Openness and The Problem With Collaboration

Openness & Collaboration

Collaboration is everywhere. It’s fast becoming one of the highest virtues to strive for in media, health sciences, business. Whether it is crowdsourcing, groundswells, public engagement, participatory research, or e-democracy, collaboration is hot.

Why? One of the main reasons has to do with the mere fact that we are facing an increasing array of complex problems that have multiple sources, where no one person/group has the all the answers, and where large-scale social action is required if there is any hope of addressing them. The proposed solution is collaboration.

Collaboration is defined as:

collaboration |kəˌlabəˈrā sh ən|
1 the action of working with someone to produce or create something : he wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman.
• something produced or created in this way : his recent opera was a collaboration with Lessing.
2 traitorous cooperation with an enemy : he faces charges of collaboration.
collaborationist |-nist| noun & adjective (sense 2).
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from Latin collaboratio(n-), from collaborare ‘work together.’

At the root of the term is (from the Latin): co-labour — working together. That sounds great in theory and indeed, if we are working in a social environment (physical or electronic) we are very likely collaborating in some manner. Social media for instance is built upon collaboration. The picture posted along with this blog was courtesy of psd on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Licence (thank you!), which encourages collaboration and remixing. Knowledge translation is a another concept that has collaboration at its very foundation. It’s commonplace to see it and, in the world of academic heath sciences, it is considered to be an important part of the work we do.

On the surface of things, my colleagues and I collaborate a lot. But a second glance suggests that this might be overstating things — a lot. The reason has to do with collaboration’s precondition: openness.

Openness is defined (selectively) as:

open |ˈōpən|
1 allowing access, passage, or a view through an empty space; not closed or blocked up : it was a warm evening and the window was open | the door was wide open.
• free from obstructions : the pass is kept open all year by snowplows.

2 [ attrib. ] exposed to the air or to view; not covered : an open fire burned in the grate.

3 [ predic. ] (of a store, place of entertainment, etc.) officially admitting customers or visitors; available for business : the store stays open until 9 p.m.

4 (of a person) frank and communicative; not given to deception or concealment : she was open and naive | I was quite open about my views.
• not concealed; manifest : his eyes showed open admiration.

Let’s consider these definitions for a moment within the context of health and social services, the area I’m most familiar with.

Allowing access refers to having the ability to gain entry to something — physical or otherwise. That might be simple if collaboration is with members of the same team — but what about when you have people from other teams? Other disciplines? Having worked on a project that focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration between teams of researchers I can vouch that it is not something to be taken for granted. Developing a collaborative approach to research, particularly in teams, is something that takes a long time to foster. Then there is confidentiality, rules and regulations about whom has access to what. Even in teams that are open to true collaboration, sometimes the rules that govern institutions don’t allow researchers to engage across settings to access data.

Having something “not blocked up” sounds good, but anyone looking for collaboration knows that there are a lot of preconceived ideas about what that means in practice. For example, are certain people expected to get credit even if they don’t offer anything substantive ? There are conventions for authorship that often grant those who lead the lab a prime authorship position with little attention to the amount of effort on a paper.

What about being “exposed to the air or to view; not covered”? This could mean open to new ideas or ways of working. Sure, it sounds nice to say that you’re open to ideas and suggestions, but what about real practice? Resistance to new ideas is how innovation is thwarted, but it also protects interests within an organization and with individuals. As the saying goes:

The only people who welcome change are wet babies

Lastly, frank and communicative action is a part of openness and if there is anything that represents the converse of that it is academic publishing. It probably should strike people as surprising how often scientists report positive results in the academic literature, but it doesn’t. Why? There is a well-known publication bias — whether real in terms of editorial bias or in terms of self-selection away from publishing negative trials. Another issue is that collaboration is hard, it’s not well funded (that is, the collaboration part — the science itself sometimes is), and it takes a long time to produce something of value. The reason is that it is based on normal human relationships and they don’t fit a timeline that’s particularly ‘efficient’.  It’s also hard to be frank when your reputation and funding is on the line.

So collaboration will continue to soar as an idea, yet until we acknowledge the challenges in an open, frank manner (as the term suggests) we are going to see a marginal benefit for science, health and innovation.

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