Richard L. Zweigenhaft, Ph.D., Eugene Borgida Ph.D.

Adventures in Psychology

Collaboration in Psychological Science, Part II

Some best practices.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

By Eugene Borgida, Ph.D., and Richard L. Zweigenhaft, Ph.D.

When it comes to collaboration, there are now some clear (or at least tentative) guidelines for students, faculty, and institutions of higher learning. On some matters, however, there is little consensus, and it is likely to be a while before systems are in place that establish best practices when it comes to collaboration.

What follows are some of the best practices in psychological science identified by the contributors to our book:

  • Share the data.
  • Beware of social loafing.
  • Be crystal clear about who does what.
  • Establish the order of authorship early.
  • Reward collaboration.
  • Use collaboration as a social support.
  • Realize that mentoring is a crucial form of collaboration.

Share the Data, and Other Ethical Practices

There have been some widely publicized, and shocking, cases of scholars not sharing data with their own collaborators. These have resulted in embarrassment, and in some cases have ended careers. Allowing all collaborators access to all the data should go without saying. In fact, in psychological science, as in other disciplines, researchers are encouraged to share their data with all interested legitimate researchers (protecting confidentiality when necessary, of course). The importance of transparency and reproducibility has grown considerably in the research community. Therefore, our first suggestion when it comes to best practices in team science is one that we shouldn’t have to include: share the data.

Beware of Social Loafing, Especially When the Collaboration Is Heterogeneous — and Capitalize on Team Cognition

Research indicates that as groups increase in size, so does the likelihood of individuals doing less than their share of the work — a process that social psychologist Bibb Latané and his colleagues have called “social loafing.” In the era of Big Data, instead of two or three people working on a project, some collaborations now are done by teams, some of which can be quite large. As research teams become bigger and bigger, the risks of diminished individual involvement potentially increases, which can include diminished motivation to closely monitor the work being done. This problem is compounded when the participants in a collaborative project are from multiple disciplines, typically with different knowledge bases. As a result, such collaborations are less likely to be characterized by a shared academic vocabulary (and in many cases, collaborators may not even speak the same language).

On the other hand, as Cooke and colleagues have demonstrated in a series of empirical studies, if one pays attention not to the amount of shared knowledge that each collaborator brings to the project, but to the dynamic nature of the interactions among the various collaborators as they make decisions, one can enhance what is referred to as “interactive team cognition.” Teams and team leaders who pay attention to these interactions in the form of explicit communications are more likely to generate new knowledge and integrate ideas that take advantage of team members cognitively coordinating with each other, as opposed to succumbing to social loafing and poorer team performance. In other words, thinking about team cognition in this way can serve as an antidote to social loafing tendencies in larger collaborative teams.

Be As Clear As Possible About Who Will Do What and How Decisions Will Be Made

Academic collaborations include more than one person contributing to the many tasks that lead to the final intellectual product. These tasks can include research design, the gathering of data, data analysis, interpretation of the meaning of the findings, and, of course, writing and revising. Different academic disciplines, and different institutions within these disciplines, have their own guidelines about who should be a coauthor and who should not and about the order in which authors are listed. This means that there is great potential for misunderstandings and disputes, especially when it comes to interdisciplinary projects. At the very outset of a project, collaborators should discuss who will contribute, in what ways, and what the expected order of authorship will be. If things do not go as planned — as very often they do not — collaborators may need to revisit these topics throughout the project.

Be As Clear As Possible, As Early As Possible, About the Order of Authorship

When it comes to the order of authorship, conventions differ in various academic disciplines. The general rule in the social sciences is that the order of authorship should reflect the relative contributions of the collaborators. Various graduate programs provide systems by which the order of authorship can be determined and, typically, the ways that disputes are to be settled. There are even online templates that allow collaborators to list the various tasks involved in the project (e.g., literature review, data analysis) and to estimate the relative contributions of each of the coauthors for each (weighted) task, thus creating an overall score that determines the order of authorship. Determining the order of authorship is difficult enough for colleagues, and it is even more complicated for faculty-student collaborations. Whatever procedure is employed, and whatever the status of the collaborators, we encourage participants, if at all possible, to agree on these at the outset and, if the need arises, to revisit this potentially complicated and emotional issue. 

Reward Collaboration When It Comes to Tenure and Promotion

There are risks involved in choosing to collaborate, but there are also potential benefits. As we have stated, however, more and more research is collaborative, and more and more of the most frequently cited research is collaborative. Therefore, colleges and universities (especially those who create the guidelines used by tenure committees) have had to acknowledge and determine how to value the role that collaborative research plays in psychological science today. This, of course, is easier said than done. Unfortunately, many universities have a long way to go on this issue. There is still a gap at some institutions between the rhetoric in support of collaborative scholarship and the reality that collaborative work poses evaluative challenges.

We believe that there is much to be gained from long-term collaborations, but we also encourage those in such relationships to be cautious about limiting themselves to only these collaborations, because change in the academic realm moves at a slow pace.

We are convinced that many graduate students and young faculty members want to collaborate, but they worry that it will hurt their careers if they do so. They are concerned that even if they act as full partners in collaborative research, they will not receive full credit for their contributions. We very much hope that academic institutions in general, and those disciplines or subdisciplines in particular that are especially recalcitrant on this issue, will come to reward collaboration more fully.

Collaboration, Emboldening, and Social Support

Although collaboration can be frustrating, it also allows one to do things that one could not do otherwise. It can provide one with interested and supportive colleagues who not only share the load, but can also embolden each other. This may be especially true, and especially valued, when the collaborators see themselves and are seen by others as professional outliers. And for some outliers — women in settings where they are very much outnumbered by men, or psychologists of color in settings where they are very much in the minority — the choice to collaborate may provide invaluable social support.

In addition to the fact that a well-selected collaboration team which draws on people with complementary interests can lead to higher-quality work, it can help if and when the work is critiqued in peer review (or elsewhere), and certain team members with specific expertise can be especially helpful in challenging the critiques.

Mentoring Is a Form of Collaboration

Finally, as we noted in the preface of our book, one source of inspiration for this collection was when Richie Zweigenhaft read a book titled Mentor: A Memoir (Grimes, 2010). While reading it, he realized that his graduate school mentor had become a collaborator over many decades, and he found himself wondering how their collaboration was similar to, and different from, the work of the many other social science collaborators that he had read and admired for many years. Although the book, as it took shape, focused on collaboration, the topic of mentoring weaves its way through several of the chapters. A number of the contributors emphasize the importance of the mentoring that they received from faculty when they were undergraduates or graduate students. As Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon point out, “[t]he training of new scientists involves mentoring, which we view very much as another form of collaboration” (p. 58). We could not agree more.