Engaging in a Research Project with an International Team – Opportunities and Problems

ID-100160549Doing science is great, but doing it together with people you can learn from and who share your research interests – that’s fantastic! Add the cross-cultural dimension to the project and it grows even better! Why doesn’t everyone do that? Regrettably the projects involving collaborative work with other young scientists and/or students who love research can often be hard to begin and even tougher to maintain. Although undeniably rewarding, working in a traditional team already has a number of difficulties, while doing it with people who you can’t communicate with face-to-face adds a whole new pile of concerns. Let’s face it – even with a great concept writing a paper doesn’t always go smoothly and it can turn into tough, uninspiring work; keeping up with an international team and all the things that come with being part of one (things we often don’t even have to think of when working alone, such as communication problems, file storage, different ethics procedures than these in our academic institution, other people’s needs, skills and motivation, etc.) can quickly turn our initial enthusiasm into disillusionment.  Well, thanks to the advances in technology and some good old tips and ideas – it doesn’t have to be so bleak and discouraging! Read on for some useful strategies, ideas and tools to help start off your collaboration efforts, keep your team together, your productivity high and your experiences positive while conducting cross-cultural research with peers from abroad! 

Starting out – establishing the collaboration

Arguably the toughest part of the whole process, beginning your involvement in a project is normally either through you actively recruiting others and pitching an idea, thus building the team, or joining one. This might be a daunting task, even with a very bright idea for a paper.

So you have a research question – how did it came to be? If another publication sparked the idea – getting in touch with its author might be a nice start. Sure it might be intimidating for a student to initiate the contact, especially if the researcher is a big name, but think about it – it is an opportunity for the author to delegate some of the work on his further research endeavors and moreover an opportunity for them to gain (yet another) publication, so it wouldn’t be so uncommon for them to accept. If, however, you do receive a polite decline, you still might be referred via the original authors research network to someone with similar research interests and more willingness to collaborate. Of course you need to approach writing this first introductory e-mail with tact and caution – after all you want to ignite the spark of collaboration, so pitching a complete idea within the first e-mail and asking if they want to join in might easily be too much.

In case that the scenario above regrettably is concluded by a courteous decline, you still have some great tools of modern technology that you can utilize. Platforms such as LinkedIn, Academia.edu or the vastly useful application Mendeley can serve as a great place to look for like-minded people involved in research. Even doing something as simple astalking about it in Twitter (check out this post to get inspired on how to use Twitter in the academic context) can get you the right kind of attention.

But what if you actually don’t have a concrete idea, but rather a set of research interests and an unrelenting enthusiasm for doing science? Luckily as a student you have a wonderful set of opportunities that you can take advantage of, such as academic exchanges and summer schools. In the case of the latter, EFPSA’s very own ESS (European Summer School) is a great example of an academic event that builds, facilitates and leads to fruition such collaborations. An annual week-long event, the ESS unites PhD students with a general idea of a research project with a group of motivated bachelor and master students from all across Europe. The groups, which consist of approximately six members, work closely with the PhD student, who leads and supervises the team, in an effort to create a design, carry it out and analyze the cross-cultural data with the ultimate aim of publishing the results. This model can very well be applied by any student (especially a PhD student) with an idea for a research, skills, knowledge and the ability to unite his own team. It is a great way to increase the involvement of university students in research and it could only be beneficial to see it happening at many more academic institutions across the continent.

Communication

In a geographically dispersed team united solely by technology communication is everything. Since it is uncertain if the members of the team will ever meet face-to-face e-mail, internet calls (including video calls) and other forms of instant communication become the tool to not only progress the project, but also to build healthy relationships between the involved parties – a vital part of the process, crucial for the eventual success of the team efforts.  Obviously e-mail is a core tool of communication in this case. It serves as a relatively official channel of exchange, compared to something more casual such as video calling. The latter is very useful in a larger team, where e-mail communication might get too overwhelming. Having a conference call to update yourself on the work of your colleagues, as well as hear about their personal affairs, is certainly more efficient and pleasant than walls of e-mail and the tedious wait for a reply. Calling is not fault-free though – keep in mind that the time difference can become a big problem in regards to this communication channel.

A vital step in setting up the collaboration is establishing a shared knowledge database. Currently the most popular applications that can provide that service are Google Drive and Dropbox, both free, easy to set up and featuring intuitive, user-friendly interfaces. Having all the important files, documents and individual papers at one place will boost productivity and prevent general confusion significantly. A big advantage of groups consisting of students in different universities is the increased chances for them to acquire an important article. Many universities still provide limited access to research databases (one of the numerous reasons to support Open Access) and a shared knowledge database can make a scientific paper, available to one of the members, instantly available to everybody.

Defining the parameters of the paper

Coming up with the core of your paper- the hypothesis and the design, once a good deal of literature reviewing has been done, sure sounds like one of the most pleasant aspect of the research process. Brainstorming, putting together the results and insights of the papers and books reviewed, making sense of it all and coming up with the best design possible might appeal strongly to the creative bunch of university students. However, carrying out the actual experiment, especially if you have the pleasure of collecting cross-cultural data with your team, has its pitfalls – overly grandiose design (blame the initial enthusiasm!), ethical concerns and different procedures depending on both country and academic institution, required standardization  etc. – all of these must be taken into account still in the planning phase, in order to prevent unpleasant surprises. The benefit of having an experienced supervisor in the team in such situations is invaluable, but not all groups are fortunate to have one.

An important aspect of collaboration is the division of tasks. While it is generally understood that as team works together, it is best to assign a specific role to each member. This will not only prevent confusion, but it can serve as a way to determine the order of the authors’ names once the paper is submitted for publication in a peer-review journal. Probably this sound like a minor concern and a mere formality to some young researchers, but the name order might prove to be the cause of unnecessary conflict within the group, as it is perceived that the closer one’s name is to the coveted position of First Author, the bigger the contribution for the overall creation of the paper the author had.

Proceeding with the research – expectations and realities

A huge advantage of cross-cultural research in the behavioral sciences is that the results can give a better, fuller insight of a phenomenon than a simple observation. This, however, can prove to be a threat too – with faulty standardization,  limited control over the confounding factors, lack of deep understanding of the cultural differences, the final data might either end up being very hard to make sense of or contaminate the comparative results. Sadly when engaging in a long-distance cooperation we are left with a limited amount of tools that can help us determine the competency of our colleagues. The international collaborations done via virtual/digital means of communication usually foster a very pronounced independence of the team members, which aids the creative process, but it also makes the latter rather decentralized and the control over the work of the researchers is often nominal.

Doing research can often be, no matter how well planned, unpredictable. There are many things that can potentially go wrong and this article was not intended to list them all, but instead focused on some of the scenarios specific to cross-cultural research within an international team. Naturally the foremost concern, as with any collaborative research project, is the possibility of a team member losing motivation or dropping out because of other reasons. What is specific here is that it is much harder to know how motivated your fellow researchers are when your communication is done solely via e-mail and/or chat, thus excluding any non-verbal cues. This is where the aforementioned importance of building personal relationships with your project colleagues is really noticeable – if such relationships exist, chances are that your peers would be much more open about issues that bother them and you would be better tuned to detect when something is going wrong. Dealing with these problems fast and controlling the impact they may have on the project is essential not only for the productivity of the group and overall quality of the paper, but also for maintaining the general cohesion and motivation of the team.

Reaping the rewards

It would be a lie to say that collaborating with fellow students and researchers living abroad is the easiest thing to do in science, but it certainly is a very rewarding one. The value of cross-cultural research is great, as well as the knowledge one acquires in the process of working on such a project. The Internet truly made the world of science globalized and finding people with skills and knowledge complimenting yours to collaborate with has never been easier. Building academic connections and true friendships across borders is truly invaluable. A more tangible reward is the finalization and eventual publishing of your article (why not in JEPS?), informing the scientific community of your findings and your future employers/academic institutions of your ability not only to work in a team, but succeed even with limited communication tools.

Even with all the challenges one may face, working together with people from other countries and cultures is a worthy pursuit that can result in creative, high-quality,  valuable research projects. Honing your ability to work independently, but still being part of a team, and getting the chance to learn with and learn from peers with different skills, knowledge, academic and cultural background is a great experience that will help out any student interested in the science of psychology, no matter the final results of the collaboration.

About the author

Etien Benov Etien Benov is currently a BSc Psychology student in Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" and he is serving as a Bulletin Editor in the Journal of European Psychology Students. His interests are mainly in neuroscience research and philosophy of science.

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