5 Types of Research Collaboration

In a bygone era, nostalgically deemed “little science” researchers worked independently on projects that were only widely shared with others after completion. World War II, however, ushered in the age of “big science,” with a movement towards large-scale projects, often supported by outside funding, and conducted by teams of researchers.

Since then, these collaborative practices have continuously expanded alongside technology, global economics, and digital communication. Today, researchers work in diverse teams unbound by the limitations of geography, status, or even field of expertise.

Because contemporary research addresses complex global issues, sharing knowledge and resources through collaboration is vital. By exploring the 5 main types of collaborative research, this article can help researchers prepare for developing these mutually rewarding partnerships.

1. Collaboration within an academic institution

This category includes various configurations of faculty, staff, administrators, and students who will collaborate on research projects. The situation may be as informal as senior students helping novices navigate the research process, or as formal as tenured faculty offering unique skills to complicated research questions.

While these teams may form within a single department, they develop between departments and across disciplines. One advantage of partnering within an institution is the ease of communication. It allows members to meet face to face regularly, review their progress, and make adjustments in real time.

2. Collaboration with other academic institutions

Collaboration between academic institutions typically forms when a Primary Investigator invites Junior researchers to help carry out various components in the research methods of an already funded project. Collaboration between institutions creates mutual benefits through the sharing of often expensive and limited resources, like specialized equipment and broader study participants.  

For Senior researchers, these partnerships often offer fortuitous insights and unique viewpoints that enrich the research process and ultimately improve the project’s outcomes. On the other hand, Junior researchers gain valuable experience, expand their professional network, and improve their credibility through association with an established research program.


3. Collaboration with a government entity

When policy makers and researchers share a common concern or question, collaboration can significantly improve the progression towards an outcome beneficial to society. The form and extent of these partnerships depends on both the contributions and the requirements of each participant.

Government agencies may act as financial collaborators by offering resources and funding opportunities for research projects related to specific interests and targeted goals. In other instances, they may solicit support from research experts to address a definitive issue, like COVID-19. 

While governmental organizations often post research collaboration opportunities, the possibilities are reciprocal. Researchers may also contact relevant agencies to submit proposals requesting cooperation on a project.

4. Collaboration with private industry

Rapidly changing businesses that thrive on innovation are pushing the scope and influence of collaboration between academic researchers and the private sector. In exchange for resources and visibility, researchers provide expertise in the development of new products and technologies.

Partnerships with academic researchers can further invigorate companies, extricating them from stagnant best practices by inciting continuous improvement. Overall, the skills and knowledge of both groups are essential to the transition from research to development of the advancements in products, methods, and services that drive society forward. 

5. Collaboration with international researchers

As globalization continues to alter the ways that people, organizations, and nations interact, the need for collaboration between international researchers and institutions grows. By broadening the cultural perspectives and applications of a research project, these partnerships increase the value of both the process and its outcomes.

Sometimes connections made during global conferences are nurtured into collaborative efforts. Students and junior researchers may forge relationships through study abroad and exchange programs. And, other times, researchers who share common goals and yet are separated by political borders and national objectives can find a common ground through collaboration.

Communication in collaboration

The success of every type of research collaboration hinges on the quality of communication between team members. While the forms of communication seem to expand daily, not all are appropriate or even plausible in every situation.

Because face to face interactions typically produce rich and meaningful results in real time, they are consistently worthwhile. Other modes of communication like phones, mail, digital platforms, and video conferencing should be used to supplement, not replace, in person meetings when collaborators are in close proximity to one another.

When differences in time and distance prevent face to face communication, collaborators must create synergy by updating one another on progress and setbacks, and sharing amended interpretations and objectives. The best way to accomplish these goals is by establishing several formal and informal contact options from the beginning with regularly scheduled meetings.

Bottom line

In this interconnected world, researchers must recognize the power of collaboration in the advancement of scientific knowledge and the discovery of global solutions. Through these collaborations, researchers break down geographical barriers, disciplinary boundaries, and institutional limitations to form diverse teams that work together to address complex research questions. 

Effective communication stands as the cornerstone of success through each step of the collaborative process, from initial team building to post-publication. While technology enables a range of communication methods, face-to-face interactions remain crucial for meaningful and rich results.

Through mutually rewarding partnerships, researchers can pave the way for the realization of innovations that positively impact humanity. By understanding the types of research collaboration, scientific knowledge will undoubtedly become more diverse, shaping an increasingly democratic and equitable world.

About the author

Charla Viera, MS

Charla Viera graduated from The University of Washington with a BA in Urban Studies and a BA in Environmental Studies. Her undergraduate research included household energy consumption and practical greywater systems. She later earned an MS in Library and Information Science from Texas Woman's University. Her graduate thesis focused on the role of libraries as community anchors in rural Texas communities.

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