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The benefits and challenges of international research collaboration

Working with international colleagues can provide new insights and even a career boost, but it takes patience and planning.
NOV 07 2018

The benefits and challenges of international research collaboration

Working with international colleagues can provide new insights and even a career boost, but it takes patience and planning.


Academic research is becoming ever more international. Whether it is to gain access to specialized equipment, develop new ideas or tap into new sources of funding, researchers are reaching out to their colleagues around the world, and their work is better for it.

“For me, it’s transparent that science is an international, global endeavour,” says Alejandro Adem, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia and chief executive officer of the non-profit research and training organization Mitacs. “Ideas transcend borders, no country controls the marketplace of ideas.”

For some fields of research, such as particle physics, working internationally is not a choice but a “way of life,” says Michael Roney, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria and director of its Institute of Particle Physics. Projects in particle physics often require huge, expensive infrastructure that no single country can afford on its own – not everybody can have their own Large Hadron Collider. “We need to collaborate to afford the science,” says Dr. Roney.

That means the field has developed a unique culture of collaboration, with researchers following their interests all over the world. Dr. Roney has worked extensively at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the United States and the KEK laboratory in Japan. This leads to “an extremely fertile cross-pollination of ideas,” he says. “New ideas come when you interact with people from diverse backgrounds. You think about things in a different way and suddenly see connections you never thought of before.”

Lori Beaman, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change at the University of Ottawa, says her experiences working with international colleagues has provided her with an invaluable depth of perspective. In her studies of the decline of Christianity in North America, for example, she has found that many churches are closing and selling off their buildings. But, when working with colleagues in Sweden, she learned that in Scandinavia the state provides support to churches even when attendance is declining, so the buildings themselves remain.

“You might assume we were all handling an issue in the same way, but that’s not the case at all,” she says. “We live in a global world, we want to be able to think more broadly. We can’t do that without international collaboration.”

For Heather Aldersey, a researcher in rehabilitation therapy at Queen’s University who works on disability inclusion in the developing world, having international partners is vital to ensuring that her research translates into real actions to build capacity in the overseas communities where she works – for example, a recent project to develop a new occupational therapy program in Ethiopia. Without leadership and direction from her Ethiopian colleagues at the University of Gondar to ensure the research is used effectively on the ground, there would be little point in the work. “There has to be active buy-in and collaboration with the people affected by our research,” she says. “We have stellar partners who understand the community.”

International collaborations, and especially working abroad, can also provide a real career boost. Vincent Larivière, who holds the Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication at Université de Montréal, has found that academic mobility, whether it is having a second affiliation in another country or moving permanently abroad, is associated with work that has higher scientific impact as measured by citation rates. “Research by internationally mobile academics is more visible and more cited,” he says. “This correlates with what we know about the importance of international collaboration.”

Dr. Larivière’s study of the benefits of mobility, published in the influential journal Nature, is a case in point. It was one of the projects he worked on while a visiting professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and involved researchers from Europe, the United States and Canada. “The project became an example of what we were studying,” he says.

Finding collaborators is an organic process, says Dr. Beaman. The timing needs to be right and an opportunity to work together might not present itself for years. Three years ago, for example, she met a Finnish academic after a conference in the Netherlands when they took the same train to the airport. They kept in touch and now that researcher will be a visiting scholar at U of Ottawa next year. Another colleague from Brazil will be visiting at the same time. Dr. Beaman says she’s excited about the possibilities for collaboration that could arise. “It’s an interesting configuration of people. I don’t know what will come of it,” she says.

The digital age is making international collaboration even easier. “I have international collaborators I’ve never met,” says Dr. Larivière. “Someone can just send an email to share ideas and data, and we can write a paper without ever having to meet each other in person.”

But international work has its share of challenges. Some are minor inconveniences that are easy to adjust to, while others can turn the project into a difficult grind.

Sometimes it can be something as simple as getting used to the work culture in another country. In Canada, Dr. Larivière was used to having access to his office around the clock and organizing his work schedule as he wanted. In the Netherlands, however, the university closes at 7 p.m. “I needed to adapt and change my working schedule,” he says.

Since the working language of science around the world tends to be English, Canadian academics don’t usually have too many problems with communication. “Luckily for us, the lingua franca is English,” says Dr. Roney.

But there can still be occasional hiccups with colleagues from countries where English isn’t a common second language. When visiting a collaborator’s lab in Brazil, Dr. Beaman says some in the group were able to provide an ad-hoc translation that worked fine. “It was very collegial, collaborative, lots of humour and people willing to go the extra mile to make sure that everybody understood what everybody else’s ideas were,” she says.

It’s important to keep in mind that international projects tend to move more slowly than usual. “Researchers often don’t realize how long it can take,” says Jennifer Morawiecki, international research manager in the office of research services at Dalhousie University. “They need to prepare for the long haul.”

Having collaborators scattered across the globe can make it tricky to set up meetings when dealing with multiple time zones. Researchers have to get used to having conference calls at odd times of the day. Even so, “some meetings it’s just not feasible to attend in person or remotely,” says Dr. Beaman.

Arranging visas and permits for international work can also slow down the process, especially when working in the developing world. And funding timelines and application procedures don’t always align well, so getting agencies in different countries to work together can be slow and cumbersome. “Research administration [in other countries] is not always as well-developed as it is in Canada,” says Dr. Morawiecki. “The processes can run the gamut from wildly complicated to disturbingly simple.”

Politics can also intrude. Sometimes the security or political situation will change, which may shift a government’s funding priorities or even make it too dangerous to continue the project. Even in developed countries, politics can get in the way – the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union has disrupted academia in the country, potentially making European collaborations more difficult.

Researchers will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the biggest challenge when it comes to international research is getting the money to do it. In a 2014 survey by Universities Canada on internationalization, 83 percent of universities cited the lack of research funding opportunities as the most significant barrier to international collaboration. “There are few dedicated funding mechanisms for international collaboration in Canada,” says Dr. Morawiecki. “There used to be more, but a lot have been cut in the past five to eight years.”

That means researchers sometimes have to get creative when it comes to finding funding. Many of the projects that Dr. Aldersey at Queen’s is involved with are funded by international development bodies, who are often more interested in concrete interventions than research questions. Her Ethiopia project, for example, funded by the Mastercard Foundation, was focused on scholarships and talent development, bringing Ethiopian students to Canada to study occupational therapy. She therefore had to find ways to embed research questions in the project both to evaluate it in a meaningful way and to add to the scientific body of knowledge.

One way she found to do this was to include a study of the current situation in Ethiopia. “When developing the first occupational therapy project in a country, we need to first know what OT looks like there now,” she says. “We look for multiple ways to benefit from one experience.”

For most researchers, international collaborations will involve trying to cobble together funding from multiple sources, as each member of the team applies independently to their home country’s funder in the hope that it all comes together at the right time. But it doesn’t always work. “If the pieces don’t all come together, the project can fall apart,” says U of Ottawa’s Dr. Beaman.

The research councils are trying to make it easier by working with their counterparts overseas to support cross-border research projects, says Brent Herbert-Copley, executive vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. SSHRC is a member of the Trans-Atlantic Platform, or TAP, a collection of 18 social science funders from 12 countries in North America, South America and Europe that are working to align policies and offer funding to improve international links. “We’re trying to make it easier for collaboration to take place,” says Dr. Herbert-Copley.

TAP grew out of a European Union-funded initiative called Digging into Data, which supported data-intensive social science research collaborations between North America and Europe. The platform is now preparing to offer its second joint call for proposals, on the theme of social innovation. The call will offer a single application process for international teams, but funding for each collaborator will come from their own national funder. Dr. Herbert-Copley says TAP is a work in progress, but he says he’s excited about where it is heading. “It’s a learning curve, the TAP is the first time we’ve taken the time to work out how agencies could collaborate,” he says. “It will get easier the second and third times around.”

Canada’s research councils are also members of the Global Research Council, an organization that brings together the heads of national research councils from around the world to facilitate interaction and share best practices. Mario Pinto, who until recently was president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, just completed a term as chairman of the organization. (Dr. Pinto stepped down as head of NSERC in September, after he was interviewed for this article.) He says that while the GRC does not fund research directly, it can help funders from different countries put together joint calls when the resources are available.

Canada’s funding agencies are consulting now on how to use the new $275-million Tri-Council Research Fund, announced in the 2018 federal budget to support international, interdisciplinary and high-risk research. Dr. Pinto says the GRC will provide useful contacts when setting up international projects. “The advantage of the GRC is that we have good relationships, so it is easy to forge partnerships,” he says.

Europe’s massive, multi-year research funding program Horizon 2020, with a budget of €80 billion ($122 billion CAD), is a tempting target for researchers looking for international partners. “Our motto is ‘open to the world,’” says Viktoria Bodnarova, who runs the North American EURAXESS office in Washington, D.C. “We welcome international collaboration and we’re trying our best to attract international collaborators.”

The complex bureaucracy and red tape surrounding the program can be a deterrent, but the EU does provide guidance on how to get involved through its network of EURAXESS offices. Ms. Bodnarova says there are two main ways for Canadian researchers to work with their European colleagues through Horizon 2020.

The first is to join one of the consortia that compete for the large, collaborative grants. But that requires the researcher’s institution to be a partner in the project, and Canadian participants may still have to bring their own funding to the group. The other way is to apply for one of the individual grants, either through the Marie Curie fellowships or the European Research Council. These allow foreign researchers to pursue a project in any scientific field at a host institution in a European country, and Canadians have been remarkably successful at obtaining them, says Ms. Bodnarova.

For students, Mitacs offers a mobility program that allows graduate students to move between Canada and other countries for short periods. Dr. Adem says these visits can help build relationships between labs. “In a world of global mobility, it’s important for collaborators in different countries to have students going between them,” he says. “Students are agents for change and can teach the professors new techniques.” Dr. Adem says he hopes Mitacs will be able to expand some of its international mobility programs to include faculty as well.

For any researcher considering working internationally, the first stop should be their university’s research office, counsels Dalhousie’s Dr. Morawiecki. Most offices offer a free orientation on international research and will reach out to early career researchers to make sure that they’re aware of the opportunities available. “We want you to come talk to us,” she says.

While the challenges of international work can seem daunting, the rewards make it all worthwhile, says Dr. Morawiecki. And research offices, she says, are there to make the process as easy as possible. “It’s something researchers naturally want to do, but it takes time and effort,” she says. “You have to hustle a bit more to be successful.”

Brian Owens
Brian Owens is an award-winning science journalist and author based in New Brunswick.
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  1. Michael C. Roberts, Ph.D., ABPP / November 29, 2018 at 11:52

    Thank you for this article. In particular, We found the points raised regarding the benefits and challenges of engaging in international research collaboration to be very helpful. The “fertile cross-pollination of ideas” is truly a unique quality of the culture of international collaboration and can serve as a significant resource to producing a more valid evidence base for our scientific community. In our recently published paper (Guler et al., 2018), we developed a case study focused on the facilitators and barriers to team performance within the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Field Studies Coordination Group. We found similar findings regarding the complexity of global mental health collaboration.

    If interested in reading:

    Thank you for your insightful work.