What is stopping social scientists from collaborating more?

Research collaboration, broadly meaning teams of researchers working together on a common topic, is being encouraged within countries, between countries, within regions, and globally. Research teams and institution-wide collaborations are spreading, as are inter-institutional collaborations. Many of these are deliberately tilted towards inter-disciplinary and multinational teams and towards partnerships between academic and non-academic institutions. Better research is seen to result from “many different brains working on the same question”. Collaboration is also seen as important for addressing grand societal challenges, increasing research productivity and increasing research impact.

Compared to the biological and physical sciences, the social sciences lag behind on collaboration, at least as measured by concrete and visible markers such as co-authorship practices and jointly held grants. Collaboration (whether intra or interdisciplinary, confined to academia or in partnership with non-academics) is not the answer to addressing every kind of research question, but it has many potential benefits, including: access to others’ expertise, insights from other disciplines (in the case of interdisciplinary collaboration); increased chances of getting funding; gaining tacit knowledge; education, training and mentoring benefits; increased visibility and impact; as well as the pleasure and intellectual stimulation of working with others. It is also a direction that research policy around the globe supports. So why are social scientists not embracing collaboration more, given the potential benefits on offer?

My recent LSE Impact blog piece discussed this, and a short version follows.

One potential explanation is that social science disciplines attract individuals who value their autonomy above all else and loathe the idea that someone is directing their research interests. This is backed by national systems and institutional practices that sometimes reward individual scholarship above collaboration. Autonomy deserves further scrutiny.

A small number of interviews (18) conducted at The University of Melbourne asked academics questions about the meaning of autonomy, what impacts on it and the relationship between autonomy and collaboration. Their answers revealed that there are commonalities across disciplines in their views of autonomy; but scientists tended to link it to funding in a positive sense (funding allows them to have autonomy). Autonomy and collaboration were generally regarded as mutually beneficial as long as autonomy was maintained. Time constraints were seen as the major factor impacting on autonomy for social scientists.

This suggests that it is not autonomy, but time pressures and managerial constraints that are bounding autonomy and crowding out space to develop collaboration in the social sciences and often appears in less visible forms. A better understanding of the reasons why many social scientists are reluctant to collaborate is required. More appropriate models of collaboration also need to be developed and used to inform research policy.

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