The term 'Working Together' refers to the initiation of research activities by members of a collaborative endeavor. Working together is the stage where theory may be put to practice, hypotheses tested, and the best intentions of planners carried out. Ideally, each member of the research team commits to honoring his/her assigned roles, responsibilities and obligations, follows the protocol precisely, maintains open lines of communication, engages in collegiality, and provides the agreed upon deliverables on schedule.
Although some research issues may have been anticipated, identified and addressed when collaborators were establishing the relationship, new issues may arise only after the research activities are initiated. Queries about these issues might include:
- Can the collaborator work well with others?
- Can the collaborator work well alone?
- Is the collaborator receptive to having his/her progress monitored?
- Does the collaborator respond promptly to communications from lead investigators?
- Will the collaborator need to be motivated to ensure he/she will produce deliverables that meet expected standards?
- Is the collaborator using resources wisely and efficiently?
- Is the collaborator meeting project deadlines?
- Is the collaborator adhering to research procedures and protocols?
The focus of this section will be a review of research issues that may arise after collaborators initiate research activities and begin interacting with PIs and each other. Most of these issues deal with the collaborator's response to the research 'team' concept, professional competency, and accountability. Failure to address these issues, once research begins, can compromise the integrity of the project. Principal or lead investigators, administrators, or team leaders should anticipate problem areas where possible, take proactive measures, engage in early intervention, and be willing to make decisions necessary to preserve the integrity of the research project. The research issues will be discussed in the context of the following topics:
Setting up the research team concept
When setting up the parameters for the research project, it is essential that all collaborators understand the project's target goal(s). In an effort to ensure that each team member truly appreciates the 'big picture', members of the research team (e.g., PIs, research administrators, project/team leaders, and other members of the research staff) may benefit from a carefully planned orientation to the research project. The orientation, in whatever form it is implemented, (e.g., face-to-face, telephone/video conference, electronic/written documentation), can be instrumental in getting collaborators to view themselves as members of a team committed to achieving a common goal, rather than as a group of individuals working independently.
As noted in another section of this module, the principal investigator(s) is(are) accountable for the quality of research conducted by all team members. In setting up for the initiation of research activities, the PI is in position to establish acceptable standards of performance for the roles and responsibilities of each team member. The team member, in turn, is obliged to fulfill his/her role and set of responsibilities. However, given the project is a collaborative endeavor, each researcher should view his/her participation within the context of the project's main goal, rather than simply as a role player playing a separate part. Thus, each person should appreciate how his/her contribution articulates with the big picture, and how the quality of research each one produces can influence the overall quality of the research outcome. Ultimately, each team member should grasp the consequences to the project of failing to meet assigned responsibilities.
There are indicators that allow one to anticipate how well team members will be able to work with one another. Previous shared experiences may serve as a predictor to the expected performance of researchers invited to participate in a collaborative endeavor. In the absence of a shared experience, a researcher may be invited to join the collaborative effort, by virtue of his/her expertise in a specialized area, or through the recommendation from a colleague. It can be difficult to gauge the quality of a group dynamic until researchers begin working together.
Personality conflicts may become an issue if two or more team members clash in one or more areas. Problems of incompatibility can escalate if the parties are not able to resolve challenges and yet are obliged to continue interacting. Incompatible personalities might clash on differences in management style or work ethic). For instance, one individual may be more concerned with producing the best quality research and less concerned with the amount of hours it takes to complete. He/she may clash with someone operating from an hourly mentality perspective. Team members with different work ethics can potentially damage a project if not addressed early in project. Scarborough (2005) notes ".it [work ethic] must be openly discussed and agreed upon by all participants. If addressed and everyone knows the levels of commitment across participants, then there is more potential to plan for the range of work ethics, different work management and styles, individual process difference, etc.". Scarborough suggests supervisors allow individuals to work how they work best, finding out what that is, and strategizing to set each individual up to succeed. The possible consequence of failing to address the issue may set the stage for unnecessary difficulties, lower quality, and accountability issues.
Some issues that arise while collaborators work together may be addressed through additional training. Training may range from enhancing research/technical skills, to improving organizational and interpersonal practices. For example, a novice researcher's effort to work with other team members may reveal a relative deficiency in organizational skills. Training that includes organizational skill building, role modeling/demonstration, and opportunities to practice may assist the novice in accomplishing a task according to quality standards set by the project. The training may include establishing what is acceptable and is not acceptable in terms of the quality of deliverables, meeting timeline, interpersonal behavior, and level of professionalism.
Training may be more salient and necessary for novice collaborators (e.g., students, junior researchers). Depending on the field of investigation, researchers may need training, or re-training, to maintain appropriate lab notebooks, field notes, etc. Inexperienced staff may need to be reminded of the importance of recording all activity, even failed experiments, since this is an important part of the discovery process. Students, in particular, may simply not know enough about what to document or not document. These collaborators should understand the importance of being forthcoming with supervisors and PIs when they make errors. Thus, the training could address the issue of overcoming a reluctance to come forward and admitting to an error to a supervisor.
Some staff may require training on the value of professionalism. Components of professionalism include the:
- merits of being on schedule
- need to present oneself as logical and rational
- value of communicating well (e.g. both speaking and writing)
- worth of quality deliverables
- significance of engaging well with others
- usefulness of contributing to collegial dialogues rather than delivering monologues
- importance of behaving in an ethical, appropriate, and acceptable manner as a representative of the collaborative team
While the original focus of training might be on learning and following established protocol, these other aspects of training might enhance the collaborator's ability to implement the protocol.
System of communication
Establishing a responsive system of communication can continue to support a comprehensive training program. While training can be used to augment the experience of working together, consistent, clear, and open communication can be a significant determinant of a successful collaborative relationship during the period researchers are working together.
Principal investigators are responsible for establishing communication expectations and protocol, as well as a provision for transparent feedback up and down the chain of command. In spite of developing and implementing a functional system of communication, there may be instances where participants may be non-communicative, either unintentionally or through choice. A comprehensive training program would have addressed the importance of maintaining open communication, regardless of conditions or circumstances. The value of a system of communication, with its use of feedback up and down, is its facility in allowing collaborators to identify and address problems early on. Participants should be advised up front how a decision to not to use the communication system can pose a threat to the integrity of the research project and ultimately the quality of deliverables.
Accountability and reward
A prerequisite for principal investigators is to establish accountability criteria so that collaborators understand what is acceptable (and what is not acceptable) in terms of the quality of deliverables, adherence to a timeline, and demonstration of professionalism. The motivation to meet or exceed the criteria may be a reflection of why individuals agreed to participate in collaborative endeavors. For some, collaboration provides an enhanced opportunity to:
- pursue answers to a vexing set of research problems
- advance the field
- make a contribution to society
These individuals may not be as concerned with the number of hours required to complete a project as with quality of research attained. While these individuals may receive compensation for their efforts, they may also experience an innate satisfaction for getting answers to those vexing questions, being responsible for advancing the field, and making an important contribution to society. For individuals with a different set of motivations, PIs may have to be creative in connecting other types of incentives to encourage these collaborators to meet accountability criteria. Because one cannot assume that all individuals are motivated by the same rewards, PIs might ponder a host of relevant questions:
- Are collaborators willing to be held accountable for their performance?
- If yes, what will motive them to be accountable?
- If no, could their continued participation be a risk to the project?
- Are collaborators satisfied with the rewards of their performance?
- If not, what will motivate them?
In some cases, PIs may consider revising rewards for accountability. This may include having to rewrite budgets, pulling from one allotment to give to another, or seeking additional support from other offices and administrators. For individuals who tend to be driven by an hourly mentality, receiving the reward might be delayed until after producing deliverables that meet the established standard of acceptability. The deliverable could be in the form of collected data, analyses conducted, completed report submitted, etc.
Monitoring and supervision
Monitoring and supervision is a mechanism used to confirm that collaborators are following research protocols, staying on schedule, and likely to produce acceptable deliverables. Monitoring and supervision can take place through site visits, face-to-face discussions, and a review of recorded work (e.g., lab notes, field notes). A supervisor can assess how well collaborators are performing and provide them with advice and recommendations when and where appropriate. The nature and amount of advice required may depend on the extent of the collaborator's previous experience in collaborative endeavors, his/her level of competency, and a demonstrated ability to fulfill responsibilities. Novice (e.g., students) and junior researchers might warrant closer and more frequent supervision, and the nature of the advice given might be more basic than that offered to more experienced researchers. However, even senior researchers may face challenging circumstances that can compromise their ability to conduct research (e.g., incompatibility with colleagues, other professional demands that may delay completion of assigned tasks).
One way of monitoring progress, or disruptions, is in the form of status reports presented at research team meetings. There are a variety of meetings conducted by the research team members. The nature and frequency may have been determined well before the initiation of research activities. Some meetings may focus on organizational and administrative needs, while others devote time to logistical issues. Other meetings may involve only PIs, research administrators, and team leaders while others will include all staff members. The frequency and duration of meetings might be determined by logistical considerations (e.g. number and location of collaborators, travel budget). These meeting can provide a good opportunity to assess progress, diagnose problems, offer solutions, and disseminate information. The benefit of soliciting input at meetings is receiving advice from researchers who may have previously had to address issues that occurred when collaborators were working together.
Reviews can provide a different type of connection to the collaborative group, being a more dedicated type of interaction (e.g. one-on-one or small group) compared to what's possible in the larger meetings. Reviews, in the context of supervision, are used not only to gauge the quality of individual performance, but also as an opportunity to reinforce the importance of acting responsibly when conducting research. Reviews can aid in revealing any number of technical problems in conducting research. But they can also identify potential organizational or interpersonal difficulties. If problems are compromising the ability of collaborators to work well together, the PI(s) or supervisors must be willing and able to take appropriate action. In some cases, there may be a need to assist junior personnel, which can be time consuming, labor intensive, and require additional training. If the personnel or situation is not amenable to intervention, a decision to terminate the relationship may have to be considered. One or more poor performances can upset the balance of research collaboration and compromise research integrity. The cost to the project would include the required time to identify, recruit, and train a replacement. Alternatives to bringing in someone new could include:
- assigning the responsibilities to existing personnel
- modifying the research plan so as not to require or include the missing work
Impact on RCR
A number of research issues that may occur after the research activities begin can negatively impact the responsible conduct of research. Collaborators unable to see how their role and responsibilities contribute to the project's target goal may not realize the consequences of producing deliverables that fail to meet standards set by the PIs. Misunderstanding, disagreements, and open conflict between collaborators can disrupt the progress of research, and sabotage efforts to follow a well thought-out protocol. Training (or re-training) that is responsive to the needs of collaborators, a functional system of communication, a reasonable methodology of accountability and reward, and a consistent approach to monitoring and supervision can assist PIs and supervisors to identify, intervene and resolve problems arising from collaborators working together. The next section will focus on identifying and resolving more broad based challenges.
Krishnamurthi, M., Cabrera, D. (2004, November) [Interview with Dr. Michael Hudspeth, Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University ].
Krishnamurthi, M., Cabrera, D. (2004, November) [Interview with Dr. Michael Kolb, Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University ].
Krishnamurthi, M., Cabrera, D. (2004, November) [Interview with Dr. Sherie Spear, School of Allied Health, Northern Illinois University ].
Krishnamurthi, M., Cabrera, D. (2004, November) [Interview with Dr. Gerald Blazey, Physics, Northern Illinois University ].
Cabrera, D. (2005, January) [Interview with Dr. Deborah Hudspeth, Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University ].
Krishnamurthi, M., Cabrera, D. (2005, June) [Interview with Dr. Jule Scarborough, Department of Technology, Northern Illinois University ].
Cabrera, D. (2005, June) [Interview with Dr. C.T. Lin, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Northern Illinois University ].
Cabrera, D. (2005, September) [Interview with Dr. Rathindra Bose, Vice President, Research and Graduate Studies, Northern Illinois University ].
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