Collaborative research in medical education: a discussion of theory and practice


  • Patricia S O’Sullivan,

    1. Office of Medical Education and Department of Medicine, School of Medicine, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA
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  • Hugh A Stoddard,

    1. Curriculum and Educational Research Office and Department of Family Medicine, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
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  • Summers Kalishman

    1. Office of Undergraduate Medical Education and Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
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Patricia S O’Sullivan, Box 0410, 521 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, California 94143-0410, USA. Tel: 00 1 415 514 2281; Fax: 00 1 415 514 0468; E-mail:


Medical Education 2010: 44: 1175–1184

Context  Medical education researchers are inherently collaborators. This paper presents a discussion of theoretical frameworks, issues and challenges around collaborative research to prepare medical education researchers to enter into successful collaborations. It gives emphasis to the conceptual issues associated with collaborative research and applies these to medical education research. Although not a systematic literature review, the paper provides a rich discussion of issues which medical education researchers might consider when undertaking collaborative studies.

Methods  Building on the work of others, we have classified collaborative research in three dimensions according to: the number of administrative units represented; the number of academic fields present, and the manner in which knowledge is created. Although some literature on collaboration focuses on the more traditional positivist perspective and emphasises outcomes, other literature comes from the constructivist framework, in which research is not driven by hypotheses and the approaches emphasised, but by the interaction between investigator and subject.

Discussion  Collaborations are more effective when participants overtly clarify their motivations, values, definitions of appropriate data and accepted methodologies. These should be agreed upon prior to commencing a study. The way we currently educate researchers should be restructured if we want them to be able to undertake interdisciplinary research. Despite calls for researchers to be educated differently, most training programmes for developing researchers have demonstrated a limited, if not contrary, response to these calls.

Conclusions  Collaborative research in medical education should be driven by the problem being investigated, by the new knowledge gained and by the interpersonal interactions that may be achieved. Success rests on recognising that many of the research problems we, as medical educators, address are fundamentally interdisciplinary in nature. This represents a transition to bridge the dichotomy often presented in medical education between theory building and addressing practical needs.