Four rules for long distance collaborations

One trend of ecology, science, and life generally is increasingly doing work with people who are not physically in the same location.

Some examples of collaborating remotely that are part of my academic life include:

  1. Students in different locations – some of these have been my fault (i.e. I moved to a new university and left behind students I was supervising and needed to find a way to continue supervising). Some of these have been the student’s requirements (often involving spousal or SO constraints). (See Yi Han’s post on Yvonne Buckley’s website for another discussion of remotely advising students)
  2. Working groups – although the whole point of a working group is to get people together in one place, working groups invariably demand working remotely a good chunk of the time too. I have a post planned for the near future on how to make a successful working group, but one piece is certainly just the generic problem of collaborating remotely.
  3. Collaborations assembled for reasons of complementary expertise among people in different locations to do research. One of my best and most productive collaborations right now is with two people in Scotland and one in Vermont. Aside from student/adviser type papers, it is getting increasingly rare  these days to see multi-author papers where all the authors are at the same university or the same city these days.

It is claimed that technology makes us “one world”. I’m pretty sure this is overhype on the part of the technologists 🙂 But it is true that skype and equivalents, drop box and equivalents, google docs and equivalents, etc have made things possible that weren’t possible even in the days of telephone and email. Although even there, I remember a project 20 years ago where a co-worker and I were porting a complex (1 million lines of code) product to a new operating system (Windows NT to date myself). I was in London, he was in Boston, but it was extremely efficient. Just as I was finishing I would email him where I was at and he could pick up just as his day was starting and all we needed was email and web-based source code management (and extremely rarely a telephone). But he was a close friend that I had worked with for years – we could practically anticipate each others next move.

Which brings me to what I think is the most important aspect of long distance collaborations. The technology has changed. But the social challenges have not changed and remain huge. Indeed, if I had to boil down my rules for long distance collaborations to just one sentence it is “Humans are still primates”. The social dynamics are extremely important and should not be ignored under the illusion that a collaboration relies merely on intellectual exchange of ideas which is easily solved by passive technology. Making a long-distance collaboration work requires a VERY ACTIVE attention to social maintenance. I can guarantee you things will sour quickly if this is ignored.

So although the following four rules are just elaborations on this point, here are my four rules of long distance collaboration:

  1. They have to start with a significant component of face to face time. I don’t think I’ve ever had a successful collaboration that begin and remained primarily on Skype. Beginnings are delicate, critical times, and face-to-face meetings are the key to success in these delicate beginnings. This is built into working-groups – indeed is the reason d’etre of places like NCEAS, sDiv, etc is to make the quality face-to-face time at the beginning of a collaboration happen. This also applies to working with students remotely – I refuse to do it if we can’t find a way to overlap in the same place for an extended period at the beginning (usually 1-2 years for Phd students, 3 monts for postdocs). My successful collaborations on papers also involve people I already know in person from working groups, repeated discussions at ESA, etc. While talking science during this early face-to-face time is useful, what is really important is establishing a rapport. Eating together, socializing together, cracking jokes together. Taking an adventure (be it to a scenic vista or a restaurant in a strange town) All these social trust building functions are what is most important. Rationally right brained people will scoff at this, but ignore this at your peril! Just be glad we’re hairless primates and don’t need to groom each other for lice to build social bonds!
  2. Schedule unstructured time – Beyond building social bonds and trust, another important feature of being in the same place is the occurrence of chance meetings that involve conversations that are not directed at a purpose. An obvious part of working remotely is talking by phone/skype/email to move the project forward. But if you only have these goal-oriented discussions, things will not go as well. Thus it is important to schedule time where you are “just talking” and conversations can meander and go to new (and hopefully exciting and innovative) places. Such unstructured time also leaves room for the occasional joke, how are the kids?, etc per #1. Being overly goal oriented on the phone/skype can kill a collaboration.
  3. Continue to make face-to-face meetings happen – Although #1 and #2 are the core ingredients, it is important in long-lasting collaborations to make sure that even if #1 and #2 happen additional face-to-face, same-location time happens. With remote students I try to make sure they spend at least a week per semester in the same building with me (and a month is better). With collaborators I try to get together at least once per year, sometimes only over dinner at ESA but often via multiple sesisons of a working group or even travelling to meet (I just spent 3 days in a random hotel in the middle of generic suburbia Connecticut as it was the best way to get four of us together).
  4. Make sure everybody has a quality work environment – This applies mostly to working with students or postdocs, but if they are not going to be in my lab, it is important that they have a productive work environment wherever they’re located. The idea that they’re going to work from home or from Starbucks is not a good idea. Students not in my lab all need to find a lab in a university where they are located so they have a desk and a weekly meeting with live, in-the-flesh people.

Those are my four core rules. I want to be clear that successful remote collaborations are relatively rare and hard. There are lots of studies that show that being next door is a lot better than being downstairs which is a lot better than being a couple of buildings over which is a lot better than being cross campus which is a lot better than being remote. As a physical setting, remote is at the bottom of the list. But there are times and circumstances when it can pay off (or where a collaboration you already invested in has to turn into a remote one). But in those times don’t kid yourself – you are starting the race behind and need to put extra energy into overcoming that deficit. Being highly proactive about #1-#4 in collaborations I care about is the formula I have learned over some successes and many failures (going all the way back into my business days).

What is your formula? Do you even participate in remote collaborations? If so what are the keys to making it work for you?

This entry was posted in Advice by Brian McGill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

11 thoughts on “Four rules for long distance collaborations

  1. Many of my main collaborators are in Brazil, and all of these ring true – we are sometimes more productive in a week spent tucked away in someones office or at someones house (away from distractions but close to cold beer) than in 6 months of emailing back and forth. This is one of the reasons meetings are so important, especially for people doing international field work – they are a chance to reconnect away from the day-to-day.

    The other thing that has worked for us is student exchanges – many of my collaborators’ students will spend 3-12 months in my lab working on their thesis and maybe auditing classes they can’t take at their home institutions. A few of these have ended up matriculating here as my PhD students, so it further strengthens the collaboration. My students also have a home base in their labs when abroad.

    I think this is an under appreciated topic, so I’m glad you brought it up. Even at UF, where loads of people do international (especially tropical) field work, we don’t discuss it enough. However, this paper was written by a group of our students and I think would be a useful read for those who are look for guidance on how to sustain engagement with collaborators and others in their remote field sites:

    Duchelle, A.E., K. Biedenweg, C. Lucas, J. Radachowsky, D. Wojcik, M. Londres, D. Alvira, W. Bartels, A.Virapongse, and K.A. Kainer.2009. Graduate students and knowledge exchange with local stakeholders: Possibilities and preparation. Biotropica 41(5): 578-585

    It’s supposed to be behind a paywall, but a link mysteriously appeared on the Editor-in-Chief’s webpage so I assume it’s ok to share it:

    Alternatively, you can find the article is on the publishers web page:

    • Thanks for the many useful comments.

      You raise a great point about students as a way to enhance collaborations. I find having a PhD student visit my lab for a semester or so is increasingly common, and it is a great way not just to build collaborations with the student but with their home lab as well. (And lest any graduate students reading this have doubts in my experience it is a great experience for the students too). I have my first such student from Brazil visiting my lab this fall and I am looking forward to it.

      • Hosting students brings other benefits, too – did the invite to participate in the symposium at UFMG come from that interactions? First time to Brazil?

        I think Grad Students Sabbaticals are a great idea and that faculty should encourage them not only because they are good for their students, but because they can strengthen or launch their own collaborations too. We tend to be campus-focused for skill development, but there is plenty of support out there for students to do the same thing via short-term international experience.

  2. Thanks Brian, an interesting post! Just thought you and other readers might be interested in a few papers on this topic, which I first encountered thanks to Jon Cummings from the School of Management at Duke, who worked a bit with NESCENT on this issue. (I really don’t know this field well, so this is just the few papers I’ve chanced to come across): shows the relative cost of adding more remote collaborators has on prodcutivity, with the cute result that it’s harder to coordinate across distance than across disciplines. Another of his pieces focuses on who does interdisciplinary collaboration well:, which echoes the social attention also found in distance collaboration. I also enjoyed this review by other authros that ranges from the role time zones to technology, comfortable seats and leadership style:

  3. Agree with all your points. At this point, my remote collaborations > my same-site collaborations, which is what happens when you move 3 times in 4 years.

    There’s also a practice component. I think that people who are used to remote collaborations are better at it. They know to check in and are frequently available for quick questions via social media.

    One thing that I think is key for specific projects is to be clear on who’s doing what. Since you’re less likely to catch duplicate effort being remote, it pays to talk details.

    And I find that the social side is easier if the priority of a project is the same for group members. If it’s high priority for everyone, it works very well. If it’s a side project for everyone, it may go slowly, but everyone gets along. What’s much harder socially is if it’s an important project for one person, but a side project for a remote collaborator. Dropping by someone’s office feels less pushy than repeated emails, for example.

    And, like you, I’ve found that collaborations cross-hemisphere can be super efficient. I work on a paper today, collaborator in Europe or Africa adds comments while I sleep, and the next day I can start my day with those comments. Of course, calls are harder to schedule with the time difference.

    • I strongly agree with both your points about people with practice are better at this and that it is important for the project to be equal priority for all participants.

  4. Cheers for this Brian. I’ve learned #3 the hard way. The one time I organized a working group, I made the mistake of just assuming that people would keep beavering away on the group’s work once they all returned to their home universities, without much need for nagging from me or deadlines or etc. I think I was misled by the fact that everybody absolutely worked their butts off during the times when we were all together. I assumed that that momentum would just continue by itself once we all went our separate ways.

    • Yeah – that is a hard problem in working groups. Repeat meetings is the single best solution I’ve found. Regular conference calls is the 2nd best.

  5. This is a great post, and has already had some great responses. Kendra Cheruvelil at MSU has a paper (I’m a co-author, but Kendra did a great job putting the paper together) in Frontiers In Ecology and Evolution ( that helps put some of this into perspective, “Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills” in the Macrosystems Special Issue. There are a number of web supplements for the paper that are really helpful for teams looking to get engagement, build communication, and resolve conflict. A great anecdote about the importance of Face to Face time comes from Herb Wright and Pat Bartlein’s reflections on the success of COHMAP in the 1980s, where they specifically cite the unstructured time on the University of Wisconsin’s Terrace, overlooing Lake Mendota (1993, in the Holocene:

    That said, I really like the point you make with Point 4. Even within bigger, distributed teams, it is important to advocate for a safe, scholarly and respectful work environment for all team members.

  6. Pingback: Does the myth of the solo genius scientist contribute to imposter syndrome? | Dynamic Ecology

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