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V. Negotiating the Terms of the Collaboration

Sep 07, 2018 by Claire Renaud

Expectations are often unsaid and implicit. However, establishing clear and explicit expectations at the beginning of a collaboration will help avoid future problems. Agreeing on the terms of the collaboration sets the stage for its success and allows you to plan ahead, while providing some flexibility throughout the collaboration. It also ensures that you and your collaborator have the same expectations from the outset.

As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” As much as you will be leading the project, don’t forget to take your collaborator’s expectations and input into consideration when deciding what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. In other words, this step requires you to be a diplomat and to negotiate the terms with your collaborator. While you will not be able to satisfy your collaborator’s every preference, you can do your best to reach a compromise that would allow for the best path toward the success of the project.

Roles and Responsibilities. First and foremost, state clearly what the roles and responsibilities are in the project. As the initiator of the collaboration, you will most likely be in charge of the organization, the communication about the project, and all other aspects of the collaboration. In other words, you are expected to tell your collaborator what to do, when it needs to be done, and how it will happen. It works best if you are not a dictator and invite collaborator input. However, you will have the final say in all the decisions regarding the project, from who writes what section to which journal to submit to. Clearly defining roles and responsibilities from the beginning will alleviate frustrations later on.

Deadlines and Tracking Systems. Deadlines are important to keep a project moving along. The first author is usually expected to provide such deadlines for the entire project. You may find it helpful to track progress on a weekly basis by asking your collaborator for an update on accomplishments. This can be done during a meeting or electronically in a Google Doc for example. Keep in mind that shorter deadlines may be more motivating, especially since some people have a tendency to start working the day before the deadline. Shorter deadlines will ensure that your collaborator is actively engaged with the project, helping it to progress faster.

Structures for Collaborating. How the collaboration will be done has to do with how you design the collaboration. Will you meet face-to-face or virtually on a weekly basis to work on the project together? Or will you work separately on different parts of the project before getting together to see what you each have produced? Will you meet weekly or once a month? How will you share files and updates on progress? In some cases, authors will send files back and forth via emails. In others, authors will work on a Google Doc and simply add to the document when they are ready. Once you decide what would work best for you and your collaborator, your role as the leader of the project is to ensure that both you and your collaborator follow through on the agreements.

Communication Guidelines. Constant communication is another important component of a successful collaboration. When collaborations run into problems, it is usually a result of a lack of communication. Making sure you and your collaborator communicate regularly will allow you to avoid problems and move the project along more easily. For example, if your collaborator is tied to a new deadline that affects the time allotted to your collaboration, you need to be informed right away so that you can adjust accordingly. If you are not told about this potential conflict, your collaborator may miss a deadline, delay the project, and even cause some tensions between the two of you. Is there such a thing as overcommunicating? In the case of a collaboration, it is crucial to make the unknown known so that neither of you ends up frustrated and dissatisfied. In other words, more may be better.

Order of Authorship. To avoid any conflict, clarify the order of authorship from the beginning of the collaboration. How is this decided? Typically, as leader of the project, you will designate yourself as the first author. However, your collaborator should have a voice, and in many cases, this will be a joint decision rather than your sole decision as the leader of the project. Note that in some fields, it is customary to list authors alphabetically. More commonly, however, the order of authorship reflects the amount of contribution to the project.

Ultimately, you want to ensure that your collaborator is “up to the task” so that the project can succeed. You may have to step in once in a while to help, and chances are that your collaborator will return the favor should you need it yourself.

Taking into consideration the perspective of your collaborator and compromising goes a long way towards ensuring the success of a collaboration. Clarifying things upfront will often save time and frustrations later on. So be sure to set clear goals and intentions from the start. Don’t skip this step, and be prepared to revisit and renegotiate some terms along the way. In the end, good communication will ensure the success of the collaboration.

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