Open social scholarship implies a community of non-academic and academic specialists working together to create, disseminate, and use research to ensure that it is engaged with in broader contexts than initially envisioned. Benefits and advantages exist for both parties. The non-academic partners gain innovation, technology and knowledge creation, and access to skills, equipment, and knowledge (Ankrah and Al-Tabbaa 2015; Barnes, Pashby, and Gibbons 2002; Kaymaz and Eryiğit 2011; Nielsen, Sort, and Bentsen 2013; Philbin 2008; Plewa and Quester 2007). At the same time, academics can access research funds, equipment, and student training, and commercialize research results (Ankrah and Al-Tabbaa 2015; Chedid and Teixeira 2018; Kaymaz and Eryiğit 2011; Owens, John, and Bllunt 2017; Philbin 2008). However, challenges exist and often relate to the coordination of tasks, people, disciplines, distance, timelines, budgets and other factors (Cummings and Kiesler 2005, 2007). Some of these challenges can be mitigated by previous experience working together. In other words, chances of success can be increased through heritage relationships that are built on existing trust and knowledge of collaborators (Cummings and Kiesler 2008; Skelton 2020).
What are the best ways to bring these various parties together in cooperation, particularly since they have differing organizational cultures, objectives, and expertise? What are the advantages that come with these forms of collaborating and working with a group of people who have previously successfully worked together on a large project? What are the challenges? And given this age of COVID-19, what has its impact been on team dynamics?
This paper contributes to this discussion by examining the experience of the second Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) project with its focus on open social scholarship with involvement from academic and academic-adjacent researchers and partners (INKE 2020). It continues the research on collaboration from the first INKE project on electronic books and reading (Siemens and INKE Research Group 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019b, 2020) by exploring the nature of partnership within the INKE’s new focus on open social scholarship (Siemens and INKE Research Group 2019a, 2019b, 2020). Through yearly interviews of team members, it examines the nature of collaboration, its advantages and disadvantages, and measures of success.
Funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant program in 2020, the second INKE project is focused on fostering open social scholarship or the “academic practice that enables the creation, dissemination, and engagement of open research by specialists and non-specialists in accessible and significant ways” (Arbuckle et al. 2022, 2; INKE 2020). The project is organized in four clusters. The connection cluster explores the digital research commons and ways that it might be used to facilitate open scholarship at points in the research process. Its primary output is the Humanities and Social Sciences Commons (hsscommons.ca). The second cluster, policy, examines the national and international open scholarship policies through the Open Scholarship Policy Observatory (ospolicyobservatory.uvic.ca), while the third cluster, training, focuses on the best ways to develop open scholarship skills among academics and non-academics alike. Finally the community cluster engages various publics in collaborative activities to explore and develop areas of interest around open publishing, scholarly communication, and citizen scholarship (Arbuckle et al. 2022; INKE 2020). Each of the clusters has co-leaders to facilitate and guide the research and interaction with partners. Most of the researchers and partners were involved in the first INKE project in some capacity or had close links to members of the team (INKE n.d.).
Researchers and partners had been discussing the potential of a research project focused on open social scholarship through short talks, speakers, and business meetings since 2014 (INKE 2014; Siemens and INKE Research Group 2019a). This INKE project was awarded funding just after COVID-19 locked down universities in March 2020. As a result, the team delayed the project start for one year, which meant that the research began in earnest in 2021. The yearly conference and business meeting were further impacted and moved to a virtual format for 2021 and 2022. The first in-person gathering was held in January, 2023 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Though semi-structured interviews, administrative leads, researchers, and partners were asked about their experiences with this INKE project. The interviews were conducted primarily through Zoom sessions. Lasting about half an hour to an hour, the interviews focused on open-ended questions that explored the understanding of collaboration, its associated advantages and challenges, and measures of success. These interviews allowed the researcher to explore topics more fully and deeply with probing follow-up questions while participants reflected on their own experiences and emphasized the issues that were important to them.
Data analysis involved a grounded theory approach that focused on the themes that emerged from the data. This analysis was broken into several steps. First, working from audio recordings and detailed notes, the data was organized, read, and coded to determine categories, themes, and patterns. These categories were then tested for emergent and alternative understandings, both within a single interview and across all interviews. This was an iterative process, involving movement between the data, codes, and concepts, constantly comparing the data to itself and the developing themes (Rubin and Rubin 1995; McCracken 1988; Marshall and Rossman 1999).
Overall, the interviewees expressed very positive associations with this second INKE project.
Reasons for continuing working together
The administrative leads, researchers, and partners1 have a long history with the INKE projects and were primarily involved with the first INKE project in various capacities. They were all active participants in the annual INKE gatherings in Whistler, British Columbia, Toronto, Ontario, and Victoria, British Columbia from 2014 on. One member, however, was not involved directly in INKE projects, but was well known to the INKE members.
The interviewees were drawn to continue their work with INKE for a variety of reasons. One administrative lead (AL6) felt that the research was important. They and others liked working with the community of researchers and partners who were involved in the project (AL2, AL4, AL6, P1). One of the researchers (R1) echoed this sentiment by stating that the relationships were important and that some “cool stuff” had been done in the first INKE project, and they thought that work could be duplicated. The potential of the research opportunity was clearly present (AL1). One partner (P1) suggested that the collaboration was very rewarding while another felt that the project met their own research needs and interests (P2). There was an ongoing loop of presenting and showcasing ideas that people were trying to implement (P1). Ultimately, as expressed by one administrative lead (AL7), it was not about the money, but rather the collaboration. This INKE project brings people together which leads to work that contributes to the larger community (AL5).
Definition of collaboration
There were common themes among the interviewees’ definitions of collaboration. At a basic level, they stated that collaboration involves more than one person. The team members have a shared goal which might include creating a research output, teaching a workshop, or organizing an outreach event, and then working to achieve it (AL4, AL5, AL6). Overlap in research interests exists along with a collective desire to do bigger things together (AL7). For one administrative lead, collaboration is achieved when active partners and researchers are around the table determining research priorities, undergoing communal brainstorming, and being honest and genuine in their desire to work together (AL1). Rather than short-term and one-off interactions, these conversations are ongoing so team members can get to know each other’s work and create a commitment to the project as a whole (P1). These ideas were echoed by a partner (P2) who remarked that collaboration is like a puzzle with different people and expertise fitting together and building something together by learning from each other and raising the level of conversation. Ultimately, this means shared projects and processes where individuals engage in some activity collectively (R1) within the formal grant-funded project or beyond (AL1). However, it takes time to develop work, exchange ideas, revise, and adjust to changing course based on discussion and reflection (AL2). It involves mutual benefit and shared values and listening, hearing, and seeking to understand the other person (AL1). Ultimately, collaborators need to be moving in the same direction (R1).
There are many advantages to collaboration within the context of this INKE project. While striving for consensus within a collaboration may slow research progress, the ability to connect with everyone on the team provides value and stronger projects are created as a result (AL2). This collaboration also brings together partners who should talk but may not otherwise have the opportunity to do so (AL5) and creates ongoing conversations (P1). It is an opportunity to get other viewpoints and expertise and to learn about other people’s research problems (AL6) and leverage the resources of small organizations (P2). As one administrative lead stated, there is a chance to work with someone who has expertise that one does not possess (AL4). They went on to express that working within a collaborative team can be a form of viability assessment and confirmation because another team member might also agree that a project is a good idea to undertake. The collaboration can also provide intellectual rewards and even a bit of fun (P1). In the case of this partnership grant, the opportunity to connect partner and researcher’s work together exists, thus creating a positive environment where partners feel that their feedback is welcomed (P1) and mutual benefit can be achieved (AL1). Working with industry partners also provides some advantages for those who want to go beyond a single university or constituency. They are connected to various publics who could benefit from the research and policy conversations (AL2). This collaboration has a lot of energy and dynamics that helps keep it active (AL5). On a pragmatic level, the collaboration members also contribute money, in-kind resources, and expertise to the projects so researchers do not have to come up with all the resources themselves (P2, AL6).
Despite the history of working together, the team still experienced some challenges. A need to build relationships still exists. Work must be done to ensure that involved parties get mutual benefit, which takes time and effort (AL5, AL6, R1). This is complicated by the fact that while the organizations might stay stable, their representatives and priorities may change. This means time educating new people and renegotiating an organization’s involvement (AL2). For others, a challenge is related to where one puts their focus given limited resources (P1, P2). Everyone is busy professionally, personally, and emotionally (AL2). Another challenge is maintaining knowledge of the other clusters (P1). Finally, there must be continual effort to ensure that partners are getting value from the relationship. This takes trust, understanding, and interpersonal skills (AL2).
Some typical challenges still exist. The collaborative team is working across disciplines with little shared vocabulary and language for valuing multi-authored publications (AL4). Finally, there is the challenge of staying engaged when not actively pursuing research and lack of in-person meetings (AL6). One interviewee mentioned the geographical isolation they felt and the fact that it meant that they did not feel connected to the INKE community of scholars and partners (AL7). Given that the administrative structure is centralized, there were challenges knowing what the other clusters were undertaking (AL7).
Measures of success
Interviewees noted both qualitative and quantitative measures of success, which include a focus on the academic world with its emphasis on publications, presentations, and citations as well as the partner context (AL1). As one interviewee described it (AL2), it was a balance between SSRHC check-box type measures—such as publication counts and conference presentations—and collaboration goals.
For some, a measure of success focused on getting people involved in the community who had not been before (AL2). This was echoed by another interviewee who suggested that success could be seen through the involvement of new and old partners in the project (P1). In other words, how did the collaboration work with the partners (AL6)? Another administrative lead felt that the grant is already a success because partners and researchers are collaborating together with resulting research being translated into the partner world (AL1). Ultimately, given the nature of this grant, it is important to consider the ways that partners measured success, not just researchers (AL6, AL3).
Some of the interviewees talked about measures of success for some of the grant’s specific initiatives. For example, the success of the policy observatory would mean a body of information that ensures people have a better understanding of the change in policy on open social scholarship over time (P2). At that same time, the observatory would be able to count the number of blog posts, a quantitative measure, while other initiatives across the partnership include publications, reference lists, meetings, and presentations and training of people working on the observatory (AL5). Further, the HSS Commons would be successful when a viable and sustainable model is available (P2, R1) and has a measurable number of people and societies using it (AL2). And since INKE is funded through a partnership grant, a measure of success is the presence of INKE outputs—such as tools, experiments, and platforms—in partners’ spaces and activities that can be seen and reported upon (P1). Of course, traditional measures of publications and presentations are important (AL4, AL6, AL7), but some of these articulated measures are more intangible. One administrative lead commented that it is difficult to measure when training becomes better, one of the initiatives of the training cluster (AL4). Finally, the collaboration can be measured on the support given to involved students (AL3).
Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 has had an impact on this INKE project and created unique challenges. The team was unable to meet in person for their annual conference and business meeting in January 2021 and 2022. Instead, virtual conferences and business meetings were held in conjunction with a conference with an Australian partnership in December 2020 and 2021. At the time of the interviews, tentative plans were being made for an in-person gathering in January 2023 to which interviewees were looking forward.
The interviewees reinforced the many advantages the face-to-face meetings bring. The first INKE project was successful because it brought people together face-to-face and gave graduate students and early career scholars a chance to meet with others and develop networks (AL2, AL5). It also built a social layer between partners and researchers (P1). In addition, the in-person gatherings were a place where people saw themselves as part of a community and were reminded why they were there and their priorities (AL2, R1). It also helped to shrink the geographical distance that is felt in a country as large as Canada (AL7). While INKE arranged virtual conferences and meetings, as stated by several interviewees (AL5, AL7), Zoom was good for the presentation of research, but not for the follow up discussions over coffee and lunches. Excitement comes from the personal contact, often through a handshake, where conversation might be held without a specific agenda, and the fires of collaboration can be stoked (P2, AL7.). Further, the lack of face-to-face meetings meant there was a sense that this INKE project had not really started yet (AL6, AL7). Some expressed some frustrations with Zoom itself, the platform for the meetings. One stated that Zoom deadened motivation (AL7) and others experienced zoom/online fatigue and burnout (AL1, AL3, AL7). Ultimately, the lack of face-to-face meetings reinforced that people really need to be in the same room for effective collaboration (AL6).
Despite the challenges with the Zoom conference and business meeting model, one advantage existed. This INKE project was able to attract a larger audience from new communities in different locations to the annual conference because they did not have to travel to the event (AL1). In other words, Zoom extended the project’s reach to those who might not have been able to travel to the event for a variety of reasons.
In some respects, this second INKE group is young because it has only been working together for two years as a funded collaboration. However, in other respects, it is a mature one because of the history of the researchers and partners working together in other contexts, including an earlier collaboration grant. INKE is already finding success with the research projects and knowledge transfer to the partners.
The team is experiencing benefits of this history. The team members already knew each other, and trust and accountability already existed between each other. They were able to draw on past governance documents and ways of working together to be effective. People associated with the first INKE project decided to stay involved because they enjoyed working with their team members, and they wanted to continue working together to build on the success from the first project. As other research has found, prior knowledge of collaborators can enhance productivity, because it means fewer formal structures are needed for managing collaboration and reinforcing trust (Bozeman and Boardman 2014; Roshani, Lehoux, and Frayret 2015). As a result, collaboration can be strengthened (Cummings and Kiesler 2008). Mutual benefits to both parties exist as they continue the relationship (Phillips 2009). However, despite the familiarity, there was still a need to build and sustain relationships within the context of this large project. This INKE project also reaffirms that effective collaboration can be a slower process with the time needed to coordinate tasks, people, disciplines, distances, timelines, and budgets, but the end result is often richer and stronger research (Siemens and INKE Research Group 2016).
Despite this history, there were still some transitions to the second INKE project. Collaborators experienced a different kind of engagement with the project since it was structured differently. This time, much of the research coordination is being handled centrally rather than distributed to the cluster co-leads. As a result, the cluster co-leads have little bureaucratic reason to talk with each other as a cluster of researchers and partners (AL6) and plan yearly research. Further, researchers were not allocated funds for the full seven years of the grant, but rather only for a couple of years. The end result was that clusters were not meeting as a sub-group and they found little reason for engagement between themselves (AL6, AL7). Having said this, one of the administrative leads commented that there were advantages to something being well run due to previous experience. Organization is bedrock to the team (AL4).
As we found with the first INKE project, the life of the collaboration predates a successful funding application (Siemens 2010). The new incarnation of INKE spent about six years in discussion before the grant application was successful, starting with meetings in Whistler, British Columbia in 2014. The team gained knowledge and experience with each other from the years working together in the first INKE project as well as adjacent ones (Siemens and INKE Research Group 2015). This reaffirms the need to build relationships and research direction in advance of grant applications. Whistler as a location for the first meeting was chosen deliberately as a place that required considerable travel time and cost. This meant that only serious representatives from researchers and partners showed up and then continued to commit time and money to the new initiative. And as the team has found, online meetings, necessitated by COVID-19, cannot replicate face-to-face ones and their necessity for building a sense of team and community and exchanging research results even among an established group of researchers and partners. Some of the interviewees experienced some feelings of disconnection to each other and the larger project without them. Having said that, the shift to virtual environments provided opportunity for increased inclusivity, accessibility, and cost-efficiency (Xin 2020). As a result, new communities could be engaged and incorporated into INKE. Efforts at relationship building will need to be continued to ensure that these new communities feel welcome at the face-to-face gatherings.
After two years working together in funded research, the team is still exploring measures of success and the balance between quantitative and qualitative ones (Siemens and INKE Research Group 2019c, 2020). Some measures related to partner priorities will likely remain hard to measure whereas the researchers and the funding agency need more measurable metrics with a focus on publications, conference papers, blog posts, downloads, and other similar ones. There will always likely be a tension between the two. This is not unusual given the experiences of other university–industry partnerships (Chin, Yap, and Spowage 2011).
It is important to remember that this INKE project is still relatively young and will continue to develop relationships between researchers and partners to undertake the research it has planned. It will be interesting to see the development of this INKE project as it nears its mid-term evaluation next year. It has laid a strong foundation for the collaboration and looks to leverage advantages generally associated with an established team and minimize the disadvantages. And now that COVID-19 is on the wane, the collaboration will be able to harness the benefits of face-to-face meetings.
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Administrative leads were responsible for leading the clusters while researchers undertook research projects that were designed to advance the goals and objectives of the projects. The partners contributed resources to the projects but did not necessarily undertake research. ↩