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RCR Casebook: Collaboration

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The vast majority of scientific publications now bear the name of multiple authors, and 43% of science and engineering articles published in the US involve co-authors from more than one nation.21 These patterns of authorship provide tangible evidence of the collaborative nature of science.

Some collaborations are relatively simple insofar as they involve nothing more than sharing resources—sharing laboratory equipment, reagents, or methodological techniques. Frequently, these collaborations occur within labs that have relatively clear standards and hierarchies. However, increasingly collaborations cross disciplines, national borders, and employment settings (including academic medical centers and for-profit corporations); this may, introduce competing requirements and cultural norms, which can make matters significantly more complex. Nevertheless, such collaborations are frequently necessary to study various populations, develop pharmaceuticals and devices, and expeditiously move new technology from bench to bedside.

Regardless of the type of the collaboration, communication and sufficient preparation are essential to avoid potential problems. Some of the items that should be discussed include: the extent of the collaboration, roles and responsibilities, data access, study management, authorship, intellectual property, compliance, and dissemination of results.13

As is so often the case in ethics, the matter of collaboration is not neatly separated from other matters. Rather, collaboration adds a new dimension to nearly every other issue addressed in this Casebook—posing new challenges as researchers negotiate authorship, wrestle with conflicts of interest, protect the integrity of their data, and care for their subjects.

The Cases and Role Play

The cases and role play in this chapter explore situations in which collaboration does not go as anticipated. They also provide an opportunity to consider how processes can be improved to prevent collaborations from going awry.

  • Case One: An international collaboration becomes problematic when a postdoctoral fellow cannot master basic lab techniques to take back to her home institution: continued collaboration is in question.
  • Case Two: After conducting a community-based research study, the Principal Investigator publishes study findings that the community finds offensive.
  • Role Play: Two Principal Investigators (PIs) agree to collaborate on a grant proposal, but when one of the PIs tries to bully the other into altering data so that results conform to the research hypothesis, the other PI feels threatened.
  • See also Case Age Old Conflicts for exploration of a collaborative relationship with industry