Commitment to collaboration: rhetorical or real?


We were all on this ship in the sixties, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World. And the Beatles were in the crow's nest of that ship.

John Lennon

Collaboration is the new convention. Yet, rather than being a path to the promised ‘New World’ of health improvement, has the collaborative mantra become little more than an alluring cliché? A call borne more of fashion and fad than of fact? Moreover, beyond being a mere cliché, is the ever-increasing focus on the necessity of collaboration becoming an ideological vehicle that actually damages rather than strengthens the generation of new research knowledge? Amidst the clarion calls to greater collaboration – there is much unquestioned conformism. Like saying one does not like the Beatles, has going against the collaboration convention become heresy?

What is interdisciplinary research for?

There is much talk in research circles, whether in universities or funding bodies, about the imperative for collaboration and the need to form cross-/inter-/multi-/trans-disciplinary teams and avoid a uni-disciplinary ‘silo’ mentality. Such approaches are necessary, it goes, to understand and address complex health problems with research. We too have expounded such notions (Thompson 2003, 2006, Thompson & Clark 2013).

Such calls to collaborate have considerable self-evidentiary worth – similar to those surrounding evidence-based practice (Hammersley 2013) – few dare anymore even to argue to the contrary. However, there is surprisingly little evidence supporting this collaborative call. The prime aim of doing research is to increase the stock of knowledge and to ensure that it is of high quality, taking into account its originality, significance and its likely value, reach and impact. This is the end but not the means. Increasingly, the ways researchers produce such knowledge have become more relevant to and even more prescribed by research funding bodies and universities: research offers the opportunity to work together in new ways to see, approach and to address problems differently and better (Sayer 2000). Such interdisciplinary approaches are, it has been proposed, particularly necessary to advance knowledge in health disciplines (Forrest et al. 2009). Scientists, we are being increasingly advised, should work in teams that span a number of traditional disciplinary boundaries and involve those, such as clinicians, who are likely to use their knowledge in their research ideally from the onset, before questions are established (Canadian Institutes of Health Research 2012).

This is at once aspirational but also an idealized and even ideological account of research – at best it is highly specific to a particular type of research – at worst, it misrepresents the nature and potential of research in ways that compromise and constrain knowledge development. How can the outputs esteemed by practice be successfully triangulated with those valued in academic settings? More fundamentally, how can problems in local practice and outcomes be successfully solved by knowledge that seeks to be more globally relevant, applicable and important? While this is, clearly, sometimes possible; all too often – both locally and nationally – the generation of new knowledge via research scholarship is being subjugated to research-in-the service of local problems. This is not necessarily inherently problematic but becomes particularly so when the immediate and transitory needs of local government masquerade under the stalking horse of ‘collaborative research.’ This potentially reduces research to pragmatic but parochial problem-solving. While research should have utility, this assumes wrongly that local problems are always knowledge problems. On the contrary, many of our most intractable health challenges, such as gender, income and age-based health inequalities, are principally political problems rather than knowledge problems. Their solutions lie in government decisions; macro policy priorities and macro structures that shape and determine what should be done rather than the availability and applicability of knowledge of what can be done. Too often this move to research as ‘collaborative local problem-solving’ involves researchers being asked to compromise academic outputs, most notably, the generation of new knowledge of academic significance, in the service of local problem-solving.

What produces the best research?

While urging some caution about the fads and fashions of, for example, multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in research (Thompson & Watson 2004), we remain to be convinced as to whether collaboration is necessary in research and the degree to which the voiced commitments to collaboration extends beyond the merely rhetorical.

Does collaboration actually result in better research (thinking, doing or producing it)? Our own frustrations with the notion of collaboration come from the contrast between the degree of certitude that all and sundry argue for collaboration without really supporting it or offering any training. First, history, at best, provides limited testament to the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration. Some of the work we have done as a sole researcher and author, involved more generous intellectual input from others (such as conversations, sounding-boards for ideas and comments on early paper drafts) than the cursory or sometimes non-existent input we had from co-authors in authored publications. Often, very little collaboration has featured in scientific discoveries in the past. In physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, for example, many, if not most, of the major advances (experiments, discoveries, theories and inventions) were made by individuals working on their own in splendid isolation but with vision and determination (Robinson 2012). Great scientists and thinkers such as Newton, Darwin and Einstein did original work on their own, usually with little or no collaboration. Indeed, in the rush to do research and produce as many outputs as possible, there is a real danger that collaboration can kill creativity (Cain 2013).

Similarly, too often, so-called collaborative teams remain little more than lists of loosely connected individuals on a research proposal or publication rather than a dynamic entity that adds value to the individuals merits of those involved. Without relationships, sharing, or synergy there are no teams. So why this recent exhortation for collaboration, where it is increasingly difficult to secure funding or to publish research as an individual? Governments, research funding bodies, universities and academics all consistently call for more and better collaboration in research – across disciplines, health areas or pillars and organizational boundaries. The degree to which these calls are transformed into training and supports for collaboration is far less. PhD students remain trained mainly in substance and method rather than the leadership, team-building and sustaining skills needed for establishing collaborative research teams. We still train PhD students in substance and method, and then expect them to be able to join, establish, lead and to sustain teams. With what skills one might ask? Being able to communicate well, resolve conflicts, delegate, step up, inspire and to give feedback are all important aspects of teamwork. None comes naturally.

Research should be exciting and challenging and researchers – individuals and teams – ideally visionary, passionate and dynamic. While many aspire to such ideals, we have to remember that research is a social activity and, for some, cooperation and collaboration is not easy or ideal. People are different and some find research collaboration uncomfortable, threatening or an ‘unnatural’ act. We probably can all identify colleagues who prefer to work in isolation (socially and geographically) and yet who are highly original and productive. People have different personalities, temperaments and working styles and the circumstances that work best for one individual to do research might not be conducive for others. Some notable researchers are charismatic and extrovert whereas others are shy and introvert. Collaboration can stifle initiative, free thought and open debate, for instance, by some individuals feeling intimidated or threatened by the judgment and criticism of others. Patience and solitude are often important keys to creativity, yet are rarely accorded high regard in contemporary research.

Research is increasingly a complex and collaborative enterprise. Thus, while many research questions are likely to be addressed by research collaborations – especially international collaborations, which provide access to a wider range of expertise, facilities and resources to address major global challenge – this should not preclude individuals working in solitude. What works for one might not for other; a mix of approaches is likely to yield creative and varied solutions.