Danielle Tucker, Pamela Yeow and Alison Dean, 10th December 2020
Research collaboration in academia is an important part of what we do, not only for developing new research ideas and pooling resources and skills, but also for personal motivation and camaraderie.
We have been working together since 2008 on a variety of research projects about the role of organisations on societal behaviour change. Over this time we have gotten to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and understand how we work together. However, when our most recent project suffered severe disruption due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK in March 2020, we not only had to adapt our research methods, but also had rethink the way we worked together collaboratively.
In this article, we reflect on some of the changes we have made in recent months, which have led our research collaboration to evolve and become more resilient and sustainable.
This may sound like a glib remark but trust and trustworthiness cannot be overstated. With collaborators having different academic schedules (complex teaching, administrative commitments and other research activities) and life commitments particularly during lockdown (e.g. home-schooling), it was important that we were open with each other about what we were dealing with in particular pockets of time. We were also open about what we can do and cannot do especially when we were up against deadlines.
By dividing up responsibilities in an understanding and proactive way, we were each able to lead on things that suited our temperament and expertise, it also allowed us to be part of other things, not only the activities that we were leading. It was simply a case of 1+1> 2.
Regularly scheduled Zoom meetings instead of day-long retreats
Being located at three different institutions and living in two different counties, prior to the pandemic, our method for collaboration involved day-long face-to-face meetings every couple of months where we would shut out distractions and delve deeply into our data and writing. In 2020, we replaced these retreats with regularly scheduled Zoom meetings every 1-2 weeks. These more frequent, yet focused, activities, in conjunction with asynchronous email exchanges brought our interactive thinking to the fore. We used these sessions to brainstorm our writing, discuss methodological decisions and provided much needed social interaction during UK lockdown.
Most significantly, it allowed us to explore our research in a more real time context, keeping our discussions embedded in current affairs and policy developments, which became forefront in our meeting preamble. This has included examining how COVID-19 policies have influenced ethical consumerism, responses to government policy consultations such as the Plastic Packaging Tax and commentary on the plastic bag tax.
More emphasis on shared resources
Due to an increase in interactive work between meetings, we became more reliant on file sharing applications that allowed multiple people to edit documents at any time. We used these to share resources, collaborate on documents and comment on each other’s work.
We relied more heavily on good organisation skills, with our meetings becoming more of an opportunity to update on progress and distribute work for the week ahead. This allowed us to tackle more angles on the project simultaneously (for example, academic papers, new project or grant applications, policy and dissemination work). Sharing resources were integral to linking these different aspects of our project together.
Opportunity to expand our research team
Finally, owing to the flexibility of our funder Eastern ARC, who allowed us to redistribute funding to shift resources, this allowed us to hire two research assistants to support the project on a part time basis. Having moved our collaboration online, geography became no barrier to finding two highly motivated and passionate researchers. They each brought insights from their own backgrounds (fashion and textile industries, wine industry and human geography) which complemented our already interdisciplinary collaboration.
Calling in from five different parts of the country, and not having met the research assistants we had hired, it would have been a daunting challenge to even think about building trust, let alone virtually. This concern was luckily very quickly brushed aside, as the shared enthusiasm for our research topic amongst team of now five researchers. This collective passion was most definitely a very important part of our complex online collaboration. That, and the promise of cake at the end of lockdown!
The practice of academic collaboration is not something that is often discussed or written about but we felt it important to share our experiences to illustrate how collaborations change and adapt over time. Mostly, they are a source of inspiration in our practice; reflecting on how researchers can grow and develop together should be something to focus on when research gets challenging.