External partnerships: Research boon or burden?

For university researchers wary of collaborating with industry and other organizations, the push toward partnerships by funding agencies and governments may feel more like a hard, sharp shove. But what do private- or public-sector collaborations really mean for already overstretched academics?

lab149083695By Sue Murley

For university researchers wary of collaborating with industry and other organizations, the push toward partnerships by funding agencies and governments may feel more like a hard, sharp shove. Researchers often worry that publications will be delayed, their research agenda hijacked and their research output lessened as a result of the time invested in partnerships.

The trend toward collaboration with non-academic organizations isn’t going away, however. Given the remarkably low levels of R&D in Canada’s businesses compared with other countries, governments want to encourage the flow of knowledge between academic and non-academic sectors to generate more private-sector innovation.

But what do private- or public-sector collaborations mean for already overstretched academics? Well, it can mean higher quality publications, according to some bibliometric analyses:

  • Louis-Michel Lebeau and his colleagues at the Observatoire des sciences et des technologies (OST) at UQAM analyzed Canadian papers indexed in the Science Citation Index (SCI) between 1980 and 2005. They concluded that “the average scientific impact of university-industry papers is significantly above that of both university-only papers and industry-only papers. Collaboration with industries is, thus far from detrimental to the scientific impact of university research and even increases it significantly” (Lebeau et al., 2008).
  • A similar analysis of 2.1 million U.S. papers published between 1981 and 1994 found that “university-industry papers are more highly cited on average than single-university research, indicating that university researchers can often enhance the impact of their research by collaborating with an industry researcher.” The researchers found that a higher percentage of papers with both university and industry authors made it into the top 1,000 most-cited papers than papers with authors at a single university (Hicks, 1999).
  • A report by the non-profit organization Nesta looked at seven countries, including Canada, and found that “biomedical academic papers that are co-published with industry have greater citation impact than purely academic papers.” As the figure below indicates, the effect on impact is substantial.

GraphOther studies have shown an increase in the quantity of publications, and the literature largely indicates that “contract research and scientific activities do not hamper each other: systematic engagement in contract research coincided with increased publication outputs, without affecting the nature of the publications involved.” (van Looy, 2006; see this article as well for a literature review.)

As with everything, the devil is in the details. The academic discipline, the research capacity of the external organization, the commitment and focus of both the partner and the academic team – all will play a role. But if you have avoided partnerships because of worries about the effect on your research, you might want to reconsider – or at least dig into the research on the subject.


Hicks, Diana, and Hamilton, Kimberly. Real Numbers: Does university-industry collaboration adversely affect university research? Issues in Science and Technology, Volume XV Issue 4, Summer 1999

Lebeau, Louis-Michel et al. The effect of university–industry collaboration on the scientific impact of publications: the Canadian case, 1980–2005. Research Evaluation (2008) 17(3): 227-232.

Marston, Louise. All together now: Improving cross-sector collaboration in the UK biomedical industry. Nesta (2011).

van Looy, B., Callaert, J., and Debackere, K. “Publication and patent behaviour of academic researchers: Conflicting, reinforcing or merely co-existing?” Research Policy (2006): 35, 596-608.

Sue Murley is Senior Director, Strategic Communications and Planning at McGill and holds a PhD in English Literature. This post reflects her personal opinions, not the official position of McGill University.