We need to talk about research collaboration!
As researchers and civil society actors from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe we make an urgent call for a dialogue on the practice of transnational collaboration in field research. In our domains of development and (post-)conflict studies, many collaborations exist between an academic researcher based at a university in the ‘West’ and a ‘local’ researcher-assistant-guide-driver-associate-translator-friend-fixer-insider-host-collaborator. While the precise nature of these collaborations is highly diverse, they are indispensable for making academic research in our fields possible.
Apart from the obligatory footnote reference in academic publications, however, such collaborations often disappear from sight in research output. In the margins of the disciplinary mainstream, efforts are being made to ‘come to terms’ with this silence. For all their worth, such efforts often revolve around the ’foreign’ researcher contemplating about such collaborations. Efforts to engage in a dialogue that involves both parties are even rarer.
Therefore, from 25 to 30 October 2018, a group of (post-)doctoral researchers at Ghent University invited their collaborators for several days of intense discussions around three core questions: Why do we collaborate? How do we collaborate? What are the issues we face?
What is there to talk about?
While research collaboration provides great opportunities, it can also be tricky business. The reasons why are endless. Here, we limit ourselves to three central tensions.
GROUNDS FOR ENGAGEMENT -The goals and ambitions people have in collaborating and their respective chances of achieving them intersect with the context in which they take place. The motivations to engage in research collaboration differ from person to person: to write an academic publication, to improve the lives of the people we study and work with, to make a living, to engage in policy and advocacy work, to obtain an academic career, to make friends, to gain new insights. This should not necessarily be a problem. However, (geo)politics, class, race, gender, and historical legacies of imperialism ensure that collaborations are intertwined with often highly unequal power relations. Researchers that (un)consciously neglect these realities are likely to engage in unjust research collaboration.
PRODUCING KNOWLEDGE TOGETHER - Research collaboration in our field is often framed through faulty assumptions about the respective roles of a ‘foreign researcher’ and a ‘local assistant’. Such standard misconception assumes a ‘foreign researcher’ who shapes the research design, theoretical concepts, questions and analysis. The ‘local assistant’ is there to provide privileged access to otherwise inaccessible (exotic) data in the ‘Global South’. This mistaken view rests upon persistent inequalities in academia that prioritize Western universities as the ultimate sites of knowledge production and Western researchers as the sole producers of academic knowledge. In practice, however, everyday research collaboration is always decisively shaped while doing the research ‘in the field’. Both collaborators play dynamic and essential roles throughout the entire process: from the definition and operationalization of research questions; over the construction of ‘the field’; to the final analysis. Surely, both parties – however we may define their roles – contribute to the collaborative end product we call knowledge. The common assumption that such end product exclusively takes the form of an academic publication is another reflection of the unequal power relations that dominate the business of knowledge production.
COLLABORATING IN PRECARIOUSNESS - Research collaboration often takes place under uncertain, unstable and insecure conditions. Most researchers are only employed on short-term funding, if funding is available at all. ‘Local assistants’ often face much higher risks of social and physical exposure. Limited budgets and tenure uncertainty of foreign researchers tend to be shifted onwards to their collaborators. Social security is often fully absent and ethical guidelines at academic institutions mostly ignore the existence of research collaboration. Arrangements and expectations with regard to (non-)monetary compensation are frequently established on the basis of trust rather than formal contract or written agreement. Depending on the aims, means and ambitions of both parties involved, there may be valid reasons for this. However, this does not excuse the research sector as a whole for building a knowledge production model on the basis of unequal and precarious labor relations.
From talk to action!
There is no magic solution to these challenges. Each person or institution that engages in collaborative research does so with different aims, expectations and ambitions. Each research collaboration takes place in its own specific historical, social and institutional context. We do not call for a one-size-fits-all template to engage in future research collaboration.
We do call for a more serious engagement with the challenges pointed out here. We must do so from a position as active and responsible participants in the knowledge production sector. Therefore, we suggest five guiding principles:
TRANSPARANCY – People engage in research collaborations with different ambitions, motivations, goals and expectations. Such differences are no objection to successful research collaboration. However, we call for all participants in research collaboration to be fully transparent about the reasons for and the expectations from engaging in collaborations. The core idea is simple: do not promise honey if you’re not a beekeeper. This includes transparency about the inevitable doubts and uncertainties that come with the practice of research, be they financial, practical or content-related. Research collaborators share a common responsibility to act against the inequalities that exist between them. Together they can raise a voice against precariousness within the sector in general.
EQUITABILITY IN DIVERSITY – The parties engaging in research collaboration are immensely diverse in terms of gender, race, nationality, class and educational background. Sincere research collaboration thrives on this diversity as different perspectives enter the research process in all its stages. For research collaboration to fulfill its potential, we call for a stronger awareness of the power relations that intersect with this diversity. We strive for equitability in the collaborations we engage in ourselves, as well as a more equitable knowledge production sector as a whole.
MODESTY – We should be modest about the knowledge we produce, and about our own role in producing it. We must face the multiple ways in which knowledge is produced and respect the diversity of contributions made by the variety of people that cross our paths. We must also be aware that academic publications and degrees are but one specific form of knowledge. A humble engagement in research collaboration entails an awareness of and contribution to the different motivations that may underpin each and everyone’s engagement in the practice of knowledge production.
CREATIVITY - No perfect formula exists. Just like our research, our modes of collaboration are never stable, never settled. As we engage in research collaboration, we must keep on searching for better ways to do so. As researchers, let’s embrace this creativity as we aim to improve ourselves and the general practice of research collaboration. Let’s open up our minds to the great range of opportunities that research collaboration entails and the wide variety of shapes its output can take.
UNSETTLE THE MINDS, UNSETTLE THE SECTOR – The above principles sound far from radical. Still, they are far from established practice in our fields of study. To uphold these principles, we must sensitize the minds of individual researchers and address the structural features of the sector that impede better modes of research collaboration. As research collaborators, we commit ourselves to improve our own modes of thinking and practice. Together, we aim to unsettle mistaken ideas and ill practice in research collaboration. By doing so, we can create an environment in which the great potential of research collaboration can fully bloom as it should.