Jenny Delasalle is the editor of the Piirus Blog. She is also a freelance copywriter and librarian, currently based in Berlin, Germany. This means that she works collaboratively and remotely with the rest of the Piirus team.
Jenny has over fifteen years of experience of working in academic libraries, and is interested in scholarly communications, bibliometrics, copyright and many other things besides.
We are pleased to publish her article describing research collaboration and Piirus, a not-for-profit service provided by the University of Warwick.
Contacts and collaboration are increasingly important to researchers. From the sparking of early ideas, to co-authorship which increases outputs and helps authors to reach new audiences, and on again to partnerships with organisations or industry which offer sources of funding and routes to impact: collaboration activities are increasingly seen as a part of research excellence.
The importance of collaboration
As the 2014 UK government report “Growing the best and brightest: the drivers of research excellence” (3 Mb PDF) identifies, features of successful collaborations include personal contacts and openness. Curt Rice, from the University of Tromsø points out that co-authorship is sometimes seen as a sign of co-operativeness, and is on the increase. Curt refers to the so-called “Matthew effect”, where “those who have much, get more”, a phenomenon also identified in bibliometric studies and that once more emphasise the importance of a researcher’s network of contacts.
How to make valuable connections
So, how do researchers forge the personal contacts that might lead to successful collaborations?
One way might be to meet researchers in person, perhaps at a conference, but this takes time and costs money. And, depending on your luck and persistence, you might not actually get to meet the people whose work is most relevant to your needs.
Another way would be to search for researchers online, and engage with researchers through social media. This also takes time, and does your online profile signal your current research interests? Most web content focuses on researchers’ past achievements, rather than where they would like to go next, so you wouldn’t be able to identify the best possible future collaborators from such web searches.
Sometimes, the contacts that you need to meet are not those with the same research interests as you, who might be at the same conferences as you or turn up in your usual research processes, but those with tangential relevance, from other disciplines or other cultures. It is even harder to meet suitable research partners when you have to cross disciplinary boundaries, too.
There is some excellent advice on collaborative science from Columbia University, which also outlines the trend towards more collaborative research and covers issues including potential problems and ways to enhance collaboration.
The digital difference
Social media tools like Twitter and blogs, as well as networking sites like LinkedIn and Academia.edu and Piirus can all play a role in helping researchers to get in touch with each other. Some researchers are highly engaged in social media already, as the plethora of social media hashtags for researchers, like #ECRchat and #FieldworkFriday testify. Other researchers may be interested in guides like the Digital Identity Health Check (114 kB PDF) from Piirus, which explains the benefits of improving your online profile as an academic and gives practical tips on how to do so.
With so many networking sites available, it’s hard to know which one to use for what (39 kB PDF, updated 16 April 2016). They each have their strengths, and many would advocate being everywhere!
The simplest way to do this is to maintain one, up-to-date profile, while getting all the others to point to that. You’ll find different communities on each site, and they will also be able to find you.
Room for a new approach
The problem is that just because you once wrote a paper about, say, dermatitis, that doesn’t mean that you’re currently interested in it, or that you’ll be researching it in years to come. Many of these sites are full of information about your previous research.
When you move into a new area, you need new connections, and if you’re looking for research collaborations then you want to find people who will also be working in that area in the future. What if they are also moving into that area for the first time?
This is especially important for researchers who want to get involved with cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary projects. How do you know which new areas of research your expertise might be relevant to, if looked at from a different discipline?
This is why the University of Warwick has created Piirus, as a free tool for matching researchers to each other with a view to collaboration. It’s all about crossing disciplines and finding connections on an international scale. And it’s very quick to use: you don’t have to enter all the same information all over again to use Piirus: you can create a profile in 5 mins on your smart phone, and find contacts straight away.
Piirus and real researchers!
Piirus surveyed over 340 researchers worldwide in 2014, and found that 79% of researchers think that international collaboration increases research productivity, among other benefits.
And there are stories from researchers who’ve used Piirus:
“In Greek, Piirus is something that connects two parts but continues to allow them to function independently. It is also the name of a river that took its name because it managed to penetrate a mountain and find a way through. So, for me, Piirus means ‘connect to overcome obstacles and go forwards’. Could there be any better reason to join?” – Sotirios Plakas, Athens, Greece.
While working in Karachi, Pakistan, educationist and researcher Maryam Moula Bakhsh realised that the best way to improve health sciences in developing countries is to enable people to become aware of advancements in healthcare and education beyond their own experiences and contexts. Piirus has become a vital part of Maryam’s campaign, enabling her to encourage students, graduates and healthcare professionals in Karachi to reach out around the world and broaden their horizons through contact with researchers in similar and related fields.
Marcos Garcia-Fuentes, a researcher of nanotechnology and advanced materials based at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, relies on international and multidisciplinary collaborations to help him with testing and translating his theoretical work into relevant and useful practices. Since joining Piirus, Marcos and his new connections have made real strides towards finding smarter and more effective ways to do research.
For Mohammad Ali Elminejad, an early career researcher in Bologna, Italy, finding and connecting with like-minded colleagues who shared his research interests was proving a challenge, with locked doors at every turn. After spending many days searching a number of online platforms without success, he discovered the Piirus website – which he now refers to as his ‘skeleton key’ – and a world of opportunities began to open up.
Once the connections are made
Finding researchers for collaboration is just one part of the journey, of course. Piirus’ blog offers tips for research collaboration and guides on themes like co-authorship. There are also lots of great stories about collaboration to be found here on the Research Whisperer blog.