Clarifying incentives and expectations in research collaborations

By Alisa Zomer and Varja Lipovsek

1. Alisa Zomer (biography)
2. Varja Lipovsek (biography)

In which areas do research collaborations between academics and practitioners often run into trouble? What difficult questions can we ask ourselves and our partners at the outset of a research collaboration that can set us up for a successful partnership? How can we learn from past successful and failed aspects of research partnerships?

In our experience four areas where collaborations can have problems are:

  • Incentives and expectations
  • Timelines
  • Collaborative decision making and team buy-in
  • Learning and dissemination.

In our guide, “How to have difficult conversations” (MIT Governance Lab, 2020), we designed sets of questions for both academic and practitioner partners to clarify priorities and assumptions, so that potential tensions can be turned into productive and creative exchanges. While the questions are written for collaborations between academics in developed countries and practitioner partners in developing countries, they can easily be adapted for other collaborations, including between academics only.

The process involves the following steps:

  • Early in the collaboration, partners first address the questions on their own and then come together to discuss their answers.
  • The outcome of the discussion is recorded.
  • Regular check-ins are scheduled during the course of the project to review if adjustments are needed.

Before embarking on this process, it is useful for projects to have an exploratory phase where partners can get to know each other and the contexts in which each of them is working, and where initial assumptions and misunderstandings can be clarified. Finding out about previous collaborative experiences can be helpful.

Incentives and expectations

Why is each party interested in the research partnership and what do they expect to achieve? It is important to ensure that there is real buy-in at all levels on both sides of the collaboration. A selection of key questions from the guide follows:

  • Ask each other:
    • What do you want out of this collaboration? Ask “why” five times to get to deeper levels of understanding about what is really motivating the research study.
    • How do you see the roles and responsibilities of your partner?
  • Ask practitioner partners:
    • How do you plan to use the results? Is there a specific decision(s) or donor report(s) that the research results will inform?
    • What is at stake or how important are the results to your organization?
    • What kind of results do you need?
    • What is already set in stone and what can still be changed or tweaked?
    • How will mixed, null or negative results be received?
  • Ask academic partners:
    • Are these data for PhD or other student projects or for promotion?
    • Are you looking for data that will yield a peer-reviewed paper?
    • Are there specific methods that are a must for you? What other characteristics of the study are non-negotiable for you? Conversely, what components of the research design are flexible and can be adjusted to fit practitioner needs?
    • Do you see yourself as the primary owner of the data? What does this mean for the ability of the practitioner to use the data? For you, is the release of data time-sensitive, and what are those timelines?
    • What do you need the practitioner to provide?


The practitioner world tends to work on annual project and donor timelines, which have deadlines for reporting, renewals, and fundraising. Academic timelines tend to revolve around windows of opportunity to access funding and the academic calendar for teaching, dissertations and career advancement. A selection of key questions from the guide follows:

  • Ask each other:
    • What timelines matter most? When do big decisions need to be made?
    • Can we create a common, shared calendar, updated in real time?
    • Can there be a regular check-in time? Can we build pivot or exit points into the partnership?
    • Who is part of the team? Do we have sufficient support for the project?
  • Ask practitioner partners:
    • Are you bound by project-reporting or grant timelines? What calendar do you follow? Are there any important funding decisions we should know about?
    • What level of results do you need by these various timelines?
  • Ask academic partners:
    • What academic timelines matter and what are the key dates when you need results?
    • How much time are you personally planning to spend in-country for this project? Will you be in country for key decision points in the study?
    • How much time are you expecting to spend on this research? Will you be conducting other research projects at the same time? Do you have enough people on your team to cover all the required field work, data analysis, and writing or are you expecting the practitioner to provide support?

Collaborative decision-making and team buy-in

How will decisions in the project be made and by whom? Clarifying roles and responsibilities as well as decision-making processes can support productive exchange. A selection of key questions from the guide follows:

  • Ask each other:
    • How should the research be designed? Who has the final word on critical components of the intervention design and the research design?
    • Who are the key decision-makers? What are their roles and responsibilities in the research collaboration? What is the process for decision-making for projects and research?
  • Ask practitioner partners:
    • Who are the main people at the organization who will be communicating with the academics?
    • What is the role of the monitoring and evaluation team in the collaboration, their capacity to participate, and also their interest in gaining practical skills through the collaboration?
    • Are there stakeholders outside the practitioner organization who should be included in some of the initial discussions?
  • Ask academic partners:
    • Who is on the research team? What roles do they play and who is responsible for key decisions on research questions, designs, and implementation?
    • Would research managers consider working from the practitioner organization’s office for a period of time?
    • Who at the university is vested—or at least interested—in the collaborative research? Who might spend time discussing the expectations and interests with the wider group of professors, students, and research staff?

Learning and dissemination

Practitioners and academics often think differently about how to use results. For academics, it is typical to think in long timelines, towards peer-reviewed publications. For practitioners, timelines are often shorter, and results may be used to adjust programs, influence policy or inform a public dialogue. A selection of key questions from the guide follows:

  • Ask each other:
    • What is the internal review process for each entity before we can share results?
    • How many iterations or reviews of an output are reasonable? How much lead time do reviewers need?
    • Does your university or organization have requirements or a process to follow for joint publications, co-branding or using each other’s logos? What about sharing news about the collaboration on social or traditional media?
    • How will we spread the word about the results?
  • Ask practitioner partners:
    • What are the minimum outputs that you need us to produce from this collaboration? Who is your target audience? Which are essential? Can you provide examples of what these outputs should or have looked like?
    • What outputs do you want to produce yourself but would like the academics to review?
  • Ask academic partners:
    • Who owns the data? What are the data sharing protocols?
    • Will experimental results need to be replicated before they can be used for program or policy recommendations?
    • How much time can you set aside for developing non-academic outputs?
    • Can you offer opportunities for teaching, skills sharing, and capacity-building for practitioner staff?

Concluding questions

What has your experience been in clarifying expectations in research collaborations with academic and practitioner partners? Have you found areas other than incentives, timelines, decision making and dissemination to be problematic? What processes for clarifying expectations have you found to be useful? How do you systematically document and learn from the successes and failures of past research collaborations? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

To find out more:
MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) (Varja Lipovsek and Alisa Zomer). (2020). How to Have Difficult Conversations / A Practical Guide for Academic-Practitioner Research Collaborations. Version 2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Governance Lab: Boston, United States of America. (Online – open access):
Much of the text in the blog post is taken verbatim from the guide and workbook.

Biography: Alisa Zomer is the Assistant Director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Governance Lab focusing on developing new strategic partnerships and translating evidence into practice on issues related to citizen engagement and government responsiveness. MIT Governance Lab is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Biography: Varja Lipovsek PhD is the Director of Learning, Measurement and Evaluation at Co-Impact, a global philanthropic collaborative focused on just and inclusive systems change. She is based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. She was a research scientist and the first “practitioner-in-residence” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Governance Lab.

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