Collaborative Research: Best practices and tips

Collaborative Research is an effective way to study or evaluate academic programs, especially when goals are to strengthen those programs and guide their evolution, rather than judge the value of one program against others.  Valuable products of such projects are new ideas for future development and increased support for their goals. Here are some helpful practices and tips:

  • Ask the collaborators to help design the study and draw on their expertise.  The longer the time-span of the project, the greater the need for the collaborators to own it.  If participants are merely going from one data step to the next with no real sense that the study will bring value to them, their program, or their institution, then sustaining a rich project over time will be more of a challenge. 


  • To help faculty sign on and stay engaged, encourage more of a team-led than individually-led approach. Effective day-to-day leaders present themselves more as coordinators than sole decision-makers. This approach works especially well when an executive group established sponsors the work and faculty members design and guide it day-to-day. 


  • Establish a work culture that is more like an academic project than an administrative exercise.  Faculty welcome a casual work style that accommodates changing schedules and irregular collaboration hours. If possible, engage graduate students to manage the administrative details.
    That’s a sure way to make faculty feel at home.


  • Decide together on ways to communicate and use those methods consistently.  E-mail lists and a simple limited-access web site to post schedules, data, and other archives are all most projects need. 


  • Substitute inflection points in the action for drop-dead deadlines when possible.  It is helpful to share findings and reports in draft form first and leave open the possibility of redrafting or editing for as long as possible.  


  • At report times, sponsor “reality check” conversations about the findings during the editing stages.  This practice improves the final outcomes, enlists champions for the findings, and begins the process of weaving new best practices into the cultures that helped produce them. 


Susan Frost is skilled at leading and managing collaborative research projects. She has also investigated the factors that contribute to its success.  A leadership design that includes an executive group, and working group, and a coordinating investigator is well suited to collaborative research.  In this design, the coordinating investigator might take responsibility for encouraging the participants to take the work forward in a timely and appropriate manner and forming bridges among the participating groups.