Rules for a successful interdisciplinary collaboration

ResearcherSkills team


Cross-disciplinary collaborations are those where different fields collide to answer a common question. Interdisciplinarity is especially important when dealing with global society problems such as food production and security or drug development. If you have been following the Horizon2020 policies you would have noticed how cross-disciplinary projects are a very important part of the massive European funding framework.  This programme puts special emphasis on “breaking down barriers to create a genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation” (

But, how to proceed when you wish to engage in collaborations with an ‘outsider’? Questions that Knapp et al. have tried to answer in their latest publication: Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration (PLoS Comput Biol.)

Interdisciplinary research can be challenging but incredibly rewarding, read below for some useful tips!!

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Rule 1: Enjoy Entering a Completely New Field of Research

If you are entering a completely new field for you be aware that you are a complete novice! This, far from being a bad thing is something that you should embrace and make the most of it. Be sure that you ask all your ‘stupid’ questions and do not pretend that you know things that you don’t, showing your enthusiasm to learn will make your interlocutor more eager to share information with you. Remember to read as much as you can and speak with other experts at every opportunity that you have!


Rule 2: Go to the Wet Lab

You are entering in a new field, with new techniques and new ways of acquiring data, with new weakness and strengths that you need to understand. Visiting the lab where the data is generated is often the fastest and most efficient way to get an insight on your work. Try to talk to junior and senior members of the lab as they will most probably give you a different perspective of the experimental setup.

Rule 3:  Learn the Language

Different fields have different terminology. Context is also essential to communicate your science. Learning the specific vocabulary, nomenclature and code for the new field you are entering will assure you a smooth and easy communication with your collaborators.

Rule 4: Do not Become Impatient

Different fields move forward at different paces. Do not make assumptions about how long an experiment takes to finish or how hard a fellow researcher is working based in the time you have been waiting for that result. Efficient and early communication is essential to avoid disappointments.

Rule 5: Know What you can Expect

Different fields have different reward model; assumptions that you take for granted as the author order in a manuscript or what ‘significant contribution’ mean in you field might vary significantly between fields. Also, crucial issues as the Impact Factor in the decision making of where to publish are very different among fields.

Make sure that you understand every implication of these difference before embarking in a multidisciplinary collaboration!

Rule 6: Learn what different fields mean by “data”

Related to rule 3, what a computer scientist and an experimental researcher call ‘data’ might vary. Whenever possible, try to standardized data format and collection with research partners, this will make data analysis and interpretation easier for everybody.

Rule 7: Evaluate how much time your involvement will mean

When entering in a collaborative project make sure that it is clear what every part needs to bring to the table (in terms of expertise, equipment, results…). Having a well-thought plan beforehand gives you a clear idea as to whether it is worthwhile to engage in new collaborations at all! Your time is precious, don’t waste it.

interdisciplinary collaboration ResearcherSkillsRule 8: Create and Manage Structural Bonds

Two researchers with different backgrounds working together don’t make a cross-disciplinary collaboration. Truly cross-disciplinary collaborations need a proper framework for knowledge transfer, this normally include meetings, workshops, staff exchange, name it!

These bonds are important for your research, but can also be very expensive if you don’t have financial support. Many funding bodies offer special calls for cross-disciplinary research or favour cross-disciplinary proposals for both national and international settings. Examples include the Horizon 2020" EU Framework, the Human Frontiers in Science Program, the US NSF/BIO–UK BBSRC Lead Agency Pilot, or internal projects created to achieve inter-faculty cooperation within a university.

Once you secure the funding, sharing PhD students and postdoctoral researchers will strengthen your relationship and will also benefit enormously your student and staff.

Rule 9:  Recognise and accept when things are not working as expected

A collaboration is only worth maintaining when is successful and both parts gain in the process. Accepting that something is not working as expected is the first step to try and salvage your collaboration. Once you’ve acknowledged that there are some things you can try:

- Pretend nothing happens: Do nothing and hope for the best. Obviously not the best approach if you don’t believe in miracles!

- Pause and wait: Are the agreed timings not working for everyone involved? In this case, just pause a bit a let everyone catch up with their workloads.

- Look for alternatives: Maybe a new and fresh new collaboration will solve your research problems. Always remember to let other people know that you are either engage in other projects or that you are looking for new collaborators, be aware that not everybody take in a similar way to be ‘cheated on’.

- End it! :If nothing works and you are not comfortable with your working agreement, why continue? Do not be afraid to end an unsuccessful collaboration, it is only dragging you back.

Rule 10: Be Synergistic

When researchers with different but complementary skills join to initiate a synergistic relationship the gain is mutual, and that is probably why you entered  into a collaboration in the first instance. Some of the keys to successful collaborations include inventing options for mutual gain, give enough and appropriate credit to partners, and caring for their interests as if they were your own. 

Happy research!

ResearcherSkills team



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