What are the most effective ways of sowing partnerships of researchers with colleagues from other countries? Collaboration, increasingly coveted to achieve productivity and relevance, is frequently greater than individual work or domestic partnerships, and is occurring with a greater degree of naturalness in the midst of a set of factors, one of the most important of which is the chance to get to know foreign colleagues informally in congresses and symposia. Also playing an important role in the frequency of collaboration are the cultural closeness between researchers, the existence of resources directed towards research in cooperation, in addition, naturally, to academic excellence and the technological development levels of the partners, which is natural fuel for carrying out top level joint work. These conclusions emerge from a study carried out by three researchers from South Korea that was published in the December edition of the journal Scientometrics. Written by Seongkyoon Jeong and Jae Young Choi, from the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials (KIMM), and Jaeyun Kim, from the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIIET), the article presents a statistical model, the purpose of which is to consider the importance of various factors in the creation of international partnerships, of collaboration within a country or same institution, or even the option of working individually.
The most significant fact in the article is the weight it gives to informal communication between researchers as a fundamental factor in stimulating partnerships. The authors observed, for example, a direct relationship between the frequency of international trips and the preference of researchers for publishing scientific articles in co-authorship with foreigners, as opposed to individual work. “The result shows how informal communication with a research unit abroad can accelerate international collaboration,” wrote Seongkyoon Jeong, main author of the paper and a researcher in the Department of Policies in Research and Development at the KIMM. The Internet and other information technology resources clearly favor long-distance communication between scientists, but evidence shows that most of the collaboration begins only after the parties have established personal contact. “Public policy formulators should encourage frequent, informal communication to encourage researchers to benefit from opportunities for international collaboration.”
The sample evaluated has its limits: a group of 1530 articles published between 1997 and 2010 was analyzed by researchers from the KIMM, a Korean government institute for research into mechanics, which operates as a bridge between universities and the industrial sector. These data were cross-checked with other information about the performance of researchers, such as for example, the national and international business trips they undertook in the period. The study discusses the motivation of those who collaborate most and offers suggestions to research institutions and development agencies to encourage their researchers to collaborate with more efficient strategies. In addition to encouraging informal communication, it recommends developing researcher evaluation processes and giving more weight to the academic production carried out in international partnerships in this evaluation process. It also recommends creating lines of financing that will stimulate research that has the potential for collaboration.
The idea that personal encounters with foreign colleagues will fertilize future partnerships coincides with the experience of Brazilian researchers. Vanderlei Salvador Bagnato, a professor at the São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC) of the University of São Paulo (USP), cites a recent example. In April, he coordinated a two-week course in São Carlos, The Advanced School of Modern Challenges with Quantum Matter: Atoms and Cold Molecules, with the participation of foreign speakers and students. The initiative forms part of a support modality from FAPESP, the São Paulo Schools of Advanced Science, which seeks to increase the international exposure of areas of research in São Paulo that are already competitive worldwide. In addition to discussing an emerging theme, according to Bagnato, the objective is to attract good students from abroad and from other states to work in São Paulo. As happens in all Advanced Schools, half the students invited came from other countries and the ambition of the program is that some of these apply for post-doctoral scholarships in Brazil. “The school was marvelous for us. Many of the students who took part want to come and study with us or do a post-doctorate. In particular, we have various German candidates who want to spend some months here to discuss post-doctoral possibilities,” says Bagnato. With regard to professors, several areas of collaboration emerged. “Researcher Natalia Berloff, from the University of Cambridge began collaborating with us and took one of my students to do a sandwich PhD program in England. Professor Makoto Tsubota, from the University of the City of Osaka, had already sent a visitor to our laboratory and we intend sending students there. Many other participants are collaborating with Professor Philippe Courteille, also from the USP Institute of Physics. I think that the school was a good window for us to bring foreigners here and establish strong collaboration built on solid pillars, because now they also know our institution and not just one of the researchers,” he explains.
Contrary to common sense
Samile Vanz, author of a PhD thesis on scientific collaboration in Brazil (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 169) and a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, believes that the findings of the South Korean group are an important starting point in the debate about collaboration and a guide to future studies. “There’s another side to the article that runs contrary to common sense, showing that a correlation was not observed between the fact of researchers having done a PhD abroad and an increase in international collaboration. As a matter of fact, the Brazilian development agencies have only funded PhDs abroad in a few cases, when it is a question of areas in which the country is still weak. They prefer to sponsor sandwich PhD programs and post-doctorates that take less time,” she says. “Of course this needs to be investigated in a much larger sample, but it suggests that the idea that it’s necessary to send researchers to do their PhDs abroad to globalize Brazilian science perhaps has a lesser impact than a strategy of investing in participation in symposia, congresses, visits and missions abroad, which is a less costly, more flexible option,” says Samile.
The researcher says that university bureaucracy and restricted development agency rules mean that Brazilian researchers travel abroad less than they should. “I speak from the experience of someone who works in a federal university. Authorization for a trip takes time and needs to be approved by various offices. It is also impossible to receive help more than once a year from the agencies. The funds for taking part in congresses or for bringing people from abroad for congresses here are also restricted,” she says. “There’s a long way to go in stimulating this informal interchange here in Brazil.”
Studies cited in the South Korean article show that the proportion of high impact papers grows as the number of authors per paper increases – if the co-authors are from different countries the number of citations is as much as twice those when the collaboration is within the same country. “Policy formulators have also encouraged collaboration on major initiatives under the influence of a new paradigm called Open Innovation,” wrote the authors, referring to a collaborative research model in which the flow of information allows ideas to be taken good advantage of, though not necessarily by those who generated them.
However, the desire to collaborate will have to face an obstacle course before being converted into papers published in co-authorship. Marcelo Knobel, a professor from the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics of the State University of Campinas, reports that only a fraction of the international contacts result in collaboration. “There are partnerships that begin promisingly but don’t get off the ground. The incompatibility may be one of timing. Interest exists, but one of the parties is not as available as the other. Sometimes the problem is over-confidence – one of the partners wants to publish right away and the other doesn’t. Or it’s over-zealousness – one of the parties wants to test 30 times and the other doesn’t think it’s necessary,” says Knobel, who has already established collaboration ties with more than 20 countries and is accustomed to welcoming visiting researchers of various nationalities to his laboratory (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 175). There are many reasons for collaborating, he says. “It may be the young researcher in search of knowledge from an older one, or the senior scientist with no more time to dedicate but needing the help of young talent. Sometimes it’s experimental researchers needing help from theoreticians, or vice-versa. Or it’s a specialist in a certain technique who is contacted by researchers in search of specific support,” he explains. Personal contact with colleagues from other countries is indispensable for the collaboration to thrive. “You don’t need to know a researcher to know what he’s doing. You just have to read his scientific work. But to form a partnership you need to have personal contact, see if tastes and interests are in tune, if the conversation has resonance. At the end of the day, that’s why so many congresses and symposia are held,” says the researcher, who in 2010 helped coordinate the Frontiers of Science symposium, organized by the Royal Society and by FAPESP, which brought together a group of 76 researchers from Brazil, the United Kingdom and Chile in Itatiba, in up-state São Paulo, to debate major issues of knowledge from a multidisciplinary viewpoint. “The objective of the symposium was precisely to get researchers talking to each other and encourage partnerships,” he says.
JEONG, S. et al. The determinants of research collaboration modes: exploring the effects of research and researcher characteristics on co-authorship. Scientometrics. v. 89, p. 967-83. 2011.