Collaborations and the Titanic

image credit to Anthony Kosner post on

My friend Sandra shared some wise words a few weeks ago that I want to share with you all.  I was in the midst of a “mini-crisis” about how I needed to take a step back on this urban P and urban agriculture work because I moved into methods too fast and wasn’t doing things right and needed a new-and-improved focused game plan. She said:

“Sometimes research is like navigating the goddamn titanic. You’ve pulled a teeny bit too much to the right and its fucked up your trajectory. So now you’re going to tug a little to the left and you’ll wind up going straight in no time. And to continue on with the metaphor, collaboration are the icebergs (hehehehe) you can go past them and take some pictures but you don’t want to drive straight at that shit cuz it’ll fuck you up.”

Ok, she was helping me thorough a tough moment and obviously both of us value collaborations as we are both looking at sustainability and we know inter- and even trans-disciplinary collaborations are necessary to answer a lot of the questions we are both interested in. That said she makes a good point. Collaborations may be wonderful but sometimes, if they are not done properly, they can take you off course. There is a really delicate balance in trying to maximize synergies for data collection when you are studying the same system, but also ensuring that you both get the information you need to answer your respective research questions.

This balance doesn’t apply to all types of collaboration. I have had great collaborations where we co-create the research questions and this duality between data collection and research questions does not exist. I am talking here about collaborations that are mostly focused on data but which will also hopefully result in some great comparative, or larger system, co-publications.

At this particular junction in my work I think collaborations for this project are important because:

1. I do not want to over burden actors in the UA community as they often get the same requests over and over and in the end it makes them unwilling (and with reason) to keep helping researchers that are not giving anything back to them.

2. I do not want to duplicate things that have already been done. (Granted this is actually a very good thing to do, but with time and budget constraints it is hard to justify if the main research question is not about measuring the validity of that past work.)

3. I can’t do all the collection myself in every single city for every relevant actor in the urban P cycle and UA sector. Collaboration could thus allow me to cover more ground and better answer my questions.

4. My research questions might be focused but my interests and the relevancy of my work intersect with many other researchers objectives and findings. Bringing them together could really increase our understanding of agricultural systems, urban ecosystems, ect.

The issue is, and I have actually mentioned it before with regards to using existing literature values, differing research questions create results and data collection that may appear similar to your own data needs, but in the end are not. This isn’t making me shy away from collaboration. On the contrary!  Collaboration is actually a tool that forces me to be more critical and iterative in my survey development and my research design in general. In fact having many perspectives on the same survey may allow me to correct flaws I would not have seen alone. There is upfront time spent forging the collaboration but hopefully time saved having help collecting or analyzing data and publishing great papers. Still one needs to weigh the benefits in each circumstance.

I need to make sure that I am not setting my goals on an iceberg and rather that I am navigating, with tiny pushes left and right, to an interesting and robust thesis chapter.


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