On the 8th of December, the Global Development Research Division held a workshop entitled ‘Building a research network’. The workshop was held online and hosted by Division Lead, Dr Alex Arnall. The main topics that were presented and discussed were as follows:

Going step by step

The first discussant to present was Dr Sophie Clot, from the department of economics, who shared her expertise in building a network of local collaborators for fieldwork. Over the years, Sophie has worked on a variety of applied projects across the Global South linked to microfinance and conservation. Many of these projects have required her to foster partnerships with multiple stakeholders including NGOs, local businesses, policy makers and research institutes. In her experience, working with local academics and universities often makes for the most fruitful collaborations as it can provide access to rich and pre-established networks. She went on to reflect that leveraging such pre-existing networks can bolster both implementation and impact. Sophie advocates for a step-by-step approach where collaborations initially focus on smaller projects as a means of building robust long-lasting relationships that can eventually scale up to more ambitious ventures.

Maintaining a public profile

The second presentation was given by another economist, Dr Stefania Lovo. Stefania began with the disclaimer that networking isn’t necessarily something that she believes comes naturally to her. However, reflecting on her own academic journey she has come to recognise that embracing your own “networking style” is the key to brokering successful partnerships. For example, junior researchers may find face-to-face networking daunting particularly when approaching more established academics. In such situations a well-penned and considered email could be more effective than an in-person conversation. Stefania also highlighted the importance of early-stage co-authorship, acknowledging that co-authors are often invaluable nodes of research networks from which many more future partnerships can stem. Finally, Stefania also believes that maintaining a public profile through various virtual channels (e.g. LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.edu) has also played an essential role in making new connections and expanding her web beyond purely academic circles.

Working across disciplinary boundaries

The third speaker was Human Geographer Professor Mike Goodman. Over the course of his career Mike has increasingly focused on co-creation and collaboration to produce high-quality transdisciplinary research. Mike fervently believes the cardinal rule for building academic networks is to be as open as possible and to consistently engage with concepts, topics and theories that may be well outside of your comfort zone. On a practical level, this can be achieved by reading widely, attending “off brand” academic events and approaching scholars from other disciplines. Indeed, Mike cautions against instrumentalism as limiting oneself to a narrow focus can hinder our ability to expand our intellectual horizons. He also advocates a pro-active approach to building new connections, stating that many of his most productive partnerships have blossomed from “I love your work emails”. At the same time, he acknowledges that cementing such partnerships depends on them being mutually beneficial and, therefore, researchers should also consider and communicate what they can contribute when entering a new collaborative relationship.

Building from the ‘ground up’

Finally, Dr Sally Lloyd-Evans concluded the workshop by reflecting on her experience establishing a community-led participatory action research network. In 2014, a group of residents from Whitley (in Reading) approached her to request her assistance in leading some participatory research regarding community transport. Sally immediately saw the opportunity to draw upon her experience with participatory methodologies she had previously developed whilst working with communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. In its preliminary stages, the aptly named “Whitley Researchers” trained local residents, young people, and community organisations to carry out the research themselves. This process generated a strong research network linking university staff and students with a local community. The overarching aim was to empower residents and democratise research to create positive and tangible change in the provision of services to the community. Sally attributes the project’s success to establishing shared values and goals early on. Since its inception the collective has grown organically bringing in new partnerships with the council as well as various service providers and NGOs. Likewise, the scope of the research has also evolved considerably to include new topics such as financial exclusion, aspirations and education, and food equality. The biggest take-away from the experience is that building and maintaining research networks are contingent on trust and can therefore only be achieved through a prolonged relationship.

Small can be beautiful

The post-presentation panel generated some important discussions on the benefits as well as the challenges of building research networks. Many of the participants highlighted the importance of building cross-disciplinary networks, acknowledging that such networks can better represent a diversity of voices and may also attract greater funding opportunities. Perhaps more importantly, they have the power to make new and different contributions than networks confined to a single field. However, Sophie noted that research that spans several pedagogies is often time-consuming and collaborators may be confronted by the feeling of not “speaking the same language”. Indeed, a breakdown in communication can quickly fracture research relationships. Sarah Cardey explained that for this reason, whilst an extensive research network may seem attractive, smaller, selective networks are often more effective.

All in all, the workshop reaffirmed that networking is essential to producing high-quality research, irrespective of field or career stage. At the same time, it seems clear that there is no “one size fits all” strategy and instead researchers must remain plastic in their networking approaches.

Written by Sophie De Pauw