Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Collaborative Research:

Collaborative Research


Jim Palmer, the department administrator in the Snowflake University (SU) Chemistry Department, is looking over an NSF proposal prior to sending it to Research Administration. He notices that the PI, Prof. Darcy, has included as a consultant a long-time collaborator, Prof. Bennett at Hedgehog College. As he scans the budget, he sees that a graduate student with an unfamiliar name is included on the list of SU's personnel. As he checks the other budget line items, he is struck by the amount included for supplies since it is about double the amount Prof. Darcy usually includes in his proposal budgets.

When Jim goes to Darcy's office to ask about these items, Prof. Darcy tells him he is trying to reduce the budget by paying Bennett as a consultant. Darcy also indicates that he plans to rebudget the award later and pay the graduate student as a consultant too. "This will save on indirect costs and fringe benefits," says Darcy. "And look, we can either send Barb Bennett the money for the supplies as part of the consulting arrangement or buy the supplies and have them shipped to her." Barb and I have been collaborating for years. We've always shared data and research materials, and we don't need a lot of red tape. It doesn't matter to her how she gets her money."

As Jim returns to his office, he continues to be troubled by this approach, especially when a couple other concerns come to mind. He decides to phone Darcy. "Prof. Darcy, I think there are a some other problems with this consulting idea. If Bennett and the grad student are consultants, they won't have any rights to the data. And I think if you pay them as consultants, they won't have taxes withheld and they might have to pay taxes out of their pockets."

Darcy becomes exasperated. "Jim, I know what I am doing! Barb Bennett and I are collaborators. Doing it my way makes my proposal more attractive since I don't have to include indirect costs for Hedgehog as well as SU. I didn't think about the tax question, but we can figure that out later. Just get the proposal over to Research Administration and I'll rebudget later if I need to."

Collaborations among researchers can take many forms. In a sense, there is a continuum ranging from the classic partnership between two faculty members at academic institutions, to situations such as the use by one researcher of another's resources such as a piece of equipment, a biological strain, or a database. Collaborators have expectations as to what the nature of the research relationship should be, including the rights and responsibilities of each party. Sometimes, the term "collaboration" may have different meanings to the collaborators and others who may be directly or indirectly involved. If these differences are not identified early in the relationship, and resolved through clear communication, they can become contentious when researchers' interpretations vary concerning emerging issues such as the access to and use of the data generated, or the ownership of intellectual property.

Therefore, it is in everyone's best interest to ask questions early about the terms of collaborations, and the participants' expectations. It is usually a good idea for the researchers to develop a written agreement concerning their collaboration. Sometimes, the collaborators' institutions or funding sponsors will require written agreements formalizing the research relationship. In these situations, administrative staff members will need to be involved. The need for clear communication concerning the terms of collaborations is increasing as the number of collaborations increases, and is particularly acute for those that are interdisciplinary, and/or between academic institutions and private companies. For interdisciplinary and/or academic-commercial collaborations, the norms and expectations of the collaborating parties can be quite disparate and hold a high potential for misunderstandings.

The opening case illustrates some of the problems that can arise when communication breaks down or the collaborators act solely in their own interests. In that case, there are five problems with Prof. Darcy's planned actions. First, by submitting a proposal that he knows is incorrect, he would be assisting in submitting a fraudulent proposal. Second, Darcy is proposing to submit a funding application in a way that he knows would violate his university's procedures. Third, he knows that "saving money" in this case would be at the expense of the collaborating institution. Fourth, Darcy would expose Prof. Bennett and the graduate student to tax liability, since paying them as a consultant would not permit any tax withholding. Finally, the manner in which he proposes to share materials (i.e., intellectual property) without any agreements could easily raise problems over ownership of the intellectual property. What makes this situation even worse, is Darcy insisting that Jim, his department administrator, ignore the problems, and just do as he is told.

In this module, we will be discussing the type of collaborations that most frequently occur. We will also identify the types of agreements that are used to formalize collaborations, as well the importance of using them in order to avoid misunderstandings and disputes.

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