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What is Collaborative Research?

By Miranda Fine
Updated May 21, 2024
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Collaborative research is any research project that is carried out by at least two people. Collaborative research happens in many ways, and is more common in some fields than others. It is very common in the sciences, and less so in the humanities. Working with others on a research project can have several benefits, but there can be drawbacks as well.

Often, researchers will choose to collaborate when a project is large or involved, or to pool their areas of expertise. For example, let’s imagine that two researchers are interested in a similar scientific topic. One researcher is an expert in statistical methods, and the other has collected a lot of data from a field experiment. If they collaborate, the researchers can combine their strengths and do sophisticated statistical analyses of the data from the field experiments. Usually the goal of collaborative research is to publish the results, and the researchers will divide up the work of writing up the results and navigating the publication process.

Another example of collaborative research is a large survey, such as the U.S. Census. The Census involves thousands of people at different levels of involvement. Several things must be accomplished in order for the census to be successful. There is a hierarchical structure for the census and large teams of interviewers and analysts that carry out the work of collecting information.

When done in the right spirit, collaborative research can result in more reliable and powerful results that come to publication faster than they would if the research were done independently. Researchers can pool their knowledge and critique each other’s work before starting the publication process.

There can be some drawbacks to collaborative research, however. Sometimes it is hard to know whether collaboration will be fruitful. A collaborator may be difficult to work with, or researchers may not reach a consensus about their results. Another common pitfall is struggles over authorship or ownership of the research. In many academic publications, being the “first author,” or having one’s name listed first as the author on an article, carries the most professional prestige, and may be important for career advancement. Therefore, deciding who will be the “first” author is potentially contentious.

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