How do you start a research network?


We had a question recently from Ely asking for pragmatic advice on starting an international research network. Alyssa Sbisa and Sally Grace wrote “Setting up a professional network” a while back and that post has heaps of relevant good advice that I’d strongly encourage you to check out!

I’d written previously on building a research network on a shoestring, and much of that still applies. I realise now, however, that the earlier post presumed a network that needed cohering and development.

I think Ely is after something that addresses a much earlier step: how do you even get a research network started?

This post aims to tackle this, and would welcome others’ input on the topic. I’m speaking very much from my HaSS (Humanities/Social Sciences) point of view, and realise that other areas may have quite different contexts and ways of doing things. One of the things I should make clear from the start is that I’m talking about how to start a research network with few to zero resources. I’m not talking about setting something up with a ready cache of funding, or the need to access such a cache.

These are the key things you need if you want to start a research network:

A network

OK, so you may be thinking ‘what the heck?’ with this one, but bear with me. Having a personal network (scholarly or otherwise) and forming a research network are two different things. But getting creating a research network requires you to have a strong personal network.

A big part of being the person, or group, that starts a research network is that the most effective first step is to reach out to your immediate circle of colleagues to spread the word for you about this shiny new endeavour. They may not be the actual people who will join the network but they will be the most likely to share your stuff around and lend it their support (and I would include scholarly or professional associations and societies in this – they may not become core participants but they may give you access to the kind of people or other organisations who will be). This kind of advocacy is based on your reputation in various circles and does not exist if you haven’t been developing good connections early and often in your career. We’ve published quite a lot about networking that (hopefully) won’t make you cringe – here’s a selection across various modes so that you can see what ‘networking’ can mean:

RW features a stack of stuff on Twitter and its networking benefits so that’s well worth browsing, too, if this is going to be one of the main ways you connect with colleagues.

So, if you’re thinking of setting up a research network, fingers crossed that you have already been doing these types of things. Investing more time in it straight away would also work well if you’re starting your research network in the near future. Trying to create an instant and meaningful personal network however…that’s a tough row to hoe.

If you’re a PhD researcher, and there’s opportunity for it, I’d highly recommend starting a postgraduate group to cut your teeth in scholarly network and general group management!

Enough momentum and clarity of purpose

An essential part of any successful research network is having the momentum and clarity of purpose to establish and keep growing. What is the group for and does it already exist? Are you bringing together researchers in new and exciting ways who wouldn’t otherwise be in the same group? Is it a growing new area that could do with concentrated energy?

Do your research! Do not set up a snazzy ‘international research network’ for something that others are already doing. If there are very strong national networks that happen to have good international membership, should you be saying that yours is the ‘international network for such-and-such’? Chances are that you’d be targeting the same scholars for membership and you’ll just annoy colleagues who’ve already put in the work to establish those spaces.

  • If you are truly setting up the only thing like it in the world and welcome international scholars in authentic ways, then go for it!
  • If you can see a way to bring several smaller groups together to gain better profile for all and generate wonderful intellectual fizz, do that!
  • If there’s a research network out there that covers what you’re wanting to do, think about participating more strongly in that one rather than starting your own. If you’re set on starting your own even though there’s something already out there that’s very similar, think about your reasons for doing so. There may be good and valid reasons, but you need to think them through because you’ll be trying to draw scholars to yours in particular ways.

Here are some ways to test the waters for whether there’s enough interest in the area to warrant a new research network – if you’re struggling to find enough people or interest, it’s good to know early rather than after you’ve tried to start a new network:

  • See if you can convene a good stream on the area through an existing conference
  • Hold a focused symposium and see what the response is like during the call for papers/interest
  • Again, using an existing conference or association gathering, gauge interest in a ‘special interest group’ or ‘research focus cluster’ in that area and get people together to have a chat about it.
  • If you have a large personal network through which you’re discerning strong threads of interest, find a way to bring those people together to talk further.

Down the track, it would be good for anyone you’d recruit to be core members of your research network to be collegial fellow-travellers in the area already. You’re going to have to work quite closely with them to create and grow this network so it’d be handy to get along! You don’t all have to have exactly the same opinions in the area but it helps to have aligned, sympathetic aims.

Basic infrastructure

To get a good foundation for building a research network’s profile, I’d suggest a combination of these basic digital presences:

  • Website (essential) – recommended pages for the website: About | News | Membership | Resources | Contact >> would also recommend “Meetings” (or Talks or Conferences) page if there are regular ways that people in the network can gather.
  • Facebook group or page
  • Twitter account
  • Social accounts and strong profiles for core network members

Skills: You need people who are willing and able to manage the social media faces of the research network – they need to be social media savvy and good content creators. If you’re running without a budget, this will be the major way people get to know and relate to your group so it is extremely important to make it a strong, engaging presence.

As democratic as you’d like your research network to be, the group must have strong decision-making skills, whether this is one ultimate decision-maker (designated leader) or a very efficient core group.

It would be ideal to have someone (or several people) on board who are good negotiators and adept at approaching potential sponsors (in academia and beyond). You can run mostly on a shoestring but you will occasionally need to make a bigger splash or invite sparkly people in. For this, you need colleagues who are either influential enough to be in there advocating for the network to get funding for its initiatives, or good at creating advocates among those who make the financial decisions.

Meetings? I’m not a fan of meetings in general but I acknowledge the importance of research network meetings to ensure the smooth working and growth of the group. Meeting regularly and planning the next big things (whatever those things are) are essential tasks. It’s very easy for time to lapse between chance or hastily arranged meetings. It’s MUCH better to have, at least, monthly or quarterly discussions to ensure things are moving along and the research network is active and growing.