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Collaborative Research

More than ever before, research in the today’s university is a collaborative enterprise. High-energy physicists often publish papers with hundreds of authors. Many scientists work in laboratory groups, which may include faculty members, staff researchers, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates. Collaborations between research groups are growing, and the collaborating groups can be across the hall, the country, or the globe. Scholars or groups in different fields work together on interdisciplinary projects.
A number of the areas of responsible conduct of research explicitly concern project collaborations or, more generally, the interactions within scientific communities. Mentorship, authorship allocation, peer review, and plagiarism all involve interactions between scholars, and considered part of responsible conduct of research. Resource sharing, rights to research products after collaborations, and interdisciplinary differences are all part of collaborative research as discussed below.

Resource Sharing

One of the characteristics of science is that scientists share the results of their research so that science as a whole can advance. While many scientists recognize the sharing of results and material as an ideal, several recent trends in university research create obstacles for this:

  • Researchers may face obligations to keep certain human subjects research information confidential.
  • Companies that sponsor research may seek to protect their interests by keeping some or all results proprietary.
  • Military research and other research related to national security may require special clearances.
  • Researchers seeking to patent results cannot publish or present research findings before applying for patents.
  • Scientists who develop unique research systems, such as genetically modified mice, may wish to control research with the system to compensate for time and resources invested in these endeavors.

While the National Institutes of Health grant policies require sharing “biomedical research resources,” scholars report a wide variety of distribution policies among their peers and, at times, difficulties obtaining desired information or materials.

When Collaborations End...

For a variety of reasons, all collaborations will end. Some ethical issues that might  arise in these situations include:

  • Who will maintain any common research records?
  • Can co-authors paraphrase or otherwise adapt materials from joint papers for independent future publications?
  • How will promising follow-on research be divided among former collaborators?
  • What obligations does a researcher have to keep former collaborators informed?

Interdisciplinary Collaborations

Because best research practices can vary from field to field, interdisciplinary collaborations can present unique challenges. Practices concerning disclosure of financial interests in journal articles illustrate some of these differences. In medical fields, for instance, journals have been moving towards requiring authors to disclose financial interests relating to their research publications. For example, a physician who co-authored a paper on a class of drugs and consulted for a company that made one of the drugs would now be required to disclose his or her consulting in the paper. In engineering, however, a scholar who published a paper related to private consulting activities might be discouraged from disclosing a private consulting business because the disclosure could appear promotional. Thus, collaboration between doctors and engineers, in biomedical engineering, for example, might need to determine whether all members would make similar disclosures, whether disclosures would vary depending on the place of publication, etc. This is just one example of the need for extra awareness and sensitivity in determining and negotiating best practices in responsible conduct research conduct when the research is interdisciplinary.