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ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 8. Collaborative Research

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Most researchers devote their careers to one field of research and spend their time talking with colleagues with similar interests. However, science is increasingly best served when researchers work with colleagues in other fields. Physicians and engineers have teamed together to develop miniature wireless devices that can gather information while passing normally through the body. Computer scientists are working with organic chemists and biologists to develop faster computers and more flexible display devices. Collaborative projects encourage researchers to pursue interdisciplinary research.
 
For the most part, interdisciplinary research follows the same rules and practices as disciplinary research. There are times, however, when researchers in different fields bring different practices or expectations to a project. When this happens, researchers might think of adopting two common-sense rules:
  • do not ignore any responsibilities, and
  • when there are choices about appropriate action, select the most demanding option.
When in doubt, it makes sense to seek the highest rather than the lowest denominator.
 
Different expectations can enter a project in a number of ways, especially when judgments about responsible practice are involved. The government and some research institutions allow researchers to earn up to $10,000 through consulting or other outside employment before they have to declare a potential conflict of interest (discussed in Chapter 5). Others institutions use lower thresholds, in some cases requiring researchers to report conflicts of interest if they have any outside financial interests. Different institutions also manage conflicts of interest in different ways, from supervision or reporting to outright prohibition. When there are differences in reporting policy, the prudent course of action is to go with the lowest financial threshold and accept the most stringent management plan, even though some researchers working on the collaborative project may not be required to do so.
 
Ownership issues also raise questions about which rules to follow. One party to a collaboration may have no interest in reporting a promising idea for development; another may feel under an obligation to do so, following either a university’s or Federal policy. There may also be different understandings among the different institutions that are part of a collaboration about what constitutes disclosable information and who owns the information once it is disclosed. Given the consequences of disputes that can erupt in these situations, it is essential that every collaborative project settle disclosure and ownership issues early in the project before disputes arise. Waiting longer opens the door for misunderstandings and disputed claims when one of the parties in the collaboration makes a valuable discovery.
 
Finally, there are significant differences in the way researchers in different fields and even different laboratories carry out the routine business of collecting data and publishing results. Some still collect data in bound laboratory notebooks; others use computers. In some fields, it is common practice to circulate early results in newsletters and/or abstracts; in other fields, journal publications are the preferred mode of communication. Different fields have different ways and standards for listing authors. These and other differences should be addressed openly and early in any collaboration to assure that misunderstandings do not arise later over data collection and publication.