How to be a Good Research Partner

An old proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together." In my experience, this is wrong: both speed and distance come from having partners. Researchers and practitioners can each do great things on their own, but both are better able to solve problems that really matter if they find ways to work together.

If You Are a Researcher in Academia

  1. Remember that companies work in weeks, not seasons.
    Academic semesters are rooted in the seasons of an agricultural era, but practitioners in industry have to work at a more accelerated pace. In the time it takes you to write a grant, a company might develop and release two new versions of their product in order to keep up with their competition. Discuss timescales with your industrial research partners early on, and be realistic about how slowly things will proceed.
  2. Be open.
    Research is of no use to practitioners who cannot easily find it and read it. While Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) may not actually have said, "Open information drives out closed," the principle holds: with so much information freely available on the Internet, any paywall or login barrier put between you and your hoped-for audience will send a large number of people elsewhere.
    More importantly, these barriers send a clear signal that you do not care if practitioners read your work or not: as one colleague observed rather sourly, it's the equivalent of inviting people to your house for dinner and then expecting them to pay for the drinks.
  3. Value action over insight.
    The goal for practitioners is not to understand the world, but to change it. "We know X" is much less useful to them than "we can do Y". When presenting your findings, you should therefore focus on how someone might act on it. One way to do this is to add slides titled, "What Difference Does It Make?" at strategic points in your presentations. If you can't think of what to write next, you may want to rethink what you're focused on.
  4. Don't hesitate to sacrifice detail for clarity.
    Understanding doesn't have to be complete in order to be actionable. You may need to hedge conclusions with qualifiers in order to get your work past Reviewer #3, but those "maybes" and "howevers" can often be omitted if they don't change what practitioners should try next.
  5. Apologize in advance for the state of academic publishing.
    Modern academic publishing isn't actually a conspiracy by a handful of large companies to line their pockets with government money that could and should be used to lift researchers out of penury, but it is functionally indistinguishable from a system that was. The best way to prepare your industry partners for its Kafkaesque production pipelines and interminable delays is to have them watch Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil.

If You Are a Practitioner in Industry

  1. Remember that universities work in seasons, not weeks.
    The timescale mis-match described in Rule #1 is due in part to the fact that academic researchers are almost always multi-tasking, and that many of those tasks are things they've never been trained to do. As students, they juggle several courses at once (which effectively means that they answer to several bosses who don't communicate with each other). Later, they are responsible for teaching, writing grant proposals, and administrative duties. This mean that their "work week" is only a few hours long, and that they will often appear to move at a snail's pace. Be as sympathetic as you can: they are even less happy with the situation than you are.
  2. Remember that academic success is measured in publications, not sales.
    University presidents routinely make about the economic value of research, but the only things that truly matter for academic advancement are publication, publication, and publication. Researchers are not given grants or tenure for doing things that are "merely useful", even if doing so requires a deep understanding of subtle complexities and months of hard work. For all the jokes practitioners make about the ivory tower, academic life is hard, uncertain, and poorly paid. People stay in it for the love of new knowledge; respecting their priorities is essential to building a productive relationship. (That said, practical problems often do unlock the door to genuinely new research topics by pushing researchers out of their comfort zone.)
  3. Do the background reading.
    H.L. Mencken once wrote that, "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong." Your problem is almost certainly one of those, and is almost certainly more complex than you first realize. While Rule #4 tells researchers to sacrifice detail for clarity, this rule asks practitioners to make an effort to grasp at least some of that detail so that you don't waste time reinventing wheels and so that your research partner can think, work, and talk at full speed.
  4. Don't overstate what has been learned.
    This rule is also a complement to Rule #4. The "maybes" and "howevers" that researchers are so fond of do sometimes matter; if your research partner has found that regular doses of a new drug seems to slow tumor growth in lab rats, do not embarrass them by claiming that they have discovered a cure for cancer.

If You Are Either

  1. Apologize in advance for the state of your data.
    The final rule applies equally to both researchers and practitioners. Files' names and locations, the meanings of column headers in tables, how those tables relate to one another, how missing values are represented and handles: everything that has made sense to you for years will suddenly seem a little foolish when you have to explain it to someone else. Apologize in advance, and then forgive yourself, because no matter how bad your data is, theirs may well be worse.