Lost in translation? Collaborative research with overseas partners

With funding such as the £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) specifically focussing on international collaboration, working with overseas organisations will continue to be a focus for UK higher education institutions. While international collaboration can have many benefits, working across geographies and cultures also produces many challenges.

As a relative newcomer to research administration and management, I was keen to learn from my colleagues, both at the University of Stirling and further afield about what I should expect from international collaboration and how to learn from their experiences.

To that end, in May 2018, I conducted a small quantitative study aimed at research managers and administrators (RMA) to gather insights into their experiences and practices of international collaboration, which received 64 responses. I was then fortunate to be able to present the results of this study at the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) conference in June 2018.

Lisa Farrell INORMS 2018

Responses came from as far afield as Gabon and Vietnam, but originated largely from the UK, and represented a fairly even split across fellow newcomers up to 'well-seasoned experts with over 13 years' experience as an RMA. Around a third of respondents identified as 'pre-award admin', and a further 40% as 'management' or 'senior management'.

Research collaborations were wide-spread across the globe, but showed some areas of concentrated research effort. Although UK connections to Anglophone states could be expected, as could collaborations with nearest European neighbours, enhanced activity with China, India, South Africa and Brazil could be seen as the result of funder stimulation.

Research collaboration map

Over 40 funders were identified as having contributed financially to the research projects that survey respondents had supported, with the British Council, the Royal Society and the UK Research councils being the most common backers of international collaborative research. To a lesser extent, international collaborative research was funded by private enterprises, foreign governments and research councils, as well as successive European programmes such as FP7 and Horizon 2020.

Charities were also commonly used as a means to fund international research with the Wellcome Trust, Leverhulme Trust and the Gates Foundation regularly cited as sources of income.

In essence, the feedback shows a wide range of funders support international collaboration, albeit with different priorities. GCRF related funds will focus on engaging with developing countries, others in increasing business opportunities overseas and others still purely for the advancement of science.

Challenges and opportunities

The aim of my research was to first audit the challenges and opportunities of cross-boundary research, then identify best practice from collective experience of peers.

To focus on the positives, the major benefits identified were numerous and fell into broad categories of: benefits to research; benefits for the UK institution; and new learning for the management/ administrative professional.

Similarly, the identified challenges of working collaboratively grouped into two camps, focussing on cultural/ political differences and practical obstacles such as, working across time zones - the most popular responses were:

Top 4 benefits

  • Learned about new funders or methods of research funding
  • Increased dissemination reach
  • Increased research impact
  • COnnected to new communities, groups or datasets

Top 4 challenges

  • Language and other cultural barriers
  • Time zones
  • Cultural attitudes towards timing and deadlines
  • Cultural attitudes towards financial sytems and transparency

We can see that the most commonly cited benefits show overseas collaborative research is important for both the pre-award priority of finding suitable funding, as well as providing a boost for the outputs of research, namely dissemination and impact.

In terms of challenges, we see cross-cultural differences become apparent in responses from the cohort. Language is the top barrier, perhaps obviously so. However, attitudes towards timing and finance also pose potential for problems in collaboration.

To address the challenges identified in the previous section, survey respondents were asked to identify measures that would assist in overcoming the challenges of working with overseas collaborators. The most popular measure was simply regularly sharing of best practice across the UK higher education network, followed by a call for an industry standard due diligence process. Respondents also expressed a need for greater flexibility and guidance both from funders and their own institutions when developing an international proposal.

Finally, the survey requested experience and learnings to be shared with me and a number of practical suggestions emerged. Time and time-management was the most often suggested measure for success, this ranged from starting proposals early, not underestimating the amount of time needed and also taking into account differing time zones.

Face-to-face meetings and generally getting to know those involved overseas was also a very popular suggestion. It was felt by respondents that meeting personally developed trust and understanding and allowed ring-fenced time for discussing a project in detail as well as understanding each party's priorities and ways of working.

In summary, international collaborative research is not without its challenges, but the benefits are numerous and compelling. Much knowledge and learning has been built within the RMA community around international collaborations and there is an appetite to regularly share experience.

Of particular importance to survey participants was trust and risk management and an industry standard due diligence process would be welcomed by a majority of respondents.

If you are interested in taking this conversation further then please get in touch with me via Twitter (@ResearchLisa) or email: Lisa.farrell@stir.ac.uk


Lisa Farrell works as a Research Development Officer at the University of Stirling's Research & Innovation Services department

Last modified on 13/08/2018
Tags: research, Member Communities, ACU Research, Knowledge and Information Community, higher education