Columns Indian Scenario

How are we viewing collaborations?

Shubha Tole

An incident that occurred several years ago at a meeting in India that’s troubled me ever since. My student had a really good poster containing data that was eventually published in Nature Neuroscience (Remedios et al., 2007). We study the developing brain, and had obtained several mutant embryos from collaborators to examine them for a phenotype in the amygdala, our structure of interest. There were 6 middle” authors from Japan, Germany, and the US. The first 5 authors were from my lab and I was senior author. However, when the judges evaluating the posters for the best poster prize came by, their first comment to my student was oh, you have foreign authors on this poster, that means the work was mostly done there, no?” Needless to say my student’s clarification and his very clear and analytical explanation of the poster went unnoticed. This was a pretty depressing experience for my student, because nothing he said seemed to matter- and it was also his first eye-opening glimpse of how much needs to change in the broader community in India.

This issue of foreign collaborators” has affected the evaluations of scientists at every level- students, new PIs, mid-career, and even senior scientists, who all have, at one time or another, been subject to the insidious but did s/​he really motivate the collaboration, or just provided some data? How do we know for sure?” And then some of these well meaning evaluators go on to advice PIs to make sure you publish a few papers without any foreign authors, make sure you plan this in your work.” ???!!! How can one possibly plan NOT to collaborate? What if reviewers ask for an experiment that requires a collaborative angle- is one supposed to say oh but I can’t have a foreign author on my paper?” Collaborations should be determined by what is the best possible way to achieve the best possible science. If it’s the easiest way to get a reagent, or add a component to one’s analysis, or if an exchange of ideas will enrich the project at hand, one should be free to GO for it- without the penalty that it will negatively impact promotions, prizes, or other forms of peer opinion.

One way of bringing about change is that those of us who are on panels evaluating student posters, or on other committees at higher levels, should speak up for candidates whose foreign collaborations are being held against them. After all, its not difficult to determine who contributed what- such is often stated in author contributions at the end of the papers- or in case of posters, one can just assess by asking the student. And it’s a positive thing if someone is able to attract non-local collaborators! To think otherwise indicates a depressingly low opinion of Indian science. Even more dangerously, such opinions will drive people to NOT collaborate, which can compromise the science itself- in turn providing justification for a low opinion of Indian Science.

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Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Her seminal contributions to understanding how the brain develops in the early embryo have been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the Infosys Prize. Prof. Tole leverages her experience as a mentor, policy-maker and senior scientist to actively engage in science outreach that inspires younger scientists and is a vocal advocate for women in science and of mental health awareness in academia.