Two Heads are Better than One: The Importance of Collaboration in Research

08/23/2013 11:20 am ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013

"No man is an island, entire of itself..."

Though John Donne composed this well-known saying in 1624, it is especially relevant to scientific research in the 2013. With the development of each new technology, it becomes increasingly difficult for individual scientists to conduct groundbreaking research on their own. This new reality not only opens up the opportunity for scientific collaboration; it necessitates it. Despite this need, effective research partnerships are often hard to come by. As technology will only continue to advance, we must actively break down barriers to forming these relationships and use collaborations to our advantage to bring new therapies to patients sooner rather than later.

Scientific research has evolved from comprising primarily simple, well-controlled studies to complex, multi-faceted ones. For instance in 1921, Dr. Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best, a medical student at the time, began a series of experiments to identify the glucose-regulating substance in the pancreas. They quickly identified insulin as the active component of pancreatic extracts and showed that this substance could be used to treat diabetes in humans. For this work, Dr. Banting shared the Nobel Prize in 1923, only two years after initiating his studies. In contrast, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who shared the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his work on induced pluripotent stem cells, was publishing detailed studies with numerous collaborators for almost 10 years prior to receiving this prestigious award.

As this example illustrates, a significant amount of work is required to support research progress in the 21st century. Scientists have attempted to speed the process by pooling their individual talents into larger group collaborations, an approach which so far appears to be successful. In top-tier journals such as Science or Nature, there is a positive correlation between the number of authors on a publication and the impact of the research. For example, a single drug discovery study may include experiments conducted by synthetic chemists, x-ray crystallographers, cell biologists, and behavioral pharmacologists. Moreover, this approach is supported in a recent study by Bahrami and colleagues who demonstrated that, in general, the outcome on a given task was improved when two people worked together as opposed to individually.

If scientific collaboration is so useful, why then do not all researchers do it? For some, it may be difficult to find collaborators at their institution that are interested in the same area of research. In this case, an effective strategy is to form technique-based collaborations, in which colleagues share technical expertise with one another with the goal of enhancing the impact of each other's research. On the other hand, one way to meet colleagues that are interested in similar research questions is to attend small, focused conferences where most other attendees are studying the same disease process. In 2012, as a newcomer to Parkinson's disease research, I attended the Grand Challenges in Parkinson's Disease meeting hosted by Van Andel Institute to connect with other scientists in the same field. Especially for early-career scientists such as myself, relationships formed at these small conferences often lead to fruitful idea- or career-based collaborations for years to come.

Perhaps the most difficult barriers to effective collaboration, though, are concerns about authorship of results and ownership of ideas or data. These are certainly challenging issues to address, and many an alliance has fallen apart because of a lack of communication about these items. Some scientists avoid collaboration altogether because of a fear that their contributions will go unrecognized. One way prevent this from happening is to have honest and open discussions with any new collaborators before initiating joint projects. Then, everyone involved in the project will be aware of his or her rights to authorship and data ownership before participating. Indeed, in the same study mentioned above, Bahrami et al. found that collaboration was only successful when those involved were allowed to communicate openly with one another.

As scientists, we are all working toward the same end goal: to cure human disease. With such a lofty goal ahead of us, there is no time for researchers to stand alone as islands. Quite the opposite: our own research has shown that if we cooperate with one another and communicate effectively, two heads really are better than one.