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Don’t be a Lone Ranger: 5 ECR Tips to Success through Collaboration

Don’t be a Lone Ranger: 5 ECR Tips to Success through Collaboration


By Ben Forbes & Paul M Young.

As an ECR researcher you can only achieve so much as a ‘Lone Ranger’. The really big questions and majority of great scientific advancements in the future will require multidisciplinary teams working towards a common goal; this means collaboration. Jonathan Adams commentary in May 2013 issue of Nature (Issue 7481) highlighted the importance of collaboration in an article ‘The Fourth Age of Research’ in which he suggested we have progressed from (1) individual research, to (2) institutional, through (3) national research into an era of (4) global collaboration. While the use of journal publication metrics are not always necessarily a definitive measure of success, in his article, Jonathan gave a compelling narrative of how collaboration could be related to higher impact when research was conducted by collaborative teams working across geographical borders. (If you are interested in the article you can find the link to the original article  here).

By collaborating with other researchers within and outside your field of expertise you can potentially enhance the significance of your research, the impact it has to your peers and ultimately, translation into the non-scientific community. Collaboration can take many forms, including:

  • Institutional (e.g. between organisations at a national and international level to establish centres or hubs of excellence with a defined focus)
  • Experimental (e.g. conducting a common project across multiple laboratories or centres)
  • Technical or Advisory (e.g. providing your scientific expertise to help solve a problem or interpret data)
  • Academic/Industrial (e.g. collaboration between two or more companies, institutes or universities to solve a common research question or problem)
  • Length and size (e.g. may involve hundreds of researchers working together on a hypothesis/disease taking many years or a couple of people working to make an incremental advancement in the field taking weeks to months)

Whichever type of collaboration(s) you choose the positive and negatives must be weighed up before you take the plunge. Ultimately, however, collaboration will give you a fresh perspective on your own specialist area of research, allowing you to expand your knowledge, creativity and establishing the relevance of your research globally.  Here we give 5-tips to successful collaboration. 

1. Have a Purpose and keep it realistic!

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The first tip to a successful collaboration is to know why you are engaging in this venture. Collaboration is neither ‘work for hire’ nor a charity. All parties need to
get something out of the research you are about to undertake. This may take many forms and will depend upon your specific research question or problem. If collaborators have similar skill sets then it may be an ‘increased work force’ to solve a common goal. If you have different skill sets, these may be complimentary in solving a more complex problem. Perhaps you have facilities that another party does not, or visa versa? Ultimately, it is important that you are clear about your goals for the collaboration and plan for realistic outcomes within a practical timeline. After all, you all have a financial responsibility to this project even if no money ever changes hands. Labs cost a lot to run as do the researchers occupying them…. and of course there is your time to consider.

2. Selecting and approaching potential partners/collaborators.

Who is the ideal collaborator and how do you approach them? There are two main types of collaborator; those you know and those you are yet to meet. Many collaborations start from an already established relationship (e.g. through social gatherings at international conferences (more on getting the most out of conferences in a later ECR2STAR post)), however, a new collaborator may also provide an excellent means of strategic research focus. 

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Either-way, you will need to have a clear ‘plan of action’ before you approach your potential partner(s). As an ECR you will have read the literature and have a feel of where your research is heading and want to achieve over the next 12 months and further into the future. Come up with a ‘simple’ project proposal and discuss the feasibility with your potential collaborator openly: “Would you be interested in working on a joint project to…..” is a good place to start. The next question (and tip below) will be “what is my commitment, involvement and input” so it is important you have your plan of action ready. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Bear in mind that some researchers are already stretched thinly through multiple collaborations, so if someone is not responsive it does not necessarily mean they are not-interested in you or your project. If they give you a negative response, leave it at that; there are always other potential collaborators and this person may work with you in the future… so don’t hassle them.

3. Commitment - you don’t get anything for nothing!

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If you talk the talk you have to walk the walk! That is to say, if you are not committed to the collaboration from the start, don’t waste your (or your collaborators) time.  As an ECR, building your reputation is important and the last thing you want is to be branded as unreliable.

So what is commitment? Money, time, resources, patience, sharing? Probably, all the aforementioned. Generally, money does not change hands in what would be ‘informal collaborations’ however when you start to apply for funding to support larger multi-institutional projects you will need to be upfront about how potential income is to be distributed. Either-way, money will always be required to some extent by all parties to support the project (i.e. to operate local resources and pay for laboratory personnel), however, this can generally be absorbed into the operating budget of the respective ‘laboratories’. Another important aspect to collaboration is patience and sharing. Things do not happen overnight. Often a collaborative project is not the sole focus of a researcher, whose time and resources may be limited. Thus, all parties need to have patience and a reasonable time-line for completion of their role. This can be managed through good communication (see tip 4) and sharing of data/information throughout the project.

4. The importance of good communication.

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Effective communication between all parties is one of the most important aspects of successful collaboration. Good communication enables you to monitor the status of research between participants and ensure experimental protocols and project goals are met. Through regular discussions, you can ‘iron out’ any problems (experimental and managerial), redefine goals as the project evolves and monitor timelines.  The world is a small place for researchers. If you have international collaborations, use Skype, GoToMeeting, Email and other Cloud services to meet, share ideas and data. We can’t highlight the importance of good communication too strongly; this will ultimately drive the success of your joint project and successful projects in future.

5. Trust - openness and honesty.

Our last tip for successful collaboration is to be open and honest – this will be highly appreciated by your collaborators. When setting out on your path to discovery, you and your partners need to be candid with regards to commitment and output. Be prepared to share methods and data openly, have a plan for authorship and responsibilities of your intended outputs. Who is going to write the paper(s)? who is going to analyse the data? what will you do if your hypothesis is null? how will you deal with creative tension, e.g. different scientific directions or interpretations? what is your exit strategy? While there are no hard and fast answers to these questions, the Tip is not to shy away from potentially awkward issues, but to approach them openly, honestly and in a timely manner (ideally upfront or before they arise). Successful collaborations are based on mutual respect and a good working relationship.

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Dr Ben Forbes is a Reader in Pharmaceutics at Kings College London and researches in the field of Drug Delivery. Dr Paul M Young is Head of Respiratory Technology at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, University of Sydney. This article was based on a talk given by Dr Forbes at the ECR2STAR conference and workshop held in London in December 2013. Ben and Paul have a long history of successful collaboration that you can read about here.

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