Learning to collaborate: No more lonely scholars?

Scientists do it all the time, but now humanities researchers are learning to collaborate, reports Suzanne Lynch
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The Independent Online

For most people, the image of the lone scholar whiling away the hours in a library amid piles of dusty books and manuscripts epitomises the idea of the arts and humanities researcher. But new developments in the field mean that the stereotyped image of the ivory tower-bound academic may be in decline, as humanities research begins to move away from the model of the independent scholar and towards the idea of collaborative research.

Although the idea of working as part of a research group has been present in the sciences for years, the model of collaborative research projects has been imported into the humanities by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and other research councils gradually over the past 10 years or so. Increasingly, academics from the fields of history, English, linguistics and other humanities subjects are being encouraged to apply for research grants to fund these collaborative research projects.

One group of academics who secured AHRC funding for such a project is a group of historians from University College, London who are working on a project entitled "Images of America". Seven academics – three lecturers, two research assistants and two PhD students – are working on a four-year-long collaborative project which looks at images of America in 19th century Europe and Latin America. According to Dr Adam IP Smith, one of the academics working on the project, securing a collaborative research grant was crucial in making such a large-scale project feasible.

"Essentially it was a question of pooling our resources," he explains. "By working collaboratively on this subject we are all bringing our specific areas of research expertise together. This, we hope, will allow us to reach a richer, and more informed, understanding of the subject by offering a multi-faceted examination of images of America in Europe and Latin America in the 19th century."

So what are the intellectual implications of this new model of research? Does teamwork lead to "better" research outcomes, or is it just a bureaucratic novelty? According to Professor Michael Worton, vice-provost of UCL, it is a positive development. "This kind of collaborative research has enormous benefits," he says. "What we are seeing is true interdisciplinary work – whereby people share and exchange their knowledge and ideas to create something new.

"It is also serving to reshape academia in interesting ways. One impact of collaborative research projects is the breaking down of hierarchies. For example, instead of the traditional supervisor-supervisee relationship, we are now more likely to have more "horizontality' within departments: diverse groups of people at different stages of their career coming together to work collaboratively. This kind of academic dialogue and interchange of ideas can be hugely intellectually stimulating and enriching."

But although increasing numbers of academics in the humanities are applying for funding for collaborative research projects, privately many academics are distinctly hostile to the idea, with many suspecting that it is a model more suited to scientific research.

The AHRC's director of research, Tony McEnery, disputes this. "We are not saying that collaborative research is the only way, or even the right way to do research. Rather, we are simply allowing those people who are interested in engaging in this kind of research the opportunity to do so. Personally, I believe that it depends on the project. Certain research questions undoubtedly benefit from a collaborative approach, but we need to look at each project on a case-by-case basis.

"For example, as a linguist, if I am writing about morality in early modern literature, the most appropriate research method is probably the lone scholar model, whereby I absorb material, reflect on it and write about it. However, if I were to embark on a project on South Asian literatures, it would make more sense for me to work collaboratively with someone who is an expert in the field, rather than embark on learning an entirely new set of languages. Essentially it is about the distributing of expertise in a strategic way."

On paper, the idea of collaborative research seems like interdisciplinary heaven, a kind of noble platonic ideal of intellectual dialogue and exchange. But what about the practicalities? Critics of the model argue that logistically the notion of group authorship in the humanities is an impossibility and that it cannot work in practical terms. The question of how to present and publish "findings" is also an issue.

The UCL "Images of America" project is meeting the logistical challenges by developing clearly structured "outcomes" and publication proposals. Although each academic in the group is working on their own autonomous "case-study", they hold regular meetings to stimulate comparative thinking and exchange ideas.

In terms of publications, their aim is to produce two PhD theses that will be turned into books, one monograph, and a major co-authored volume that will contain chapters by each project member on their specific area of research, as well as a jointly written theoretical introduction and comparative conclusion. A two-day conference will also take place next year at which all the project members will present their findings.

So, is collaboration the new face of humanities research? As Tony McEnery points out, these are still early days. "The AHRC is still spending relatively little on collaborative research," he says. "Approximately £6m of the AHRC's £45m postdoctoral research budget is spent on it."

Nonetheless, things have come a long way. "Before the existence of the AHRC and its predecessor, the AHRB, collaborative projects in the humanities were simply not an option. The lone scholar model was the default position because people did not have an alternative. With this, we are offering academics the possibility of new modes of working," he says, "and this can only be a good thing."