A brief guide to research collaboration for the young scholar

Working with other scholars can boost your profile, but some arrangements are more likely to lead to publication

By Aijaz A. Shaikh - November 24, 2015 - Updated August 30, 2019  12 mins
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For newly admitted doctoral students and other young scholars, writing a scientific article is a major challenge that requires a great deal of preparation as well as enthusiasm, passion and a certain attitude toward scientific writing. As a young researcher, developing these capabilities can help you produce an empirical manuscript, but it will not guarantee its publication in a peer-reviewed journal with an Impact Factor.

We know that scientific (or academic) research requires a diverse set of skills and capabilities, and that these skills and capabilities are usually developed over a substantial period of time. Under these circumstances, an innovative idea for research collaboration can provide motivation. In the course of my post graduate academic career spanning three years now, I have already begun to reap the benefits of collaboration and managed to create my own collaborative network. I wanted to explore different research methods, data analysis and reporting techniques and collaboration has made that possible. Although I started my research career as a qualitative researcher, I have now managed to write a few survey studies under the guidance of other researchers equipped with the expertise to conduct and publish survey studies.

Within academia, various terms are used to refer to research collaboration (RC), including co-authorship, research networking, joint research and research partnership. It is widely accepted that collaboration in research across disciplines, between young and more senior researchers and with practitioners is critical to the career of novice researchers. Extensive access to broadband internet and mobile technology has simplified the collaboration process, and it is now encouraged at the inter-institutional and cross-country levels. It is clear that advances in information technology have dismantled boundaries and have brought the research community, academic institutions and the industry far closer to each other, and with the exception of IT, it is hard to recall another discipline that has evolved so quickly. Another factor is the growing integration, globalization and an interdisciplinary nature of many academic fields and disciplines that encouraged scholars to collaborate. Consequently, cross-border collaboration continues to increase, fueled by social media technology. Scholars can now communicate their research ideas and findings through blogs, microblogs, social networking sites and countless other social web platforms.

Aijaz A. Shaikh gives a presentation at the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics in Finland.

Scholars can now communicate their research ideas and findings through blogs, microblogs, social networking sites and countless other social web platforms. (Image by geralt, CCO Public Domain via Pixabay)

Key components of collaboration

A productive and well-established formal relationship between individuals or institutions is important in initiating successful research collaboration. This formal relationship should include agreed deliverables that form the basis of the collaborative arrangement. Finally, a well-defined and agreed-on
division of responsibilities between the participants will enable a smooth execution of collaborative projects and increase your chances of success. Beyond this, collaboration requires a highly responsible attitude and diligence. An irresponsible and careless attitude in any collaborative action will
bring disaster in the form of wasted time and resources, and could severely damage the reputation of scholars and undermine the relationships between the individuals and organizations involved.

Tools for collaboration

Once your collaboration has been set up, Elsevier's Mendeley platform provides a free-to-use way of sharing information between individuals and teams of individuals that allow them to comment on and annotate articles on a communal space. Duncan Casey, an Industry
Fellow at the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials explained:

"“I’ve been in situations where I’m managing 40-something people across three sites. Mendeley was critical for that. If you have 30 or 40 people dumping their notes into a repository, it’s no better than Google. What you need is some way to break down information into categories, discuss notes and ideas,
so that you can flick through and browse." Read more about Duncan's use of Mendeley

You'll also find some tools and resources - including a short modular course on collaboration - available for free on Elsevier's Researcher Academy

Whatever route you take, hopefully you will find that a successful collaboration leads to a productive research project and builds your own expertise in exciting ways. As you'll see from these engineering researchers, collaborating with people outside your field of expertise can be the start of a journey that deepens your own experience and knowledge.

How should you approach a person to initiate collaboration?

Collaboration is one of the most important parts of your research career, so it’s surprising there are no universally agreed guidelines for scholars looking to initiate collaboration. Actually, you can use any suitable physical and digital interaction or communication channel (including social media) to identify, locate and approach a prospective collaborator within and outside your network. It is wise to work out how to approach or contact a potential collaborator, and this requires attention and planning.

Face-to-face physical interaction, for example, during a conference, workshop or seminar has proved highly effective and successful. On the other hand, it’s also effective to use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or your official or work email address.

Recently, John Horsley, the Director of Digital Doughnut, embarked on a research project to examine digital disruption in retail and financial services. Horsley posted his initial idea and the blueprint of his project on a LinkedIn discussion forum and invited the professional community to contribute ideas. Within two weeks, 23 extremely useful comments and innovative ideas had been posted to and shared on the LinkedIn page. Moreover, the page was liked by over 60 LinkedIn members.

Here are two examples of scientific articles the author co-authored with researchers from Finland and South Africa during the second year of his doctoral studies:

  • Shaikh, A. A., & Karjaluoto, H. (2015). “Mobile banking adoption: A literature review,” Telematics and Informatics..
  • Shaikh, A. A., Karjaluoto, H., & Chinje, N. B. (2015). “Continuous mobile banking usage and relationship commitment–A multi-country assessment,” Journal of Financial Services Marketing.

How should collaboration be arranged?

I have had the privilege of initiating a few major research projects with scholars with different skillsets, vast research experience and diverse academic backgrounds. My association with them has helped me to understand research collaboration as a process with two main arrangements. These arrangements, I believe, can help you understand the magic of research collaborations and their scope, reap the immense benefits of completing your doctoral studies on time, develop an effective scholarly network, and pursue a productive research career:

  • Vertical Research Collaboration (VRC): The first arrangement is called Vertical Research Collaboration. Here, a researcher focuses on a very specific research project and in a very specific area that must be completed in collaboration with another researcher from the same field, thereby excluding interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary aspects from the arrangement. Nevertheless, VRC does permit inter-organizational or inter-institutional collaborative arrangements. VRC arrangements require an extensive search to identify a possible avenue that could add value and assist the completion of the project on time and with the desired results. Although rare in business and management studies, this kind of arrangement is more common in other major fields. Under a VRC arrangement, the role of the dissertation supervisor is vital since, perhaps surprisingly, the relationship between supervisors and their doctoral students as co-authors of research projects comes under the VRC arrangement. Although the benefits are limited, the success of VRC projects is generally considered to be high.  VRC does not undermine the learning available to a doctoral student, and can therefore be considered a valuable RC arrangement.
  • Horizontal Research Collaboration (HRC). The other main arrangement is called horizontal research collaboration. With its broader and wider scope, HRC offers several benefits to novice scholars. These arrangements involve interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects that permit doctoral students to look for diverse avenues for research from different fields. HRC arrangements are common in the majority of research fields, including business and management. Under an HRC arrangement, doctoral as well as the post-doc students enjoy the liberty of collaborating and exploring other disciplines or research areas that relate to their core research area in some manner. For instance, in one of the fast emerging research fields, students examining consumer behavior in the context of digital banking might collaborate with a researcher majoring in information systems and/or psychology.

When comparing these two different RC arrangements, a quick start with VRC is advisable since it requires less effort and for the research project to be initiated in the first year of the doctoral program, which in turn improves the likelihood of an articles-based dissertation being completed on time.

How are researchers’ contributions managed in academic collaboration?

One of the most intriguing issues about research collaboration is how to divide the research work or contribution parameters. The issue affects both VRC and HRC arrangements. In my opinion, the success or failure of collaboration largely depends on this question. Since different scenarios prevail in both VRC and HRC arrangements, I have mapped my answer according to the need and the requirement of each scenario.

Scenario 1 Collaboration between two research scholars or doctoral students from the same field or department belonging to the same or two different universities. The division of work under this type of RC is straightforward and less risky, and therefore, in my opinion, likely to be successful. The project tasks are divided in light of the educational backgrounds and distinct skill sets of each research scholar, and according to the available resources. Accordingly, different sections of the manuscript are allocated to each author. For instance, a research scholar who possesses good analytical skills can become more productive and therefore contribute meaningfully to the data analysis and data reporting sections of the manuscript. However, there is a rule of thumb that the research scholar initiating the project normally holds the first authorship and that his/her contribution is more central than that of the other participant.

Scenario 2 – Collaboration between a doctoral student and a senior research fellow or supervisor from the same field or department belonging to the same or two different universities. Under such a vertical research collaboration arrangement, a research scholar normally holds the first authorship and therefore completes most of the sections in the manuscript. The role of the senior research fellow or of his/her supervisor in this collaboration is usually as a facilitator, motivator or guide.

The underlying difference between these two scenarios is the role played by the research scholar holding the lead or first authorship. Here my advice to students is that the issue of first authorship should be considered a privilege and not a necessity. In my opinion, the underlying purpose of research collaboration should be to initiate, lead and manage collaboration; work as a team; complete the project on time; and steer it through to publication. Nevertheless, one exception applies here that may lessen concerns over the order of authorship. Once the manuscript is ready for publication, it might be submitted to a conference for discussion, and following a few minor modifications such as changing the title of the manuscript, the same paper might be submitted to a journal for publication. In the process, the stated order of authorship can also be changed if all contributors agree – that is, the lead author on the conference paper can become the second author on the same paper when it is submitted to a journal. Nevertheless, in a few cases, the papers emerged from conferences radically different before going on to journal publication.

Scenario 3 Collaboration between two research scholars or between a research scholar and a senior research fellow from two different fields, disciplines or departments, preferably belonging to two different universities. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations under a horizontal research collaboration arrangement are initiated by research scholars from different disciplines working jointly to create new conceptual, theoretical and methodological innovations that integrate and transcend discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem. These large-scale HRC arrangements demand due care and a responsible attitude in order to initiate and complete the project on time and with the desired results. In this situation, a complete research protocol is established that specifies and documents the division of work and the roles and responsibilities of each participant in the project, preferably before it is initiated. Moreover, any administrative, documentation or coordination tasks should also be defined, modularized and included in the protocol. However, the scope and complexity of an HRC arrangement might well deter research scholars from initiating one with other researchers, at least during the first two years of their doctoral program.


The success of many empirical research projects hinges on effective collaboration among various contributors, including novice researchers, senior research fellows and practitioners from industry. The advent of the various communication and social media channels has provided research scholars with a wealth of opportunities to identify, locate and approach prospective collaborators. I would argue that choosing an appropriate communication channel through which to approach a collaborator is the most intriguing step and one that demands proper attention and planning. Face-to-face interaction between collaborators during a conference, workshop or seminar has proved effective and highly successful.

Regarding the types of collaborative arrangements — vertical research collaboration and horizontal research collaboration — I recommend a quick start with a VRC to novice scholars, and particularly doctoral students because the arrangement requires less effort and usually ensures the research project can be initiated and managed with ease, making it more likely that the project will be completed on time.

Finally, I would argue that it is conducive to collaborate because individuals from different cultures and with different belief systems think differently, and collaboration is likely to spur innovative ideas and solutions, therefore generating publications that make an impact in the chosen field.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Aijaz A. Shaikh is a doctoral candidate in marketing at the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics in Finland. He earned his MSc from the Hanken School of Economics, an AACSB accredited business school in Finland. Aijaz has more than 15 years of professional, teaching, and research experience. His primary research interests include consumer behaviour, mobile banking, Internet banking, payment systems, Innovative Marketing Communication Channels, social media, and survey research. He has published in the Elsevier journals Computers in Human Behavior and Telematics and Informatics and other refereed journals such as the Journal of Financial Services Marketing and the International Journal of Electronic Finance.


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