that inhabit human intestines and help to relieve Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease and gut dysbiosis. As Darwin said, “in the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

What can we learn from the animal kingdom that might help our collaborations with other scientists? The obvious lesson is that those collaborations between organisms that endure are symbiotic rather than parasitic. That is, both collaborators bring something to the relationship and both gain. To coin a cliché, the sum is greater than its constituent parts. Collaborations fail when, in one way or another, they become parasitic. Perhaps we should focus on “symbiosis” rather than “collaboration”?


Figure 1. Collaborators seeing eye to eye: a symbiotic collaboration between the African Oxpecker and the African Cape Buffalo. One feeds, the other has parasites removed.

Scientific collaboration: the benefits

At one level, of course, all science is the product of a collaboration between colleagues within an institution, be they the technicians, students, academics or administrators that enable and conduct research. But what about collaboration across institutions? This is not an insignificant issue; even more so now than previously, successful collaboration is important for the advancement of research areas as well as scientific careers. As science moves unerringly towards complex, multifaceted studies employing advanced and highly specialised techniques, the need to collaborate nationally and internationally increases. This truth is increasingly being reflected in the published literature, where there is a positive relationship between the presence of international collaborating authors on top flight papers and citation impact (Adams & Gurney, 2016).

People are getting the message; as measured by co-authorship on refereed papers, international collaboration grew linearly from 1990-2005, or exponentially if international presentations are assessed (Leydesdorff & Wagner, 2008). In 1981 about 90 % of UK published research output was domestic, by 2014 this figure had fallen to less than 50 %; almost all of the growth in output in the last 30 years was produced by international co-authored collaborations (Adams & Gurney, 2016). In just the last two issues of Experimental Physiology we have published papers from 15 countries, and of the 22 papers published, 13 were collaborations between a total of 34 institutions. Leydesdorff & Wagner (2008) used network analysis to conclude that the growth of international co-authorship can be, at least in part, explained by the organising principle of preferential attachment (“the rich get richer”). Broadening collaboration should therefore be advantageous.


Figure 2. Relative increase in international collaborative publications (articles & review indexed in Thomson Reuters Web of Science) since 2000 (Adams & Gurney, 2016). 

The major driver for collaboration is the need to share, be that ideas, equipment, facilities, techniques, resources or data. Without successful collaboration between experts within different fields, some major problems will either not be solved or will take much longer. For example, it is generally agreed that the battle against cancer cannot be won without such collaboration (Savage, 2018). Looking back, without collaboration we would have been less likely to know of the existence of the Higgs Boson or have sequenced the human genome. It is difficult to imagine the big questions of our time, such as understanding the working of the brain, the origin of the universe or the production of clean sustainable energy, being solved without interdisciplinary collaboration. The need for collaboration to provide the diversity of skills and techniques to answer these questions is paramount.  

The UK government is actively encouraging such collaboration through initiatives like the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Fellowships Programme. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund looks to build collaborations between academics and business. One of the six key areas is “Health and Medicine”. Research England recently invested £67m in 14 collaborative projects to “drive forward world-class university commercialisation across the country”.

Promoting collaboration: opportunities and threats

So, how do we create the conditions that might promote successful symbiotic collaboration within, but even more importantly, across disciplines? We start with an advantage; game theory (e.g. The Prisoners’ Dilemma) research tells us that humans display a systematic bias towards cooperative behaviour in preference to otherwise rational self-interest (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003). So, we need to foster this altruistic inclination and minimise the threats to collaboration.

Publishing has a role to play in promoting collaboration; since the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was disseminated in 1665, potential collaborations have been promoted by the publishing industry reporting what could be done by other people working in the same field. A relatively recent development is the publication of datasets that can be examined and used by others, a new and as yet not fully evolved form of “collaboration”. On the other hand, publication can also be a barrier to collaboration: concerns about recognition of effort, authorship and ownership of ideas or data can introduce anxiety and suspicion. These problems can be minimised by early, open discussion, by scientists, and by journals giving high value to ideas. Following established guidelines for authorship should also help (e.g. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors Guidelines (2017).

Other threats to collaboration come in the form of international politics: BREXIT and access to EU funding, the rise of nationalism, travel bans, language barriers and difficulties in getting work permits. This is a constantly changing canvas within which scientists and leading institutions must lobby and advocate the crucial societal benefits of international collaborative research. Hopefully continued access to international and pan-continental research funding that demands international collaboration will help.  

The role of publishing in prompting collaboration is reinforced by scientific meetings where you meet, learn from and socialise with those working in your field. Having determined from the literature and scientific presentations those who you might work with, it is during social exchanges at meetings that you discover people you want to work with. One potentially negative consequence of subject-specific meetings is that they constrain the technical and academic cross-fertilisation, and consequent collaboration, that might be promoted at more multi-disciplinary meetings.

If we continue to use co-authorship with an individual from another institution as the index of collaboration, I have collaborated with 71 people from 15 countries over three decades (e.g. International Drowning Researchers’ Alliance- As far as I can recollect, all of these collaborations, and subsequent close friendships, were forged in the conducive atmosphere of a scientific meeting. It follows that any decline in funding to attend scientific meetings will stifle potentially critical collaborations. It also follows that although, as noted above, it is possible to encourage or require collaboration through targeted funding calls, in the absence of such funding it is very difficult to “administer” long-lasting productive collaborations into existence from nowhere. They have to evolve naturally, through interpersonal contact and understanding of the skill sets and capabilities of different people.

That is not to say that people who do not get on personally cannot collaborate; it is simply that the holistic experience and durability of the collaboration is likely to be diminished. Because, in the end, it is about spending time with those you respect, like, need and can communicate freely with. As in so many other things, Shakespeare had it about right,

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel

For a scientist, as well as society in general, the benefits of collaboration go far beyond science.


I would like to thank Alex Stewart, Sarah Duckering and Joe Costello for their contributions to this article.


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