My survey on the cooperative nature of cooperative working groups

To my great frustration (and sadly, no longer to my astonishment), cooperative working groups that promise collectively developed, expert-informed high-impact outputs to their funders and co-convenors sometimes don’t quite work that way.  I’ve been involved in one too many workshops and taskforces where excellent people are convened at considerable resource expense – both time and money – and where a subset of participants, usually including one of the co-convenors, apparently seeks to exploit and manipulate the process for their own gain.

I used to think this was just the aberrant behaviour of a few individuals, but over time, I see it as the norm for a clique of scientists, and I’ve found a fairly substantial body of literature documenting and partly explaining the phenomenon in a wide range of fields.

But it is all still rather too personal and anecdotal for me to set aside yet.  So I have decided to see if I can get more concrete and impersonal evidence, particularly relating to my own field of environmental science.  (The explanations given in the literature for this kind of unprofessional, unethical behaviour draw mostly on the rarefied context of ultra high-tech, commercialised biosciences.)

Click here to take the short anonymous survey on experiences of fair play in cooperative research events, and come back in a couple of months to see what I’ve found.

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Twice burned

Oh, for goodness’ sake.  Why are so many senior, renowned scientists so utterly, utterly awful when it comes to cooperative working? I think we can develop some testable hypotheses.  I’ll come back to this in a future blog.

I’m sure this is a nonsequitur, but anyway – here’s a clever little scheme to try:

1. Identify a prominent initiative that has some available resource demarcated for integrative research or scientific synthesis or strategic capacity building.

2. Approach the initiative with an idea for a ‘small, focused expert workshop’ to develop an aspect of the science that sits at the nexus of the initiative’s remit and your own personal agenda. Use your clout as the rationale for this new link, and if possible, deploy it to access some notional ‘matched funding’ (or better still, a ‘benefit in kind’).

3. When you have obtained agreement from the initiative for this ‘matched’ resourcing for the joint workshop, ideally leave it to them to arrange the venue, prepare the background materials, refine the concept so it’s scientifically coherent and appealing to invitees, design the event programme, ensure that materials are available, deal with all the contact with participants (plus all the people contacted who can’t attend, people who want to attend but are not suitable, and including the participants who can’t read 5-line emails with simple 6-word-per-sentence, bulleted instructions about the practicalities of attending and therefore need the most spectacular nannying) – and even choose the menus (while taking back the reins when it comes to complaining about the choice of petits fours).

4. Take a back seat in the discussions (sit in the chairperson’s seat). This detachment from the fray is, of course, a sign of both depth and breadth of scientific brilliance.  Publicly treat the initiative’s scientists as if they were clerical assistants – ignoring the clerical assistants that the initiative has provided to ensure that the collaborative event is well-documented and managed.

5. When the issues have been fully critiqued, drawing on the expert participants’ multiple theoretical and disciplinary perspectives, and a rich resource of conceptual advances has been documented (with figures, data, and pathways set out in the literature), suggest that this fruitful joint effort needs to be consolidated with a later, as yet unspecified event.

6. Take the ideas and knowledge resources, plus a few close buddies (who need not have been part of the event), and hunker down to write a paper quick.  For best effect, keep in loose touch with the colleagues in the co-sponsoring initiative, reminding them that this is a collaborative effort and the workshop documents that they have prepared need to be iterated a few times for complete consensus on content before any joint next steps can be taken.

7. After a suitably long time – 5-6 months, say, send the initiative a very bland ‘meeting report’, consisting of at least 75% of the draft workshop output text that the initiative’s own workshop participants wrote themselves shortly after the event (I think we can start referring to ‘the initiative’ as the ‘host’, since the parasitic nature of the relationship has become obvious by now).  Change the font, and delete all mention of joint future steps.

8.  Inform the initiative’s leadership that the workshop was fruitful, and that a paper inspired by the discussions is being crafted (but don’t say by whom, or on what), and that you will ‘keep them posted’ as things develop.  Then ‘post’ them proudly when the paper (authored with one or two workshop participants) appears in pre-print form in a high-impact journal, benefiting from the credibility of having been part of a high-profile international collaborative workshop (put in the acknowledgements text like: ‘Some of the ideas presented here emerged from discussions among the [unnamed] participants at the XXX workshop on Brilliant Science which was co-sponsored by and held at Ladidahland, on a sunny summer’s day.’)

I have a testable hypothesis about this phenomenon.  If you have ever experienced anything like this, watch this space.  If you’ve done this, stop now and start playing the game nicely – in academia, there’s no shame in no longer being able to have good ideas of your own so long as you are nurturing the next conceptual advances constructively, wisely and strategically.  If you don’t even have that capability, you deserve to be named and shamed.

On being nice in academia

It’s not about being nice – it’s ‘playing nice’.