Strength in Collaboration: Thoughts on Multi-Institution GER

Heather L Petcovic, Western Michigan University

Nearly every GER project that I have tacked over my career has involved a multi-institutional collaboration. Sometimes this means that a group of researchers from different institutions collaborate on the same project, working together on a single problem toward a single goal. Under this model, data collection could be done all at one place/time, or distributed across the researcher's institutions. Sometimes this means that one researcher runs the main project, and other collaborators carry out pieces at their own institutions. Some projects are a hybrid between these models.

I've played the role of both leader and follower in each of these situations. My first large project involved two institutions (four researchers) in which we collected data as a group but went our separate ways with analysis and publication. I've also been a sub-contractor to another institution on a teacher PD project; I served on the project team and had input but they ultimately decided the project course. I have two current multi-institution research projects: one involves data collection on a classroom/field intervention for teaching about remote sensing at two of the four participating researcher's institutions; the other has five researchers and an external evaluator (each at a different institution) all working on broadening participation in the geosciences.

My thoughts on what has made my multi-institution GER successful:

  • Clear project goals and working style. Is everyone working on the same problem? Is the work distributed across the institutions, or to be done at one location? Will we go separate ways once the data are collected?
  • Clear roles and expectations for the project team. Designate a project leader and make their responsibilities clear (will they convene group meetings? take the lead on publications? do the reporting and HSIRB compliance? settle disputes between group members? set the agenda and direction for the group?). Designate roles and tasks, even deadlines for the group members. It's up to the leader to enforce responsibilities and deadlines, yes, even that sucky job of once again reminding your colleagues that their work is due.
  • Having a mechanism for dealing with disagreements (or outright conflict). Should a team member or leader be designated to handle conflicts? Should there be time at meetings to discuss issues? Yes, these will happen so prepare.
  • Regular communication, in person if possible. Virtual meeting technology is a life-saver. Personally I prefer virtual meetings to conference calls so I can SEE my colleagues and read their expressions. Plus I don't read long emails, so why should anyone else?
  • Having an authorship agreement and revising it regularly. What is the criteria for authorship? Who decides what can be published from this project? These are critical conversations to have early with the full project team.
  • Knowing what is possible (and what is not) at each of the participating institutions. Maybe one does not have an HSIRB. Maybe one does not have the equipment or personnel needed. Maybe one is an ideal site for the study.
  • Making sure that each collaborator (and each institution) is gaining something from participating in the study. Sure, you can ask for a favor and rely on good will. But if the collaborators and their institutions are all truly invested (for whatever reasons) they are more likely to stick with the project.
My thoughts on how the GER community can help facilitate multi-institution collaborative research:
  • Make examples of project management documents available to the community, such as authorship agreements or roles/responsibilities documents.
  • Provide training or mentoring on project leadership, handling conflict, and team management. None of us are trained to do this work in graduate school so learning leadership skills can be a hard and lonely road.
  • Provide examples and case studies of successful multi-institution project that others can learn from.