Sunday, 6 May 2012

Research Triangle

Over the years, various colleagues have explained to me their personal beliefs about what they consider the optimal number of PIs involved in research projects, not for any particular research project, but just in general. The proposed optimal number of collaborators is most typically 1 or 2, although some people make a case for higher numbers.

Note that these hypotheses refer to general situations, not necessarily to any particular individual or project. This is mostly a "thought exercise"; fodder for musing and discussion. In real life, of course, the nature of the project, the culture of the discipline, the amount and type of funding available, the type of institution, and the personalities and career stages of the people involved are important in determining the Optimal Number of Collaborators (ONC). Some people prefer to work alone, so for them, the ONC =  0. In my own case, the ONC is a very stable 1-2, but I am happy to work in larger groups for some projects.

I say "mostly" a thought exercise instead of entirely, because I know of some cases in which the organizational structure of a research unit (and even the design of research space) has been planned based on a hypothesis about the ONC.

The theoretical limit of certain types of grants can also affect this. For example, with most NSF grants (at least in my field), it's possible to have 2-3 collaborators, but more than that would blow the budget up beyond a reasonable (fundable) limit.

Eveb so, is there a general ONC that applies in many cases, considering mostly human factors such as how many people are likely to get along well and have good, productive discussions and overall collegial relationships? That is, can we say, without being too far from unrealistic, "The most productive and collegial collaborations involve n people"? Does anyone want to make a case, for yourself or for the wider world of researchers, for:

ONC = 1: collaboration with one other person, perhaps even the same person on many different projects over the course of a career (= research line, or dyad?);

ONC = 2: collaboration with two other people (= research triangle);

ONC = 3: collaboration with three other people (= research quadrilateral);

.. and so on, with various polygons describing higher ONCs.

And does anyone want to generalize about ONC > 3? Do these collaborations tend to be more/less productive than smaller groups owing to their larger size (the bigger the group, the more research results), or does the increased chance of personality clashes, miscommunication etc. make (some of) them more unwieldy than the lean, mean research machines of smaller teams?

I am veering back and forth between the general and the personal here because there are two different levels of questions I am posing:

(1) Do you think that in general the ONC concept is relevant to the World of Research? (and if so, what is the ONC?); and

(2) What is your personal ONC for most projects (or does this number vary a lot?), and do these collaborators tend to be the same ones for project after project, or do you play the field with collaborators and work with many different people (even if your ONC doesn't change)?

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