So You’re Ready To Collaborate…Now What?

[This post originally appeared on Brigette Pfister’s great blog at VCU.]

While collaboration among institutions has long been a staple of the research arena, its popularity has greatly increased in recent years.  For one, with resources at a premium both from funding arms and from a PI’s institution, researchers are looking for any way possible to offset many of their expenditures and obligations.  Additionally, the ability to communicate and share data through the internet has facilitated the ability for PIs on opposite sides of the planet to work together on a single project.

Technological advances notwithstanding, the issues affecting cooperative research relationships remain largely the same as they were thirty years ago, and continue to require due diligence on the part of PIs and Research Administration personnel alike.  To that end, there are a few basic questions that should be asked, and adequately answered, when contemplating teaming up with an outside investigator.

What specific tasks will each PI be performing?  For what deliverables (if any) will each PI be responsible?

Any and all research activities to be performed should be spelled out in the Statement of Work or similar document, with the responsibilities of each party clearly defined.  If the PIs will, in fact, be working jointly on a particular aspect of the project, this should be identified as well.  Any overlap may cause headaches with respect to contractual terms such as intellectual property ownership and indemnification, so it is vital for the roles to be delineated accurately.

Will any PI be using existing Intellectual Property of his/her Institution in the collaborative effort?

Institutions want to make sure that their IP is protected at all times, and regularly include language in contracts that preserve these rights, even if there is little chance of this “Background IP” being incorporated.  Consequently, each PI should determine if they will be utilizing any such BIP, and communicate with their ORA accordingly to ensure that it is referenced properly in the accompanying research contract.

Will any PI be using data or materials previously created under contract from a third party?

Let’s say that PI Smith of JHU and PI Jones of VCU want to work together to determine the efficacy of certain treatments for kidney malfunction.  PI Smith has in his possession samples that he obtained through a previous award from Globex Corporation, which he wishes to utilize in his collaboration with PI Jones.  Before proceeding, PI Smith must review his Globex award to confirm that any such future use is permitted under its terms.

Will any proprietary data of one Institution be shared with an outside collaborator?

Depending on the size, scope and financial setup of the research, use of any Confidential Information must be protected by, at minimum, a Non-Disclosure Agreement, or a specific clause in a larger research agreement.

Who will be the primary contact person at each Institution?  For the entire project?

The phrase “Too many cooks in the kitchen” is certainly applicable to collaborative research.  Consequently, it’s important to identify the Lead PI at each Institution through whom all questions and concerns will flow.  Additionally, if the collaborators will be reporting to or otherwise interacting with a third party, it may be appropriate to designate one PI as the Lead PI for the entire team to streamline both incoming and outgoing communication.

If this is a sponsored project, how will funds be distributed?  And on what schedule?

Nothing can sour a relationship faster than a dispute over money, especially when there are a gaggle of research personnel all claiming pieces of a single disbursement.  In the event that the collaborative effort is being funded by a third party, the PIs, their respective departments and ORAs should ALL be on the same page with respect to payment schedules and their respective amounts.