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Strategic and Systematic Approach to Research Collaborations

Authors: Abiola Isawumi & Lydia Mosi | West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Ghana |,

Collaboration is essential in any field and it helps increases the impact of your research and extends your network, and having materials openly available helps with collaborating. However, the ‘how to’ is as important as the ‘why to’. Researchers and academics out of passion for what they intend to achieve through collaboration and partnership make some mistakes and commit some unintended errors. While these are often overlooked by some courteous potential collaborators, worthwhile collaboration and partnership have been naively compromised. In this piece, I have laid out salient points to consider in the process of research collaborations and academic partnerships.

Purpose and Clarity

Define Purpose
Purpose is everything, and clarity of it potentiates success. You cannot initiate any form of collaboration without a definite purpose. It is the purpose that determines if the proposal for collaboration would be accepted, and eventually the success of the collaboration. Though, no matter how clear and succinct the purpose is, it has to fall within the interests of collaborators and also must be relevant to the ‘big picture’ of collaboration – exchange of ideas, technology, initiatives, access to platforms/state-of-art facilities, fostering coordinated efforts to tackle global problems and develop synergistic protocols to lead a successful course against common or similar challenges. In proposing collaboration, state clearly your purpose and what you have well thought-out the collaboration would achieve.

Clarify How Your Purpose Fits into the Core Purpose of the Collaborators
How your research interests fit into the core purpose of the collaborators is of high importance. Highlight why the potential collaborators are the most relevant, and make it clear that you are not just patronizing them. Use simple words, clear and stimulating sentences, but ‘open’ language. Avoid ‘localized jargon’ or slangs that are unprofessional, informal or not generally acceptable. Define terms where necessary and cite references for clarifications. Be careful of assumptions, though your research might be similar or relatively the same. Don’t say what you don’t mean and avoid a clash of interest. Respect differences. Duck statements that can cause disagreements or promote unwholesome arguments that can hinder the purpose and progress of the collaboration.

Don’t Sound Beggarly
Integrity is key to the success of any form of collaboration, and researchers have this to protect in reaching out to potential collaborators. Researchers have to be courteous in presenting their interests to collaborators – don’t project a beggarly impression. Also, you will be appearing incompetent and disoriented if you contact a collaborator begging for collaboration! Be careful not to allow your emotions to override your sense of reasoning – never you initiate a collaboration on the basis of pity. While stressing the challenges underlining the proposal to drive the collaboration, focus on the rationale rather than fronting sentimental emotions. No collaborator would want to collaborate with someone who creates a beggarly impression.

Break the ice politely and fittingly

Breaking inertia or getting across rightly and correctly is the best way to start. Here, you have to create a connection that transcends just initiating a conversation. Remember, you are contacting people that values commitments and are responsibilities-driven, so you cannot start with a wrong impression. Potential collaborators are always fascinated by statements prioritizing their impacts rather than just mere interests in what they do. You have to state the truth truly, especially how their research-toiling over the years has influenced you certainly, and in some cases have helped you to make right research decisions and ultimately advance the global course of humanity.

Starting with Contact Notes
You might have to start with structuring a contact note via ‘e-mails’ or other platforms to initiate collaborations. Here, the content of the contact statements, which in some cases could be a concept note or executive research statements would determine or set a tone for the success or failure of the collaboration, among other factors.

Structuring Your Contact Notes:

i. Highlight any of your potential collaborators outstanding research outputs that you greatly valued

ii. Indicate how you come across your collaborator’s works and possibly state the platform,

iii. Create a reminder if you have met these potential collaborators before (an attached picture might speak louder than a thousand words here),

iv. Make references in case you know and have worked with ‘another collaborator’ they are familiar with or on their preference list,

v. If referred by a colleague or other person to contact them, indicate this relevantly and concisely.

Avoid These in Your Contact Notes:
i. Don’t start with a need that might scare away the collaborators,

ii. Never over-represent the essence of collaboration and partnership,

iii. Requesting for money is a deal-breaker for most collaborators,

iv. Be careful not to sound like a ‘Gold-digger’,

v. Unguided statements about race, gender, marital status, should be avoided.

Track Records

Documents Your Research Impacts
Potential collaborators are very interested in your research or academic journey – your grand successes, previous collaborations, grant achievement records, research impacts, opportunities you’ve created for others, problems you’ve solved and somewhat your failures. Track records motivates and breeds confidence in the proposed collaboration. Also, it prompts ample investment of time, resources and even trust from collaborators. Track record is a testimonial that history of your past victories can be repeated if given another opportunity. Most collaborations thrive on trust and on a model that signifies that tested userexperiential skills and knowledge acquisition of the collaborators are reliable and applicable. Here, I will advise you to be refined in your approach – Indicate outstanding research excellence and impacts relevant to the collaboration.

Provide a Quick, but Very Precise Résumé
Provide evidences including publications, drafted policy statements, patents, novel protocols, prizes, awards and possible links to presentations in conferences. You might as well indicate workshops, meetings and public engagements you’ve hosted and championed, and how all these birthed revolutions and worthwhile changes within your sphere of influence. Please, no ‘purple purpose’ here; you can’t exaggerate or overstate your achievements. While stating your track records is an ideal part of collaboration initiatives, however you cannot tell lies or create a false impression. Tell the necessary truth truthfully and don’t allow desperate emotions to set in. Potential collaborators would love to celebrate your past success, but they don’t want to be fooled and cajoled. Be plain, and avoid pretense – lying is unethical and can destroy promising collaboration and partnership.

What value can you add?

State your ‘Value Capital’
Great collaborators focus their efforts and positive energy on adding values. Collaboration in any field becomes fruitful on the hinge of value capital and what the involved parties can share and achieve in terms of benefits – collaboration should be a ‘win-win’ game. No one wants to collaborate with ‘parasites’– perching for personal satisfaction with nothing to offer. Before proposing collaboration or initiating partnership, start by asking – what can I and willing to offer? It could be logic or ‘soft’ skills, technical apparatus or resourcefulness; just ensure you are ready to create opportunities for healthy, unbiased and valuable exchange.

Your Collaborative Advantage
Collaboration is simply leveraging advantages. Potential partners and collaborators are largely saddled with responsibilities of taking advantage of the provided advantages and opportunities. Create a clearer impression of your competence and how this in partnership with your collaborator’s expertise can achieve the objectives of the proposed collaboration. Always remember that simplicity in approach and presentation can never go wrong or misinterpreted. Project the protocols of your interest in the collaboration with relevant complementary values – you can point to how this helped your previous collaborations. Emphasize the strength of your team and provide information on applicable specifications including the competence of your current and past trainees. Be clear about how you have successfully handled challenges that you envisioned might emerge as a result of the collaboration.

Overall, don’t play low on acknowledgements where necessary and indicate the need for the help you are seeking through the collaboration. Caution is also a golden advice in projecting the value you can add – don’t say too much, but enough to encourage the collaboration. Focus only on the essence of the collaboration and don’t discuss other research ideas that are for your team which are not within the scope of the collaboration.

The Authors:

Abiola Isawumi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), Ghana where he was awarded his doctorate degree in Molecular Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases. Abiola investigates the antimicrobial resistance (AMR) mechanisms of common and novel superbugs (ESKAPE pathogens) prevalent and diversely distributed in hospital environments. His research activities involve leveraging phenotypic algorithms and molecular tools for developing diverse assays to understand the pathways pathogens use to avoid antibiotics. Abiola also investigates the biofilm-motility interplay in bacterial pathogenesis and hospital-acquired infections. He has been an academic guest at Harvard and is a visiting research associate at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Lydia Mosi is a senior lecturer in cell and molecular biology at the University of Ghana as well as Logistics Coordinator of the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), also in Ghana.Her main research interest is in Buruli ulcer, a necrotizing skin ulcerative disease caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans. With the use of multidisciplinary approaches, she investigates existing gaps in transmission. Her research also includes the development of rapid diagnostics and intervention strategies for the disease. Lydia also works in the determination of antimicrobial resistance in samples from patients and the environment. She has trained over 15 graduate students, published 25 articles in peer-reviewed journals and has contributed to two book chapters. Lydia has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and zoology and received her PhD in microbiology from the University of Tennessee, USA in 2009.

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