To Boldly Go: The Research Collaboration

by Virginia Wilson
Director, Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice

I’m currently in the middle of a research project in which I have talked to librarians who conduct research about being librarians who conduct research. It’s a bit meta, to say the least. And while I’m still slogging through my qualitative analysis (no, it’s great, really! 🙂 ), some themes and ideas have already floated to the surface and I find myself thinking a lot about them. One thing that has emerged is the benefit of belonging to a research team or a research collaboration, especially if one is a new librarian just starting out in research. This advice has come from librarians who have participated in research teams and see the benefits after the fact of such a partnership. But what if you are reticent to jump in to that environment? There might be several reasons why someone might be reluctant to get involved in a research collaboration:

• Fear that you can’t bring enough to the table in terms of knowledge and experience
• Disliking “group work” (this often emerges in grad school—the irony is librarianship is mostly group work!)
• Lack of partnership possibilities (this is more about lack of opportunities than actual reluctance)
• Partnership possibilities that don’t quite mesh with your own research interests
• The single-minded desire to go it alone

There are probably other reasons why a research collaboration doesn’t sound that appealing and it’s a bit of a catch-22 in that people can say all they want about how beneficial a partnership is, but you really don’t know until you try it, and then once you jump in, you’re committed! A lot has been written about the benefits of research collaboration (you can find 20 reasons to do it right here!). I’m going to focus how you might overcome some of the personal barriers to embarking on such a partnership, and leave it to you to do some googlin’ and find more good reasons.

First of all, I wouldn’t worry about what you can bring to the table. As a professional librarian, you’ve got lots of skills, ideas, and knowledge to share. If there isn’t much research experience, be up front about that and discuss with your research partner(s) ways in which you can contribute that will benefit the project and facilitate your learning. You can learn as you go both from your research partner and by being proactive. If the project necessitates sending out a questionnaire, read up on survey methodology and questionnaire design. And then of course you’ll learn to do just by wading in and doing it!

From the bullet points above, I rather think the second point (disliking group work) and the last point (the desire to go it alone) are often driven more by fear than by anything else. Fear can be a huge barrier to conducting research whether you’re by yourself or on a team. This is where being reflective can help you out. Think about why you might be afraid, and be really honest with yourself. Think about the worst case scenario. Write it down. And plan some work-arounds or pre-emptive strikes for what that might be. For example, let’s say I’m afraid of research group work. My worst case scenario is that I can’t work with these people and we’ll end up with major disagreements and conflict. How can I help mitigate that scenario? One way would be to talk openly and honestly with my research partners. A partnership like this has to have a certain level of trust that you can build over time. Being open about your fears as well as what you hope to accomplish with the collaboration can go a long way to making the project run smoothly and can be helpful in building trust and a good researching relationship.

If you’re interested in teaming up with someone but the suggested topic isn’t quite what you’re interested in, I say go for it anyway. First of all, the topic might grab you as you move forward in the project or it might spin off after the fact into something you’re more interested in pursuing. Also, you will be learning valuable skills no matter what the topic: team work, methodology, the research project cycle, etc. And finally, you’ll ideally get a publication out of the experience which is nothing to sneeze at in terms of moving forward in your career. After that initial team project, you’ll have gained the confidence to start a study on your own topic, with the knowledge that you’ve been through the process and have come successfully out the other side.

And finally, if there just aren’t partnership possibilities for you, here are some suggestions. Go outside of librarianship into other disciplines. The social sciences are good areas to explore to team up with like-minded researchers. You could also engage in social networking to cast your net further. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are three social tools that can help expand your network and aid in meeting people outside your immediate situation. And be bold! If you run across someone who’s published in your area of interest, reach out to that person. It could result in a direct partnership, it could be another way to expand your network and increase the chances of you teaming up with someone in the future, and at the very least you’ll have made an interesting connection with someone in your area.

If you have anything to add about research collaborations, please do so in the comments. Who knows? Maybe a partnership will happen right here in the Brain-Work blog!

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.