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In fact, one group of scientists from one city/country for another group from another city/country are remote co-workers (employees). This means that you need to choose one of several formats for interacting with each other. In my understanding, there are 3 such formats:

  1. The project is divided into “areas of responsibility”. One scientific group does its part of the work and transfers the results to another (e-mail, mail, freight). The second group does its part of the work and passes it on to the third. And so on.
  2. If there is a need to solve some problems in real time, then the groups agree to meet on a certain date, at a certain site with certain software and equipment and carry out the necessary work in a live format.
  3. Similar to the second point, but when the tasks are mainly of a research nature without the need to build experimental samples and move on to full-scale experiments.

I would like to know from the experience of other people whether completely remote collaboration with colleagues from other cities/regions/countries is possible in practice?

It would be desirable to have examples of such collaborations among several physicists, groups of physicists, groups of engineers, or a group of physicists + a group of engineers.

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    To a large degree this is how a lot of NASA projects (the really big ones) occur. The project is managed in one location and various components are designed/built in multiple locations. You just need to communicate (and travel).
    – tnknepp
    Commented Apr 17 at 17:11
  • (Multi-national) Airbus SE.
    – user186240
    Commented Apr 17 at 20:47
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    This sounds like every multi-university research collaboration I have ever witnessed or been part of for 20 years. recent changes have just added easier video and presentation sharing to regular telecons, and reduced the number of necessary in person meetings with performers or sponsors
    – Nick J
    Commented Apr 21 at 13:49

2 Answers 2

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My current project works like these and we have 5 different groups, working on different universities, for a specific project. Some insights I can share, one year in, and having several years of experience working in industry to let you know what can be the general situation:

  • Yearly meeting to catch up: I think this is good even though COVID normalized "remote" meetings, but since there is no "overshadow" leadership forcing people to turn the cameras on, you may find it a bit odd to just see default pictures in meetings. For our group, we have monthly meetings and we "know" each other, but I think it is useful to have meetings to have at least yearly meetings just to meet your actual colleagues.
  • Monthly meetings: Here I think is where I have most of the "could improve" messages, as most likely the group will be interdisciplinary and thus there may be a lot of strength in one area (e.g. A lot of chemists working with a smaller physicists/engineering group) so the meetings may be "too in the weeds" for some. Attendance is also not mandatory so it may be difficult to present work. I think my PI meets more often but for the PhD meetings it is nice to at least roughly know what the others are doing.
  • Work (may be) slow: By the nature of not being able to just walk down the aisle and find your colleague, responses can be slow and a bit frustrating if you have a lot of dependencies on other people's plates. It is best to spread work among different packages in order to avoid getting stuck to often, and try to find a compromise with colleagues who have important deliverables for you (e.g. a person doing measurements or providing chemicals).
  • Cultural differences: This is something that can possibly happen and is particularly true in academia, you may have colleagues who are not used to "being bossed around" by collaborators and rely only on their PI for work instructions. Some PIs may prefer to have full control of the communications, and some may prefer to only be notified by their own students. In general, try to understand how your direct dependents (e.g. direct collaborators) prefer to work and try to accommodate to their cultural caveats.
  • Lack of support: This may be a bit specific and I don't feel it too hard, but for example you may be in a critical "middle step" between application engineers (using chemicals for specific applications) or too far out (theoretical simulations of said chemicals). With that being said, depending on which end of the chain you are, your work may be more or less stressful. For example, if I need a specific chemical that is produced slowly and the chemists are busy with other projects and I don't get the chemicals, some of my work may be stopped, but in the end, I need to find a way to continue working and avoid halting the work too much (as time is limited). Understanding what the current status of the project is and what is your role is important to work more relaxed
  • Other projects take priority: It can also happen that other teams have another project in their PhD project and you happen to be on the "low priority" project. I have not personally experienced it, but I have colleagues signed up for 2 projects in their PhD and sometimes they take months to update their "low prio" project.
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    Thanks for your reply! Could you tell me in a little more detail what kind of research this is and any memorable result obtained during well-coordinated but remote work, when you were able to contact colleagues only through telecommunications? Otherwise, I would say that this is a mini-tutorial on team collaboration, highlighting many important aspects.
    – ayr
    Commented Apr 17 at 15:52
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    The project is based on nonlinear materials for light generation, thus the reference to chemists. I am in the physics/engineering part (application and conventional spectroscopy), and about 60% of the team are chemists. I am lucky that I onboarded on the 2nd funding period so the chemicals library is extensive and ready, so I don't have much friction for my deliverables. We have a Teams group to discuss together and publications are reviewed internally for cross-functional papers. We ship and receive chemicals and samples across 2 cities quite smoothly on a regular (monthly) basis. It works!
    – ondas
    Commented Apr 17 at 22:13
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In my experience, these types of projects are quite common for professional researchers, especially for more applied research.

They are only uncommon for graduate students working on their degrees, because graduate students tend to be inexperienced (thus not very good at collaboration) and poorly managed (because we don't ask, train, or budget professors to be good managers).

There are many, many ways to organize such projects, and the main challenges are organization based, not location-based: I've often been able to collaborate better with a well-aligned researcher on another continent than one who is just down the hall but not as well integrated.

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  • Thanks for your reply! Could you give an example from your experience of such a well-run research and the most memorable result obtained during this well-run remote work?
    – ayr
    Commented Apr 17 at 15:48
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    Sure, @dtn: here's an interlaboratory study that we ran with 244 collaborating laboratories: nature.com/articles/s42003-020-01127-5 All told, there were a little over 1400 authors, of which 12 of us were organizers. We were spread across 8 institutions on 3 continents and collaborated primarily by email and weekly meetings. The organizers collectively designed the study and materials, and some of them did prep and testing, then sent materials to all the labs to collect data, which came back to us for analysis. The project took 9 months to run and another 12 to write the manuscript.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Apr 17 at 20:01

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