The Importance of the “Academic Pre-nup”

Updated 13 January 2017

Who is it that first said that the wars in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small? I’m a numbers person, so I was going to carefully research today’s entry about the importance of the academic pre-nup and find some numbers about research team environments that have disintegrated in the face of very predictable challenges. These challenges are usually pretty obvious from the outside, but somehow go unforeseen by the team itself. But I stopped myself because, frankly, anyone who has bounced around academia long enough has seen the wars up close and, sometimes, in person.  We have all seen the carnage, there is little need to establish it in more detail with numbers (and the anecdotal evidence is always more colorful, anyway).

There is always the challenge of conflicting personalities and work styles, so why, when it comes to research projects that can span years, do people not anticipate and pro-actively deal with very predictable challenges? Research projects can be designed to last longer than some marriages, and they can take up a significant portion–if not all–of your workday. When they work it’s great, when they don’t it’s hell. So why will people who are savvy enough to carefully craft a pre-nuptial agreement for marriage ignore the obvious need for an agreement in their research lives?

I call it the academic pre-nup, and a little on-line research indicates I’m not the only one to have this idea and use that (pretty predictable) moniker. The University of Iowa’s team science page includes a “‘pre-nuptial agreement’ for research collaborations,” which is less a formal document and more of an outline of important questions for teams to discuss and agree upon prior to embarking on their collaboration. Ideally, when conceptualizing a research project, the team would put pen to paper and create a written record of their agreement, since team members do come and go, and memories can get fuzzy on the details over time. The larger and more involved the research project and collaborative team, the more detailed and formal the agreement should be. Indeed, very large, complex funded research projects and research institutions will have guidelines over and above the ideas below.

So, what are some of the key elements of a good, basic academic pre-nup for research collaborators? I have three things I always suggest new researchers think about and discuss:

  1. What are everyone’s goals and the research’s objective? Goals are usually individual and greater in scope than objectives, which are typically determined at the project level. If the project’s objectives don’t align with everyone’s goals, this is a sign that levels of commitment to the project may differ because it satisfies individuals’ needs to varying degrees. This is a good time to discern if members of the team have any financial or other conflicts of interest–in addition to the possible impact on goals/objectives, there are serious ethical implications that must be considered. Research universities have very specific guidelines regarding conflict of interest, and teams comprising individuals with potential COIs need to consult with appropriate institution personnel prior to implementing an affected research project.
  2. Who will do what, and what is the chain of command? Often, writing the biosketches is a good exercise that exposes any gaps in expertise and experience in a research team, but this can be a high-level examination. The trouble is in the details–like who is going to go to the lab on a holiday to keep the study going? Also, who, specifically, is on the team? Sometimes, for example, a collaborator will invite others to join the research team without consulting other team members. This is often a problem on many levels for other team members, as there are fears of disruption and dilution.
  3. How will work be credited? This is, anecdotally, the biggest problem, but it can only really be discussed after the first two items in this list have been established. Determining whose name will go first on any publications/posters, and who will present at national conferences can be a negotiation that reveals some interesting egos and surprising dynamics. Of all the areas to negotiate, this one can be the most contentious, and in my experience an objective third party who is cognizant of the implications of authorship order, for example, may be a valuable part of the discussion from the beginning.

I would encourage those interested in exploring the academic pre-nup with their team also consult UI’s  “‘pre-nuptial agreement’ for research collaborations,” which has some additional questions for consideration. Crafting this agreement may not be easy, some discussions may be awkward, but, most importantly, it should never be adversarial. If discussion of these topics prior to the beginning of the project results in negativity or ill will, it would seem that there are some decisions to be made regarding team composition.





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