Assessing a possible international research collaboration

Dear Labby,

As a PI with an active cell biology research lab for over 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to mentor a number of international PhD students. Some of these students have gone on to run their own research groups; some in the United States and others back in their home countries. I’m proud of their achievements and keep in touch with them on a regular basis. Recently, I was contacted by one former student who has started a new research project in her lab. She knew that my lab is working in a related area and suggested that we collaborate on the project. We discussed some ideas and then followed up with a videoconference with some other members of our two research groups. During the meeting, she mentioned that she thought we could apply for a grant from one of the major government research funding agencies in her country. The grant could help fund the work in her lab and also fund some of her students to spend time in my lab. I am excited about the joint project we discussed, which could lead to some pretty significant papers. A couple of days later, I was talking to one of the other professors in my department, and they looked worried when I mentioned the collaboration and the grant. They told me that they would think twice about this sort of international collaboration, given all the stories about the problems scientists have had with investigations and allegations related to their international contacts. Now I’m worried about pursuing this collaboration, but I also know we could do some really exciting and very novel science together, and it would help her career. I feel terrible to even have to worry about this, as I’ve always believed that science flourishes with openness and collaboration. What should I do?

Wary and Conflicted

DEAR Wary and Conflicted:

Labby certainly understands why you are worried, and also why these concerns are so upsetting. There is no disagreement that the openness of science in the United States to international scientists and international collaborators has been of immeasurable benefit to the advancement of U.S. and global science. However, as your colleague pointed out, rightly or wrongly, there is increased scrutiny of international collaborations and contacts. Labby strongly believes that you are right to explore collaborations that, as seems to be the case here, have the potential to push your research in a new direction. So how should you think about deciding whether to do this? Labby suggests that applying the same criteria you would use to assess any potential collaboration is a good place to start and be sure to get legal review from the appropriate office at your university. 

First, is the likely scientific outcome worth the extra effort of doing the work as a collaboration rather than one lab working alone? You’ve already answered that with a strong “yes.”

Second, are you satisfied that when you share data, ideas, and materials with your collaborator that she will reciprocate, sharing the contributions of her research team just as openly and generously as you intend to do? Will you have complete access and be able to review original data from her team?

Third, have you discussed how you will publish the results, and sorted out issues of authorship and credit for the work? If you have an idea of what publications might result, who will be senior author and lead authors on these? Will your funding agency in the United States be acknowledged if they have supported some of the published work? Next, you should ask whether your collaborator’s institution imposes any requirements that might pose a conflict for you with the rules at your own university, or the requirements of your own grants. If you were to be funded by the grant from her country that she suggested, you should find out whether that funding agency imposes any requirements that you are not comfortable with, and you should have the terms reviewed by the grants office at your university. It might be useful to contact a colleague in this country who has had funding from the same foreign funding agency to which you and colleague will apply. You should expect that there will be no hesitation on the part of her institution in making documents available to you or your university. You’ll need to be especially careful about any language related to intellectual property or restrictions on publications. Above all—and Labby knows this sounds obvious—don’t sign anything unless you understand what it says. 

If you’re satisfied with the answers to all these questions, the only remaining concern is to make sure you know what you’ll need to tell your university and your funders. Your grants office should have the expertise to help you meet any requirements and keep up with changes for “other support” and similar disclosures to the university and funding agencies. 

It may seem like there is an awful lot more to think about for this international collaboration, but Labby believes that in asking the questions above, you are querying nothing that you should not be asking about any collaboration, to satisfy yourself that it conforms to the norms of responsible conduct of research. 

Labby hopes that this works out, and the openness of global science has another win with the contributions you and your former student make to cell biology. 


About the Author: