research collaboration – do we need research pre-nups?

I’ve recently heard some stories about research collaborations that have gone wrong. I can’t give away too many details, but suffice it to say that at least some of the difficulty appeared to be caused by conflicting expectations and miscommunications. But the legacy of these break-ups is pretty toxic – feelings of confusion and resentment towards the other party, as well as trepidation about future collaborations. In each of the recent cases, the collaborators didn’t know each other very well.

At a time when universities are urging people to work together, and working hard to arrange research marriages – even going so far as to organise speed research dating events – I think it might be helpful to think about some kind of research project pre-nup*. This could address the issues that cause trouble in research projects and make clear the ways in which they might be resolved. A research pre-nup might also describe the kinds of problems that would constitute irrevocable breakdown of the partnership.

I’ve started working on just such a research pre-nup agreement, and I’d be grateful for advice about what else should go in and what should be omitted.

Issues to agree on:

(1) Who will be named as PI and who will be named as CoI?
This is not a straightforward matter. Sometimes the answer to this question is dictated by the source of funding, sometimes not.
But there are also questions such as:
• Who initiated the project?
• Is anyone contributing more intellectual property than an/other(s)?
• Who has the most significant track record in the area?
• Whose career might benefit from being PI? Who needs to be CoI in order to establish track record?

(2) Who will direct and/or manage the project?
Project direction generally refers to steerage of the intellectual agenda of the project, ensuring that data is generated, thorough analysis is conducted and papers and reports are written on time. This is usually the PI’s responsibility.
Management of a project can include all or some of: employment and line management of project staff, management of budgets, steerage of ethics applications, coordination of team meetings, circulation of information, organization or supervision of the organization of conference attendance, public engagement events and so on.
The project manager is not necessarily the same person as the PI. There may be good reasons why it is better for a CoI to take on the task of management – career development, experience, location.

(3) How will project decisions be made?
While it is important to have clear role agreements for the project team, there will inevitably be ongoing decisions that need to be made about progress and direction. There may be new opportunities or unforeseen crises. It is important to be clear about who needs to be consulted and who needs to be involved in making decisions, and whether decisions need to be collaborative or whether one person has the final say.

(4) How will the project be represented, disseminated and authored?
All research projects need to be disseminated. Sometimes they require consultation with key players. They may benefit from social media or mainstream media publication. There will also be the need to present research at conferences and to publish either articles or books.
These tasks can be seen either as opportunities and benefits, or as obligations – sometimes they are both. It is important that decisions about these are decided at the outset. Questions to consider include:
• Who speaks for the project?
• Who will maintain the social media?
• Who decides what conferences to go to and who will go?
• Who decides what will be written?
• How will everyone who needs to be published get an opportunity to do so?
• How will author order be determined?

(5) What would constitute a breakdown of the research partnership?
Not doing enough work? Not doing things on time? Who decides what is enough? Doing things without consultation? How will this be communicated and to whom?

So that’s a start on a research pre-nup. What do you reckon? What else needs to go in? Should these decisions be recorded, or is a discussion between consenting adults sufficient?

*pre-nup = an agreement describing what will happen in a marriage and in a break-up. Usually focussed on property and power. In the case of marriage, also generally legally binding.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authorship, CoI, collaborative research, PI, research, research pre-nup, research project and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to research collaboration – do we need research pre-nups?

  1. Hello Pat — these are great questions that you raise and importantly, this is an area of work that is fraught. Personally, I like the idea of something in writing. More so if working with people not really known to oneself. Of course it has to be agreed, and it can also be an important artefact to go back to every now and then to make sure it is relevant. The difficulty is the unspoken power relationships often embedded in research relationships. The idea of a pre-nup appeals to me and speaks to making all matters discussable and transparent. Tanya


  2. Megan says:

    Hi Pat,
    I would add key review points were these questions are responded to by each member of the research team (say every 6months or shifts in the reseach phases). It would be excellent for evaluation and for a mindful research practice. Also flexibility can be incorporated in timely way, as things change for people.


  3. Kirsten Besemer says:

    Very true!

    ….and 3b) how will the team stay in touch? How often will there be meetings and at whose university? How will work be coordinated between members? – especially if universities are far apart.



  4. Julie says:

    Interesting idea Pat!

    If I may suggest another for section (4): How many authors will eventually be on papers.

    If citation count holds some importance for you then papers with many co-authors can be difficult to cite.


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  7. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Hi Pat

    The metaphor of the prenuptial agreement is brilliant! It is easy for everybody to understand what it is and why it is necessary. Also, everybody can see that it should be written down – too often these conversations happen but they don’t get documented.

    For me, the two key questions are:

    When something goes wrong, how will we sort it out?
    Who gets what (as percentages, please)?

    I say ‘percentages’ because we don’t get what we ask for. I’ve seen people construct a $20,000 + $40,000 = $60,000 budget. When they are offered a grant of $45,000, the first partner says, “I need my full $20,000 or I can’t do my bit”, while the second partner responds, “But that only leaves $25,000 to do my $40,000 portion.” Sad faces all around. An discussion about 33% versus 66% would have revealed this problem before the application was submitted.

    The ‘who gets what’ discussion can also cover equipment left over after the project is finished, intellectual property and who gets what credit from the project (which you have covered).

    For me, this comes under the rubric of ‘project planning’. In theory, people should sort it out when they write the application, but it doesn’t happen that way. Some people are worried that these questions are too sensitive for a new, ‘fragile’ partnership. I don’t see it that way – I think that early discussions help to strengthen the relationship, not weaken it. Working out the budget can be a good way to structure these discussions. Tseen touched on some of this in her Research Whisperer post, Conquer the budget, conquer the project.

    I would love it if more people did this! I look forward to adding the final list to my handy research administrators toolbox.


    • Megan says:

      Hi Jonathan,
      Percentages are an excellent idea… Makes you think about the possibilities of scope and scale. Will be using.


  8. Sara says:

    For the last few years, I’ve run workshops on establishing collaborations and have used this as an activity – the range of topics discussed is diverse, but I point people to the NIH Ombudsman [] as they have a great starting list of questions (albeit with a bias towards the disciplines they support). One I do recall from a discussion with quite senior academics was the idea that there should be a “birth certificate” for a project ( a pre-nup as you describe), but also a “death certificate” which closes down the project at the end and all the issues about potential on-going work and “spin-off” projects should be openly discussed. There also needs to be an acceptance that it might be impossible to take ownership of ideas which are created collaboratively (but that is probably more about choosing the right collaborators which is a whole other topic…).


  9. Hi Pat, thanks for this posting. I’m imagining there are quite a few ways these roles and obligations could be ‘sliced up’, and I would love to read some case studies using this framework, whether from projects that planned it all out ahead of time or others where sensible solutions emerged organically.


  10. Agree we need some form of “papering” to help guide the successful operation and eventual dissolution of the collaboration. This happens all the time when money changes hands (usual in collaborations between university and gov’t/industry partners) but even if money isn’t changing hands other valuable consideration is being exchanged. I think it important to document the parameters of the collaboration but to fall short of long and complex agreements where all parties need lawyers


  11. Carrie Stewart says:

    Hi Pat

    This is an excellent article, and well needed in the research field! I feel we need a stronger emphasis on project management in research, and that to get this started, perhaps a top down approach would be better (i.e required by the funding bodies and institutions). Projects need to be formalised from the beginning, and more time spent on planning- now just what we hope to do, but how it will be done, who will do it, who is responsible for what pieces of work. Communications need to be strengthened- planned from the beginning- who, how and when. There appears to be no consideration of risk (perhaps this is my experience only)- we are very good at identifying ethical risks to dodge the ethics committee, but seem to spend little/no time considering the risks of the project- what if project members leave, what if there is a change to funding, what if the resources we are need become unavailable. All researchers should be trained in project management, and should build time/costs in to their projects to MANAGE their project. Most projects fail/ go wrong because of poor management. Also, ALL team members, managers, sponsor/funders must agree on the aims/plans/management strategies of the project- this gets ‘buy in’ from everyone and increases your chance of success.


    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      There is an implied top-down requirement from funding agencies. Many (most?) major funding agencies require a description of the roles of the team members and a list of past grants. When describing the role of the team members, people should make it clear what management processes are in place, and reference past grants where they have undertaken these roles (if possible).

      I’ve certainly seen applications criticized because the research team don’t appear to have enough project management experience. I’ve also seen that section of an application criticized because it wasn’t clear that project management issues weren’t addressed.

      However, this requirement is generally only implied, and there are good reasons for that. Most funding agencies want people to self-organise, as they see this as the best way to fund the best research. Proscribed processes tend to be conservative and slow to change. There has been a lot of change in how teams work together in the last fifteen years – more use of the Internet, leading to more flexible arrangements and more international involvement, for example. A proscribed top-down approach would need to cope with that pace of change.

      So I’m happy for it to remain implied, rather than have funding agencies require a specific pre-nup.


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  13. ASEAN academic says:

    Hi Pat, I really like this article. I think maybe one element to consider is that there may be some significant levels of inequality in these arranged marriages which lead to such difficult break-ups – break-ups which may be far more damaging to one party than the other (in terms of career progression and personal feelings). If an early career researcher is paired with an older more established professor (which often seems to happen) then there are certainly ethical issues to do with professional conduct on the part of the more senior partner. This can also be stretched to the popular pairing of academics from ‘developed’ countries with those from ‘developing’ nations, the latter of whom often seem to be left out after they’ve provided the data and done the ground-work while the former’s career blossoms as an ‘ethnic’ specialist (!). Maybe ECRs need to be made more aware of their ‘rights’ and older colleagues of their ‘responsibilities’ in such a paring? Hence I feel your issues suggest a kind of ‘code of conduct’ and may be more in the interests of some colleagues than others.


  14. Hi Pat,
    I think yes definitely, research teams could be better equipped to manage themselves. I subscribe to Schein’s theories. I’m a great believer in exploring the unspoken, assumed processes such as values, cultural norms and emotions (intra and interpersonal) before embarking on the task in hand. I’ve experienced situations where relatively simple tasks have seemed to get further and further away as a collaboration ties itself in knots, and also situations where an initial process of inquiry revealed where potential conflict could occur and also where the common ground was, which led to closer relationships that fostered trust, flexibility and win-win solutions.

    So I like the questions in your pre-nup which focus on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’, and I think there could be more that could draw out those deeper levels of values, culture and emotions. This may not necessarily need to be written down in detail, but at least discussed and summarised.


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