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What makes a good collaborator?

In its beginning science was a solitary pursuit: most of the papers in scientific journals prior to the 20th century have just one author.However, the change in scientific culture from “publish when you are really sure about the results” –(it took Darwin many years after he wrote The Origin of Species  to publish it) – to “publish or perish”  and specialisation led  to a necessity for collaboration. By making use of a wide variety of expertise and laboratory techniques to prove your point you potentially make your work more convincing and interesting to more people.

In the present day collaboration is the necessary events of the multi-event discipline called science. For a PhD student, having (good) collaborators increases number and quality of papers with your name on them, in turn amplifying her postgraduate employment perspectives.  For a postdoc having strong and productive collaborations enhances the chances of both getting fellowships and grants and further publications.

In a nutshell, scientific collaboration is a variant of “prisoners dilemma” – if both collaborators work together, both win (= more papers), if both don’t collaborate – both lose. Paradoxically, if one collaborates, and the other pursues his own interests – he wins, getting both his own and shared papers. Therefore, a good collaborator is the one who has not only his own interest at heart.

A good collaborator is like a good life partner – he listens, is on hand to answer to your questions, refrains from destructive critique and is capable of compromise. So the good collaborator answers e-mails promptly and sends correct reagents, and the ideal collaborator does experiments, which interest both partners, quickly.

What a good collaborator does not do is disclosing your unpublished results and ideas to third parties.  Probably the most famous example of this bad collaborator is Maurice Wilkins, who had shown Rosalind Franklin’s Photo 51 to Watson and Crick without her knowledge*.

So if you have a choice of being a good or bad collaborator, remember that this is a long term game of more than one round. If you are selfish, you may win in a short term, but ultimately you will run out of people willing to play with you.

*More on this story from BsB favourite rapper Tom McFadden

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