Working Group Report: Collaborations in PER

MacKenzie Stetzer and Michael Loverude

The Working Group on Collaborations in Physics Education Research (PER) was given an initial charge of identifying broad types of collaborations that are possible as well as systemic issues that discourage researchers from collaborating and hinder the productivity and effectiveness of existing collaborative projects. At its first meeting, the Working Group discussed this charge but felt that it was of greater importance to take this opportunity to identify the needs of PER community members regarding collaboration. In particular, many researchers have positions in which they are the only PER faculty member at an institution. For these 'singletons,' collaboration is an essential means of maintaining a productive research effort. We therefore discussed specific recommendations for fostering PER collaborations in order to provide additional support for singletons and any other researchers looking for collaborators. As a result, our report includes several items we plan to propose to the Physics Education Research Leadership and Organizing Committee (PERLOC) for its consideration, as well as other suggestions for future action on the part of the Working Group and the PER community.

The general strategy of the Working Group was to begin by identifying the benefits and costs associated with collaborations (in general) and then deciding how to divide up the types of possible collaborations in a meaningful way. The Working Group considered establishing several sub-groups that would investigate, in detail, different type of collaborations. However, given the increased emphasis on efforts to foster collaboration, we decided that certain sub-groups would focus exclusively on formulating broader recommendations while other sub-groups would focus on characterizing specific types of collaborations and identifying their unique needs.

In order to make this document most useful to the larger PER community and to best capture the general consensus of the Working Group, the authors have decided to focus much of the report on outlining steps the community can take to facilitate PER collaborations—at the expense of documenting in detail some of the other efforts of the Group. Therefore, in this report, we only briefly discuss some general advantages and challenges of collaborative PER and outline four broad categories of collaborations. We then describe, in detail, several specific proposals for fostering increased collaboration by members of the PER community.

Benefits and costs of collaborations

During the first meeting of the Working Group, much of the discussion focused on identifying the benefits and costs of collaboration. While the following lists are not exhaustive, they highlight common reasons why a researcher might wish to collaborate as well as potentially problematic aspects of collaboration with which researchers should be familiar.

Benefits of collaboration

The advantages of collaborating with other researchers include:

  • Access to a larger number of students and to diverse student populations (important for generalizing findings)
  • Institutional, cultural, and national diversity of researchers and research subjects
  • Expansion of professional network
  • Fresh ideas and different researcher perspectives (e.g., diverse views about the nature of PER)
  • Expertise with multiple research techniques
  • Broadening of research language
  • Increased opportunities for feedback and discussion throughout project
  • Higher quality of work due to issues of accountability, deadlines, and additional reviewing
  • Opportunity to learn how to deal with situations beyond your control (i.e., “roll with the punches”)
  • Greater potential for funding.

Costs of collaboration

Some of the disadvantages of collaboration identified by the Working Group include:

  • Differences in Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements Costs (in terms of money, time, and effort) of travel and communication
  • Possibility of poor matches (due to different research standards and ethics or different beliefs about the nature of PER)
  • Differences in academic calendars, course sequencing, and institutional types
  • Collaboration between a junior faculty member and a senior faculty member may be viewed as a lack of independence on the part of the junior member
  • Multiple author papers may be perceived negatively in tenure and promotion cases
  • Compromise on specific research goals may be necessary in order to accommodate all collaborators
  • Poorly-defined collaborator roles and difficulty in achieving an appropriate and agreed-upon balance among different researchers' roles in a project (e.g., certain collaborators may feel “used”)
  • Possibility of collaborators failing to stay on schedule, thereby holding up the project
  • Learning curve for successful collaboration
  • Cultural, national, and linguistic differences associated with international collaborations; analogous differences associated with interdisciplinary collaborations
  • Additional time required when investigators lack experience or background in PER or discipline-based education research
  • Different (and possibly conflicting) expectations from different departments and faculty for graduate students involved in collaborations (particularly when they are interdisciplinary).

Types of collaborations

The Working Group also sought to identify, in a meaningful way, the different types of collaborations that exist in PER. While many classification schemes are possible, the one presented here represents an effort to highlight the role of collaborations in assisting junior researchers who may be singletons at their institutions. In addition, although large-scale collaborations (modeled on those employed by high-energy physicists) might be particularly well suited for exploring larger questions (e.g., research-based improvement of the K-12 education, which would include collaborative efforts in teacher preparation, curriculum development, and in-depth investigations of several different populations), the Working Group felt that, in the absence of either a well-defined vision for such a collaboration or the existence of a collaboration of this type, the discussion would be limited to collaborations that are small to average in size. For this reason, we came up with four categories of collaborations:

1. Collaborations designed to foster the professional development of junior researchers

In these collaborations, a junior researcher (possibly a singleton) or graduate student works with established PER faculty at a different institution. Such collaborations help junior faculty become involved in new areas of research, gain familiarity with new techniques, receive detailed constructive feedback on their work, and conduct investigations that extend beyond the limitations of their independently secured grants.

2. Collaborations in which collaborators employ similar techniques

In this type of collaboration, researchers typically share a common background, similar expertise, and a shared perspective on PER. By collaborating in this manner, researchers are more easily able to generalize on the basis of their findings due to larger data sets that reflect more diverse student populations. Since common techniques are used, collaborators can be deeply involved in all aspects of the project, thereby improving the overall quality of the work.

3. Collaborations in which collaborators specialize in different techniques

The strength of this type of collaboration lies in the fact that a single research question (or set of questions) may be approached using multiple techniques. As a result, investigators are able to explore questions in PER that cannot be adequately probed using a single technique. Similarly, a researcher with a primarily theoretical focus might collaborate with another whose expertise is primarily experimental, as is often the case in other fields of physics. Although the role of each investigator involved in this type of collaboration tends to be well defined, the diverse perspectives of the researchers tend to enrich the quality of the project as a whole and help ensure that the work appeals to a broader audience.

4. External collaborations

In external collaborations, physics education researchers work closely with education researchers who specialize in other fields (e.g., math, engineering, biology, chemistry, cognitive science, and psychology) on common research projects.  While the specific nature of such a collaboration may fall under any of the three previous categories, external collaborations benefit from the introduction of diverse perspectives from different research communities. In addition, they are ideally suited to investigate questions that may transcend instruction in any specific discipline (e.g., questions pertaining to the nature of science).

Recommendations for facilitating collaborations

After much discussion, the Working Group developed several specific recommendations for fostering collaboration in PER. (It is important to note that the many of the resources proposed by the Working Group could be useful to all junior PER faculty, regardless of their interest in collaborative research.) The recommendations are discussed below.

IRB resources

One of the primary obstacles identified by the Working Group to collaboration between PER faculty at different institutions as well as to young singleton faculty embarking upon new projects was human subjects protocol and the associated documentation required by each Institution's IRB (Institutional Review Board). Indeed, differences in IRB requirements across institutions (and even across different departments within a single institution) can make it difficult for an investigator to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. Moreover, new faculty hired at institutions without PER colleagues frequently run into considerable obstacles when attempting to secure IRB approval for the first time at an institution. In some cases researchers may find it necessary to 'educate' a local IRB, whose members might not be familiar with research of this type.

For this reason, the Working Group advocated the establishment of a single website providing IRB resources for PER faculty. The website would include several items:

  1. A standard blanket IRB document: This IRB form would be written and approved by PERLOC and it would cover typical techniques used in PER (e.g., written questions, interviews, and video documentation of instruction)
  2. A statement from PERLOC endorsing the Standard IRB form and indicating that it has been accepted by IRBs at a wide variety of institutions
  3. Sample (anonymized) IRB forms for different types of approved PER investigations conducted at various institutions
  4. Sample (anonymized) consent forms used in the above investigations.

It is anticipated that such a website might help foster increased uniformity in the area of IRB requirements and therefore foster increased collaboration. (A restricted website with preliminary versions of sample forms has already been created by members of the Working Group.)

Funding: Grants supporting collaborative work

As discussed above, some of the costs associated with collaboration are financial (e.g., the cost of travel and videoconferencing/computer networking resources). The Working Group therefore proposed a dedicated PER grant line supporting collaborative work. Preference would be given to singletons from different institutions. Ideally, these awards would serve as seed funding for the establishment of a long-term, sustainable collaboration (domestic or international). They would provide funding for travel, computer resources, and possibly students. A separate grant line would support travel to conferences (with specific allocations for graduate students and for other researchers). It is hoped that PERLOC will look into acquiring support for such grants.

Online Resources

The Working Group argued that the establishment of appropriate online resources could help facilitate collaboration with a minimal amount of overhead. While there was not sufficient time during the 2009 FFPER to converge upon a detailed list of items or documents that should be hosted online, a useful set of online resources maintained by the community might include:

  • PER overview: A collection of documents intended to support faculty making the case for PER at their institution (e.g., for a new hire or a promotion or tenure case). This collection would include general information about the field, statistics such as acceptance rates for various journals, a list of research groups, and a list of tenured faculty.
  • IRB resources described above
  • The report from the Working Group on Collaborations in PER
  • Descriptions of existing collaborations in the field and the questions they seek to address
  • Advice for singletons and other junior faculty in several different professional matters, including collaborations (e.g., what to look for and what to avoid)
  • FAQ for PER faculty at different stages in their careers
  • List of funding sources (i.e., agencies that have funded PER in the past)
  • Links to the PER community (including relevant list servers, PER pages on social and professional networks, and the PER Topical Group)
  • List of technical tools and resources to facilitate long-distance collaborations.

The Working Group felt that it is imperative that individuals are familiar with one another's work prior to entering into a professional collaboration. For this reason, traditional networking (at meetings and online) was favored over the establishment of some type of online PER “matchmaking” site.

Additional efforts to encourage internal collaborations

In order to encourage collaborations that would foster the professional development of junior researchers, the Working Group also recommended the encouragement of future faculty and junior faculty to visit other groups and researchers and to explore different methodologies and research projects through the establishment of the following:

  • Graduate student exchange program
  • Travel funds designated for use by young faculty for short visits to other groups or researchers
  • Regional retreats for junior PER faculty
  • More formal opportunities for larger PER groups to host junior faculty (e.g., scheduled open houses).

The Working Group felt that many of the online resources described earlier in this report would be helpful in facilitating internal collaborations in which common techniques are employed. However, some ongoing PER projects that could be strengthened through collaborative efforts are neither documented in the literature nor presented at meetings or conferences. Therefore, the Working Group argued that improved efforts to increase the visibility of such projects (e.g., inclusion in a list of ongoing projects) would be particularly useful.

The Working Group recognized that meetings such as the FFPER do much to foster collaborations in which researchers specialize in different techniques. However, additional recommendations include:

  • Encouragement of researchers to review PER papers that document projects employing techniques that differ in nature from their own
  • Increased exposure of graduate students to different types of research and techniques via journal clubs, seminars, workshops, and graduate student exchange programs
  • Publication of review paper(s) for the field and the development of a PER textbook.

Efforts to encourage external collaborations

The Working Group felt that members of the PER community should be exploring opportunities for collaboration with education researchers in other fields (e.g., engineering, math, and cognitive science) and with researchers in colleges of education specializing in science and math. A few specific recommendations by the Working Group to facilitate such collaborations include:

  • Establishment of communication between the organizers of FFPER and the organizers of the Chemical Education Gordon Conference
  • Coordination between PERLOC and ACS Division of Chemical Education
  • Development of proposals for joint conferences for education researchers from diverse disciplines.

The Working Group also suggested that PER researchers actively seek out and work with Centers for Teaching Excellence at their institutions (e.g., collaborating on the development of a Learning Assistant program). In addition, it was felt that the establishment of research collaborations with K-12 schools and community colleges may be productive. The Working Group also recommended that PERLOC identify ongoing external collaborations and facilitate contact between members of the different collaborations (using online resources). In addition, a master website of all science education research groups around the world as well as a site containing a series of short descriptions of external collaboration models (including details of establishment) submitted by the PER community were also identified as online resources that might help foster more external collaborations by highlighting common interests and productive modes of collaboration.


Although our efforts extended somewhat beyond our original charge, the Working Group focused much of its efforts on identifying several specific recommendations for fostering collaboration both within the PER community (internal collaborations) and between the PER community and other education researchers (external collaborations). The general consensus of the Working Group was that the development and official endorsement of online IRB documents and other resources as well as the establishment of collaboration seed grants would be most valuable in facilitating PER collaborations and supporting junior singleton researchers. On the basis of Working Group discussions, it is clear that the formation of productive, ongoing collaborations will play a key role in ensuring the vitality and advancement of physics education research as a field of scholarly activity.


The authors, as facilitators of the Working Group, would like to thank all of the other members of the Group for their insights, initiative, substantive contributions, and incredible enthusiasm: Heather Dobbins, Noah Finkelstein, Kara Gray, Jeff Hawkins, Andrew Heckler, Joss Ives, Olivia Levrini, Beth Lindsey, David Meltzer, Chaya Nanavati, Amy Robertson, Mel Sabella, Homeyra Sadaghiani, and Rachel Scherr.

MacKenzie Stetzer is a Research Assistant Professor with the Physics Education Group in the Department of Physics at the University of Washington.

Michael Loverude is an Associate Professor of Physics at California State University, Fullerton.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.