Working together

Collaboration in Psychological Science: Behind the Scenes, by Richard L. Zweigenhaft & Eugine Borgida (Eds.) (Worth; Pb £31.99), reviewed by Andreas Lieberoth PhD who is Assistant Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark.

I very much wanted to review the new Collaboration in Psychological Science because I deeply believe that understanding collaboration is key to achieving how science is really made possible.

I have two offices. One is at the end of a long hall of closed university doors. Mine is usually closed too. The other office has no door, and the wall is made of glass. I go to my first office to get things done – urgent writing, boring reading and private meetings. Things that work best behind a closed door. But I much prefer my other office. The one with a glass wall. It is at the Aarhus University Interacting Minds Center. In that office, I’m close to my research group, I can spot colleagues on their way to the kitchenette, and friends from other departments usually pop their heads in to say hello when at the centre for a meeting or seminar. In my experience collaboration across (sub)disciplines is essential for psychological science to advance, and to make itself useful in the real world.

Collaboration in Psychological Science contains snapshots of collaborations in psychology and beyond. Though a line-up of papers/essays we get to go behind the scenes for both an inside look at lifelong writer pairs and peeks at post-mortems for more short-lived projects.The book is made highly readable by the fact that chapters read like a little scientific (auto)biographies, peppered with recent science history, personal observations and (often funny) anecdotes. Most stories are then topped off with short but substantive discussions on the research topic that emerged from the collaborations, and reflections on what makes or breaks collaborations between researchers.

Quite a few of the contributors are also noteworthy students of social and organisational processes, and all offer useful expert analyses on the process of collaboration. Recommendations include:

  • Diversity is good – but still choose collaborators with a shared perspective.
  • Use collaboration as a social support, as well as a means of productivity.
  • Be mindful that language and impact expectations may differ between academic areas (and between academics and practitioners).
  • Be crystal clear about divisions of labour and credit expected.
  • Be aware of social loafing.

These themes and lines of advice are collected in the concluding best practice section which is worth a read in itself.

Psychology can be many things, so we are very likely to stumble into other fields. Even if I am primarily a media psychologist these days, my applied outlook often takes me into social psychology, behavioural economics and ethnography – even projects with traffic researchers, foodstuff entomologists and game designers. Zweigenhaft and Borgida’s book mirrors this tendency to mix and (hopefully) match.

While the first 10 chapters of Collaboration in Psychological Science examine collaborations between psychologists, the second part of the book discusses some of these interdisciplinary collaborations. Finally, the third section delves into how psychologists have worked with industry and community.

Topics range from how cross-disciplinary convergences led to the birth of a Political Psychology programme at the University of Minnesota, to getting otherwise unattainable data though work with marketing researchers or law enforcement officers.  Many different threads emerge, but the book has a clear editorial line, with each writer (or set of writers) telling their own story and reflecting on collaboration as a general phenomenon, as well as lessons learned.

Pairings range from chance meetings to faculty alliances and student–supervisor dyads. For instance, being from two completely different cultures, with different initial interests in the differences between Japan and USA, allowed Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kiyatama to develop interesting questions about cultural psychology. By contrast, Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid were the only two young women in their university department at a time where females weren’t allowed in the faculty lounge (especially not wearing trousers!): A shared situation that not only led them to mutual support, but also to explore iconoclastic lines of inquiry.

Seemingly universal roots of alignment, productivity and conflict are discovered, as are historical themes. For instance, I enjoyed pondering how communications technologies and geographical mobility have changed opportunities for my generation of researchers. There is a long way from sending typewritten manuscripts in the mail for revision and comments, and concerns over long-distance phone bills, to how we now work smoothly together online.

The book is neither entirely biography, history, a collection on collaboration studies, nor a psychology theory sampler. It is a bit of all four. As the title implies, it focuses on ‘psychological science’, which means a heavier emphasis on developing theories and studies in social, cognitive and experimental psychology, with quite a few discussions of how (not) to develop teaching departments, publish papers, and attain tenure. If you are clinician, educator or other practitioner, you will therefore get little by way of practical information applicable outside an academic context.

What will I be using the book for? First of all, I expect that this book will be left out on tables quite a bit. Collaboration in Psychological Science is exactly what I like to signal to visitors who haven’t picked up on my propensity to turn my glass-wall office into a display of books and research gadgets. The personal story in each chapter means that it makes for a pleasant travel paperback or bedside read in the same manner as any biography. It’s part storytelling, part analysis, and part psychology trivia. Not a bad combination for a long flight.

Finally, I will be taking nuggets of specific advice away from this book for myself. For instance, wonky collaborations can be analysed in terms of contributions and hierarchies, which may or may not be perceived alike by everyone involved. Such misalignments can muddle communication, bring work to a standstill, or sour credit given. And, sadly, agreeing to too many interesting projects with interesting people at once, may actually end up making you a bad collaborator for everyone.

Every reader, whether professional, student or researcher, will find bits and pieces that match their own situation. While not a textbook or traditional light read, Collaboration in Psychological Science is a fresh peek into the messy process of how science comes to be, and a good primer on productive collaboration more broadly. Enjoy the book alone – or share it with a new collaborator at the rosy outset of your life together.

- Andreas Lieberoth PhD is Assistant Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark

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