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I'm midway through a PhD in Physics in the United States. In my short time in academia so far, I've had several distinct kinds of collaborations. I've collaborated with peers who are working on understanding a new area together, with folks in other department who are doing applied work, and of course with my advisor.

Each collaboration has had its own unique structure. For example, in some of the applied work, my collaborators were interested in learning more about the details of my area, and in others my collaborators were just interested in getting results from me to plug in to their work. In some of the work with peers, each of us handled a distinct aspect of the work (and we understood little of the each other's aspect); in others, we worked together on the same problems and batted ideas back and forth.

Many of the collaborations have had the same kind of issue for me, though. Sometimes I feel like my collaborators owe me a certain amount of attention. (For simplicity, please consider that the collaborator is at the same level of seniority as me.) For example, once I was on the verge of a "breakthrough" and talking through it with someone would have made a big difference, but my collaborator didn't want to engage. For another example, once I was very confused about a particular question in an applied collaborator's area that was relevant to our project and they brushed me off when I asked for help.

Almost every collaboration I've had would have been improved in my eyes if my collaborators were more generous with each other. However, I know that there must be a line. The famous Hardy-Littlewood rules have an Axiom 2 which states that "There was no obligation to reply, or even to read, any letter one sent to the other". Clearly, other established researchers could feel differently than me.

My question is intended to elicit responses which flesh out the role of a collaborator, with a particular eye towards interactions with others on the team. When a researcher (student or established) agrees to be a collaborator with someone, what responsibilities are implicit in that?

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  • "breakthrough" or "burn-out"? from the context is not clear. – EarlGrey Apr 14 at 8:31
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Your sense of things seems to be correct, but you can't control others. It would be "nice" if they shared more, but it may not happen. So, you need to assure that you aren't exploited, but, beyond that, your example might even serve, over time, to change things.

However, as you build a career and build a circle of collaborators, you can, then, have discussions among yourselves about sharing. Being the sponsor/leader of a research group, for example, gives you some "standing" to influence the rules. Those rules should revolve around authorship among other things.

Generosity is a good thing, but not everyone will contribute. This is especially true in high risk high reward situations, which can, unfortunately be the case in academia.

You are responsible for your own behavior. You have some, but limited, influence over that of others. Setting a good example helps as long as you don't get exploited.

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I think your collaboration experiences are quite typical: some turn out a success, some not, and sometimes one has to deal with "free riders" who want to take credit without working for it. I will address your emphasized question and also another question that I find relevant in this context.

When a researcher (student or established) agrees to be a collaborator with someone, what responsibilities are implicit in that?

There are no implicit responsibilities. Therefore, it's a good idea to have a conversation in the early phases in a collaboration to figure out the responsibilities and make them explicit.

If that doesn't happen, there's still a chance that responsibilities will emerge naturally. That especially applies if one person acts as the "driver" of the collaboration and has a good idea of what they need from everybody, and everybody acts in a cooperative way.

How do you avoid free riders?

Free riders are collaborators who want credit without doing anything, even when prompted to do so. Two ideas for avoiding them:

  1. Work with collaborators who already have been collaborators of people from your "trusted circle". That way, you can ask your friends about the collaboration behavior of your potential collaborator.
  2. When working for the first time with someone new, don't immediately start with a big project that will take a huge effort. Instead, either choose a project with a limited scope, or become part of a bigger collaboration where your own responsibility will be small. That way, you can get a first-hand impression of everyone's collaboration behavior.
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PhDs are expendable: only official advisors have somehow some kind of responsibilities towards them, other collaborators are usually in the mood "let's see what this PhD can bring me".

Even the very generous collaborators will be able to help you only in a maieutic way, by making you posing yourself the right questions so you can find yourself the answers.

If you are discussing about practical issues, then it is even simpler, it boils down to "do something, spend x time, who pays for the manhour?". It is the academia, but these aspects are nowadays very close to the for-profit world were every working minute must be accounted (and paid somehow).

PhDs is a solitary endeavour, and it requires patience. I understand that with financial and time constrains imposed by the modern PhD's programs that it is very difficult to give (take, to say it better) yourself the time to sail to the final goal.

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