If we truly want to foster collaboration, we need to rethink the “independence” criteria during promotion

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When I talk about collaborative work, I don’t mean spending a day or two helping compute some p-values and end up as middle author in a subject-matter paper. I mean spending months working on a project, from start to finish, with experts from other disciplines to accomplish a goal that can only be accomplished with a diverse team. Many papers in genomics are like this (the ENOCDE  and 1000 genomes papers for example). Investigators A dreams up the biology, B develops the technology, C codes up algorithms to deal with massive data, while D analyzes the data and assess uncertainty, with the results reported in one high profile paper. I illustrate the point with genomics because it’s what I know best, but examples abound in other specialties as well. 

Fostering collaborative research seems to be a priority for most higher education institutions. Both funding agencies and universities are creating initiative after initiative to incentivize team science. But at the same time the appointments and promotions process rewards researchers that have demonstrated “independence”. If we are not careful it may seem like we are sending mixed signals. I know of young investigators that have been advised to set time aside to demonstrate independence by publishing papers without their regular collaborators. This advice assumes that one can easily balance collaborative and independent research. But here is the problem: truly collaborative work can take just as much time and intellectual energy as independent research, perhaps more. Because time is limited, we might inadvertently be hindering the team science we are supposed to be fostering. Time spent demonstrating independence is time not spent working on the next high impact project.

I understand the argument for striving to hire and promote scholars that can excel no matter the context. But I also think it is unrealistic to compete in team science if we don’t find a better way to promote those that excel in collaborative research as well. It is a mistake to think that scholars that excel in solo research can easily succeed in team science. In fact, I have seen several examples of specializations, that are important to the university, in which the best work is being produced by a small team.  At the same time, “independent” researchers all over the country are also working in these areas and publishing just as many papers. But the influential work is coming almost exclusively from the team. Whom should your university hire and promote in this particular area? To me it seems clear that it is the team. But for them to succeed we can’t get in their way by requiring each individual member to demonstrate “independence” in the traditional sense.



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