Quite often, at conferences or while attending seminars, I will start an interesting discussion with the speaker, first on-site, then later by email, and even though at some point there seems to be some mutual interest, it almost never gives an actual collaboration (i.e. working on an actual paper).

I have no particular problem of working with different people, so I was wondering if it was quite usual to have this huge ratio of "collaboration failure"? In particular, my problem is that, although it's quite simple to have an idea, it seems quite hard to do the next step, that is to actually work with someone you have no connection, and who might even live in a different country. Are there some techniques to make a "temporary" collaboration work, or at least to detect those which are unlikely to work?

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    Work with people outside academia. Feb 23, 2012 at 23:55

3 Answers 3


In my experience, starting a collaboration is incredibly easy: you use your network of contacts to identify someone who'd be willing and interested in solving a problem. You talk at a conference or meeting, or arrange a visit to their laboratory.

Maintaining a collaboration, however, is next to impossible. It only works if you have a history of successful results early on, or if you have already had a long history of acquaintance with one another before the collaboration began. (In other words, were you friends or colleagues before the work started?)

Otherwise, I would recommend making sure that you start off with "low-hanging fruit": problems that can be solved mutually within the framework of existing funding on both of your parts, with value for both of you. This is important because one of the challenges of getting grants is that reviewers for funding agencies typically want to see an existing record of collaboration—mutual publications and effort—before they're ready to award money to a new collaborative proposal. There are exceptions to this, but they're by no means common.

After that, you have a track record of working together which will let you grow the collaboration into something further.

  • How do you typically find people to solve the low-hanging fruit stye problems?
    – eykanal
    Feb 20, 2012 at 1:05
  • Added a discussion of how to start the collaboration.
    – aeismail
    Feb 20, 2012 at 9:58
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    Thanks, the idea of focusing on the low-hanging fruits first seems good. I guess most of the time, I stay too much at an abstract level of discussion.
    – user102
    Feb 20, 2012 at 10:48
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    Yeah, I think getting some low-hanging fruit really helps to build psychological momentum. We all have more things to do with our time than we have time to do them. We naturally tend to do the things that seem more likely to bring good return on our investment. Once you have some result (almost anything nontrivial will do), you start to believe that future work will be worth the effort.
    – Dan C
    Jun 19, 2012 at 20:03

IMHO successful and fruitful long term collaborations require at least two important features

  • mutual trust
  • complementary competences

Trust is essential at various stages of the collaboration: i) you should be happy to make a fool of yourself in front of your collaborators during brainstorming ii) you should be fairly certain that they will pay credit to your own efforts within the collaboration iii) you should be happy to strongly disagree and fight about it without strong feelings for the sake of challenging ideas.

From personal experience (and watching colleagues) it is easier to cultivate and develop trust during your PhD and postdocs while socially interacting with your fellow students and postdocs.

A first advice would then be do not under-estimate extra curricular activities with your colleagues, as they can in fact be the foundation of upcoming shared ideas within long term collaborations.

Complementary skills is key in order to value what your collaborators provide to the collaboration. If your asset is starting papers, you need to find someone who is good at finishing them or vice-versa. It also avoids unnecessary competition within the collaboration. On a more positive note, it sheds distinct light on a research project which is globally useful.

Finally, if possible

  • focus on people you can communicate well with: research is about beating about the bush for a long time before seeing the light. Precise understanding speeds things up a bit!
  • avoid too large time-zone differences!

    Having said that, I am always amazed how (in contrast to crowds!) collaborators are collectively so much smarter than individually! A difference in perspective is key.

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    I agree with all except for the comment about time zones. Just one example: I'm currently writing a great 3-author paper with collaborators in Oxford, UK and Vancouver, Canada (I'm in Saudi Arabia). Of course, we see each other face-to-face at least once a year for an extended period of time, but most of the work happens across massive time zone differences. Dec 9, 2012 at 19:16
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    Time zone difference can be very effective scientifically. I find it's a burden on family life! ;-)
    – chris
    Dec 9, 2012 at 19:18
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    I was part of a five-person collaboration across Hong Kong, Vancouver, the Bay Area, Utah, and New Jersey :). We met regularly once a week, and it was quite a lot of fun. Skype is our friend.
    – Suresh
    Dec 10, 2012 at 16:32

Many times I had e-mail conversations but they never went into a serious collaboration (i.e. ending with a paper). All papers I have are with persons I know from a frequent face-to-face contact (plus with the people they know from frequent face-to-face contact).

Perhaps it has to do with:

  • psychological barriers (as also it is easy to have a conversation with a big name on a conference, but much harder to engage in a distant correspondence),
  • funding/time issues,
  • that collaboration usually requires a lot of contact (sometimes very hand-waving), especially in the beginning,
  • with a frequent face-to-face contact it is much easier to gauge others' interest and choose the right persons.

(Entirely anecdotally, as a PhD student with only 7 papers so far. It may not apply to other situations.)

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    +1: Time issues is a real barrier. It is hard enough to find time for projects with the colleagues next door, so maintaining a long distance collaboration is even harder! Feb 19, 2012 at 21:50

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