I’ve recently heard some stories about research collaborations that have gone wrong. I can’t give away too many details, but suffice it to say that at least some of the difficulty appeared to be caused by conflicting expectations and miscommunications. But the legacy of these break-ups is pretty toxic – feelings of confusion and resentment towards the other party, as well as trepidation about future collaborations. In each of the recent cases, the collaborators didn’t know each other very well.
At a time when universities are urging people to work together, and working hard to arrange research marriages – even going so far as to organise speed research dating events – I think it might be helpful to think about some kind of research project pre-nup*. This could address the issues that cause trouble in research projects and make clear the ways in which they might be resolved. A research pre-nup might also describe the kinds of problems that would constitute irrevocable breakdown of the partnership.
I’ve started working on just such a research pre-nup agreement, and I’d be grateful for advice about what else should go in and what should be omitted.
Issues to agree on:
(1) Who will be named as PI and who will be named as CoI?
This is not a straightforward matter. Sometimes the answer to this question is dictated by the source of funding, sometimes not.
But there are also questions such as:
• Who initiated the project?
• Is anyone contributing more intellectual property than an/other(s)?
• Who has the most significant track record in the area?
• Whose career might benefit from being PI? Who needs to be CoI in order to establish track record?
(2) Who will direct and/or manage the project?
Project direction generally refers to steerage of the intellectual agenda of the project, ensuring that data is generated, thorough analysis is conducted and papers and reports are written on time. This is usually the PI’s responsibility.
Management of a project can include all or some of: employment and line management of project staff, management of budgets, steerage of ethics applications, coordination of team meetings, circulation of information, organization or supervision of the organization of conference attendance, public engagement events and so on.
The project manager is not necessarily the same person as the PI. There may be good reasons why it is better for a CoI to take on the task of management – career development, experience, location.
(3) How will project decisions be made?
While it is important to have clear role agreements for the project team, there will inevitably be ongoing decisions that need to be made about progress and direction. There may be new opportunities or unforeseen crises. It is important to be clear about who needs to be consulted and who needs to be involved in making decisions, and whether decisions need to be collaborative or whether one person has the final say.
(4) How will the project be represented, disseminated and authored?
All research projects need to be disseminated. Sometimes they require consultation with key players. They may benefit from social media or mainstream media publication. There will also be the need to present research at conferences and to publish either articles or books.
These tasks can be seen either as opportunities and benefits, or as obligations – sometimes they are both. It is important that decisions about these are decided at the outset. Questions to consider include:
• Who speaks for the project?
• Who will maintain the social media?
• Who decides what conferences to go to and who will go?
• Who decides what will be written?
• How will everyone who needs to be published get an opportunity to do so?
• How will author order be determined?
(5) What would constitute a breakdown of the research partnership?
Not doing enough work? Not doing things on time? Who decides what is enough? Doing things without consultation? How will this be communicated and to whom?
So that’s a start on a research pre-nup. What do you reckon? What else needs to go in? Should these decisions be recorded, or is a discussion between consenting adults sufficient?
*pre-nup = an agreement describing what will happen in a marriage and in a break-up. Usually focussed on property and power. In the case of marriage, also generally legally binding.