Global Impact: How International Collaborations Strengthen Science

Peter Glick didn’t expect his unassuming Ambivalent Sexism Inventory to become an international sensation. But soon after he published the questionnaire in 1995 (with APS Past President Susan Fiske), researchers from Botswana to Taiwan were knocking on his door with ideas for joint projects. Glick started small, sketching out ideas on a napkin with some Chilean psychologists while attending a conference in Puerto Rico. The group hit it off, and a collaboration was born.

Then things took off. Within a few years, Glick, an APS Fellow and a social psychologist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, had acquired a large coterie of international colleagues. In 2000, he found himself the lead author of an article, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, whose salient feature was its author list: 32 authors from 19 countries. It was a journal record.

“I didn’t start out thinking I’d be collaborating with so many people across the world,” Glick said, “but once such a project gets started, it can snowball.” Glick’s continuing international collaborations have produced fresh theoretical insights and generated piles of new data.

The scale of Glick’s collaborative projects is unusual: Few psychologists maintain simultaneous collaborative relationships on six continents. Yet his experience is consonant with that of many other psychologists who conduct international collaborations, with one coworker or with many. Such partnerships demand trust, honesty, patience, and an open mind. International collaborations sometimes move painfully slowly. And there are some risks that go beyond those inherent to any research. These can range from administrative hassles to cultural misunderstandings to genuine health and safety hazards. But the rewards of conducting international collaborations – more disciplined thinking, greater integration of disparate literatures, stronger and more generalizable theory – can be great, if sometimes intangible.

Perhaps most intangible, suggested APS Fellow Robin Vallacher, a social psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, is the synergy that successful collaborations often produce: the sense that the proverbial whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (And Vallacher is just the person to detect such synergy, as such effects in social judgment and self-concept are the subject of his long-running collaboration with Andrzej Nowak, University of Warsaw.)

Rayner Presents PSPI Report at BA Festival in UK

Keith Rayner, APS Fellow and Charter Member, was an invited speaker at the BA Festival of Science at Exeter, United Kingdom in September. The Festival of Science is an annual event which serves to bring science to the general public. The Festival is also well-attended by the press, representatives of funding agencies, and representatives of relevant government organizations. Rayner, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was invited by professor Elaine Funnell, the president of the psychology section of the BA to be the concluding speaker in a session entitled “Making a Difference: Psychology in the Classroom.” His talk was entitled “How Psychological Science Informs the Teaching of Reading” and was an overview of the Psychological Science in the Public Interest article published in 2001 on which Rayner was the lead author. Rayner also led a discussion following his presentation. The session was chaired by Peter Evans, a BBC broadcaster and presenter of Science Now and Frontiers on BBC Radio 4.

The main theme of the session was how the results of psychological science can influence classroom practices. Other speakers discussed research on children’s learning of mathematics and reading. Rayner noted that “the session was well-attended and included a lively discussion at the end. Moreover, I enjoyed the time that I spent at the Festival and think that it is a very nice example of bringing science to the public. I noticed while I was in the UK for the week that the press coverage was excellent and all of the major newspapers in the UK ran two or three stories each day on the Festival.”

More concretely, international collaborations encourage scientists to consider novel theoretical perspectives, try unfamiliar methods, and explore cultural variations in behavior. By counteracting US scientists’ tendency toward insularity, such collaborations encourage stronger theory that draws a wider audience.

“Being able to look at the world … through a different lens has really broadened the way I think about human behavior,” said APS Board Member Denise Park, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Park, who chairs the Board’s International Fellows Committee, has collaborated for about six years with Qicheng Jing, a psychologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Their research examines cultural differences in how cognitive function changes during aging. “Sometimes I’m struck, as I learn more and more about cultural psychology, by how Western I really am. It’s been an opportunity to explore a whole new realm,” Park said.

How to Make it Work

There is no single “right” way to conduct an international collaboration. Some psychologists, like Park, do it because they are interested in how culture colors behavior. For other psychologists, the right collaborator – on whatever subject – simply happens to be elsewhere. For example, APS Fellow and Charter Member Nelson Cowan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Missouri, studies working memory with several groups around Europe. The arrangement allows him to test and refine theories based on cognitive evidence using colleagues’ neuropsychological and electrophysiological techniques.

Other polarities further underscore the many forms that international collaborations can take. Some spring from formal arrangements between academic institutions; others arise spontaneously, over drinks at a scientific meeting, or over the e-mail transom. Some psychologists obtain large grants to conduct international studies; others draw from modest start-up funds provided by their university. Some partnerships bring together researchers with comparable resources and expertise; in others, one researcher has more resources to offer. Some psychologists travel often to meet with distant collaborators; others seldom meet face-to-face, communicating almost exclusively by e-mail.

Launching an international collaboration needn’t be daunting. Though their experiences vary widely, researchers who’ve successfully worked with colleagues abroad agree on a handful of strategies that can help foster a harmonious and productive collaboration.

Lee D. Ross


None. Anyone can embark on an international collaboration. Tenured faculty may have deeper pockets, more connections, and more security to buffer some of the risks. But then again, joked Park, “junior faculty can endure the travel better.” Researchers who have had some practice with collaboration in general have a head start. They’ve already learned to handle tasks such as collaborating on documents and negotiating authorship on papers, which can smooth the way in international collaborations.

But many agree that the most important asset a researcher can possess is the right mindset. “You need to be a little bit ready for people to work differently than you do,” said Cowan. “The extent to which you’ll feel synergy between you may depend on having an open mind.”

“Goodwill and motivation – that’s what you need,” said APS Fellow and Charter Member Robert Sternberg, Yale University. If a scientist brings those two qualities to an international collaboration, “it will provide you with colleagues you would never have met and windows to cultures you would never have understood,” he said.

Making Contact

After identifying researchers who are doing work that is of interest, some psychologists initiate international collaborations by phone or e-mail. Others approach potential colleagues at international conferences or while traveling abroad. When proposing collaborations with prospective coworkers, suggested Cowan, it’s important to remember that “if you ask someone to collaborate, you’re asking them for a large commitment of their time. Unless you have a project in mind that will clearly benefit your prospective collaborator, you’d be better off beginning by asking for a smaller amount of their time” – for instance, asking to visit their laboratory or give a talk at their university when you’re traveling.

Another option is to start by working with foreign graduate students or with visiting scholars at one’s own university, said APS Fellow Barbara Rogoff, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That approach, she said, provides some of the knowledge and connections necessary for collaborating with the same researchers when they return home.

Barbara Rogoff

Building a Resilient Relationship

For all their advantages, international collaborations can easily falter from cultural misunderstandings, language barriers, conflicting agendas and priorities, administrative hassles, and assorted communication snags. Overcoming such obstacles requires a strong, mutually rewarding collaborative relationship. Before entering a collaborative relationship, it’s smart to know one’s collaborators, or to get to know them by asking around or even requesting letters of recommendation.

“A collaboration succeeds or fails on trust,” said APS Fellow and Charter Member Robert Plomin, King’s College London. Once, Plomin recalled, he tried to establish a collaboration that turned out to be so difficult that he ended up abandoning the grant that funded the research. “The lesson I learned is to pick your collaborators carefully,” Plomin said. “It’s often easier to divorce your spouse than it is to divorce your collaborators.”

Being cognizant of different research styles and scientific practices can help ensure a healthy collaboration. For example, said Sternberg, European psychologists tend to emphasize asking important questions, whereas US researchers often focus more on methodological rigor. Recognizing such differences can prevent misunderstandings and tension, he said.

Seemingly mundane differences in research customs can also throw a wrench in things. As Cowan discovered, scientists in the United Kingdom rarely stop into one another’s offices during working hours to share ideas, unlike in the United States. Instead, they go to tea. Missing tea, Cowan said, can mean missing opportunities to touch base with colleagues. (And on the flip side, darkening colleagues’ doorways too often can make one a nuisance.)

In this electronic age, it’s possible for two people to establish a productive collaboration without once seeing the whites of each other’s eyes. But because strong relationships are so central to successful collaborations, it’s worthwhile to set aside time and money to occasionally meet colleagues in person. Arranging sabbatical stays at a collaborator’s university, planning periodic travel to meet with collaborators, or carving out time for dinners during international conferences can all help deepen relationships.

“You can do this from your desk,” Glick said, noting that even among collaborators whom he’s never met in person, some relationships are strong enough for baby pictures to fly through the ether. “But if you meet with them, eat with them, talk with them face-to-face, it helps you form a closer bond, come up with ideas, and get a better understanding of other cultures.”

Plomin agreed, “Although face-to-face meetings are not at all efficient, I have come to learn what I’m sure is obvious to most earthlings – that they are useful for renewing friendships.”

Establishing a Fair Balance

One often overlooked aspect of international collaborations, said Rogoff, is the perceived difference in power between US scientists and those in other parts of the world. “We publish the journals, we hold the meetings, we set the standard,” she observed. One result is that foreign researchers “may hesitate to be straightforward with us. If you’re not listening very closely you may not notice that the other person doesn’t agree with you. Recognizing that we’re in a position of power and also that politeness rules may be different makes it possible to try to build a relationship in which they are trusted, to defuse the differences so that it’s a more open and equal collaboration.”

Developing a balanced relationship is especially critical when one is collaborating with researchers who have scant access to academic resources, such as computers, libraries, academic journals, and even intellectual discourse, said University of Kansas social psychologist Glenn Adams, who conducts field work with collaborators at the University of Ghana.

“One needs to take into consideration that there is a power relation” in such situations, he said. “In order to get someone to do this research, one is dangling a carrot.” The effect, he argued, can be a kind of imperialist relationship, in which a (perhaps well-meaning) US researcher dictates the collection of data, exploits foreign researchers’ labor, and uses it to further his or her own career without acknowledging the contribution of collaborators. As hard as Adams tries to incorporate his collaborators as equal partners – including working to help them gain access to academic resources and find opportunities for career advancement – it’s hard to avoid that kind of neo-colonialism, he said. “When one person comes to the table with lots of resources, the situation is ripe for this stuff to happen.”

Getting Funding

Some psychologists fund their international collaborations through all-purpose government or university grants. Others seek funding from programs or institutions dedicated to fostering international research and training, such as the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Social Science Research Council, the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, the Max Planck Institutes, or programs that fund collaborations between particular institutions or nations. (See Page 22 for more on Fulbright scholars.) For example, Rogoff’s research with Rebeca Mejia Arauz, of ITESO University in Guadalajara, Mexico, is funded by UC MEXUS, a research exchange program that fosters connections between University of California and Mexican researchers.

Managing Administrative Tasks

Psychologists steeped in international collaborations have honed a number of strategies for dealing with administrative and bureaucratic chores. These might include tasks such as obtaining visas, making travel arrangements, managing grants and subcontracts to overseas collaborators, establishing human subjects committees abroad, hiring translators, and setting up comparable research equipment in different laboratories. The burden of such administrative details can leave researchers with little time to do the research itself.

“You need to make sure that you allow the time and energy and resources to do it right,” Vallacher said, “because if you do it halfway, it might be more of a distraction than a fruitful endeavor.”

Sounds easy. But when asked to proffer advice on dealing with administrative details in international collaboration, many researchers echo the same thought: “Expect the unexpected.”

“The unexpected” might be airline tickets that never arrive. It might be hotel reservations that evaporate just as a group of tired colleagues arrives after days of travel. It might be an e-mail that gets lost or data that get corrupted or an international incident that forces researchers to hole up in a US embassy somewhere. It might be a translator who doesn’t show up or a colleague whose ideas are not what you understood them to be. Of course, any number of glitches can arise in any research, but international collaborations do tend to add a layer of complexity.

APS In Beijing

Since its 1899 closing ceremony was held in the newly constructed Eiffel Tower, the International Congress of Psychology has gathered psychologists from around the world for a free exchange of ideas against an exotic backdrop. APS sponsored four symposia at the 2004 ICP, held August 8-13 in Beijing, China. The meeting is organized under the auspices of the International Union of Psychological Science.

“The International Congress is a meeting of people sharing information about psychology with an international, mostly scientific focus,” said APS Executive Director Alan G. Kraut, who represented APS at the 2004 Congress. “ICP presentations give you a feel of what is going on in the entire field, and they remind you that great psychology is done not just in the United States.”

APS-sponsored presenters included Past President Kay Deaux, Fellow and Charter Member Sam Glucksberg, International Fellows Committee Member Rochel Gelman, and International Fellow Giyoo Hatano. Deaux pointed to participation in international conferences, as well as the increased frequency of international authors in the flagship journal Psychological Science, as evidence of increased APS influence outside the United States.

Psychological Science is getting increasing international contributions, which is good for the advancement of science,” said Deaux, The Graduate Center-The City University of New York. Deaux is a member of the US National Committee of Psychology, a group designed to think about psychological issues involving the United States and other countries. “The presence of APS continues to be visible at these types of forums,” Deaux said. “They can be a starting point of collaborations, particularly in social psychology, where it’s extremely important to study across cultures, international forum wonderful to make those connections.”

Presenter Hsuan-Chih Chen, professor of psychology and director of the Centre for Cognition and Brain Studies at Chinese University of Hong Kong, mentioned many aspects of APS that attract international members: news about research findings; theoretical and methodological breakthroughs; dissemination of trends and new developments; and various professional activities within the field in the United States.

The ICP is held every four years, but 2004 was the first time it convened in an Asian developing nation. Chen was excited about the possibilities of being first Asian nation to host the Congress. “An ICP being held in China allows psychologists around the world to identify possibilities and challenges to construct universal theories, to explore directions and opportunities for future research and collaboration, as well as to think the ways in which psychology can contribute to a globalized world,” he said.

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