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Why co-investigators count

The ins and outs of an unsung role in research

What is a co-investigator, or co-I? They are not a research associate, working primarily to the direction of one of the investigators. They are also not a collaborator who provides specific expertise necessary for one narrow aspect of the project. Nor are they the principal investigator (PI), yet they still have a significant role in a project’s intellectual leadership.

The distinctions between these roles are not fixed, and different funders draw them differently. The picture is further confused because there is no one model of academic leadership for research projects. There are auteur principal investigators, where the PI is the star of the show, with the co-Is as supporting actors playing very specific roles. There are ‘first-among-equals’ PIs, who work on partnership or team projects, where responsibility is shared fairly evenly and the PI is only listed as such because someone needs to be.

There’s the executive PI, who provides leadership and coordination but whose time commitment is relatively limited. Contrast this with the chief operating PI—not always the most experienced or eminent of the investigators but the one who’s providing the intellectual leadership (supported by colleagues) and putting in the hard yards to make it happen.

There is one further model: the boilerplate PI. The project isn’t really their idea, but they’re the highest profile team member, so their name gets bolted on. This model is best avoided, not least because reviewers will rightly be sceptical of its success. If there are concerns about the level of experience of the real PI, it’s better to put in place support structures for that person.

Ideally, who should be PI, and what model of academic leadership the project follows, should emerge organically from the work package, team and the funder’s requirements. The project should define the structure, not the other way round.

Seven golden rules

The most straightforward way to get research funding is to be co-I on someone else’s project. What’s more, as a career move, positioning yourself as an attractive collaborator—who is credible and has a certain collegiate attitude—is an excellent play.

But there’s no excuse for free-riding on a PI’s hard toil. Over the years, I’ve witnessed some poor behaviour, sometimes so poor that it’s collapsed the whole project. As a result, I’ve come up with seven golden rules for a successful co-I.

  1. Do or do not—there is no ‘try’. If you’re approached to be a ­co-I, you have a decision to make. You’re either in or you’re out. The bid doesn’t have to be your top priority, but you must be able to make it a priority. If you can’t, you shouldn’t accept the invitation.
  2. Accept and respect the PI’s leadership. By agreeing that a colleague should be PI, you are accepting their leadership. That doesn’t mean that what they say is a diktat, but if you’re not prepared to (broadly) follow their lead, you shouldn’t accept co-I status. 
  3. Complete all admin on time. You’ll need to provide a CV to a specified format and/or enter similar information into an online form. Failing to complete it can prevent proposals from being submitted.
  4. Inform your costings team straight away and introduce them to the PI and the PI’s costing team. When administrator speaks unto administrator, everything goes more smoothly. 
  5. Provide quality content at the right scale for the proposal. You’ll be asked to draft or amend sections of the proposal related to your expertise. You should do so in the context of the available space. Yes, it’s easier to edit down than to edit up, but it’s lazy and selfish to expect the PI to do it when the person in the best position to do that editing is you.
  6. If asked, be a critical friend for your colleagues. It’s likely the PI will ask you to read and comment on multiple drafts of the application. Unless you’ve been specifically directed otherwise, you should read and comment on the whole draft, not just on ‘your bits’. If there are parts of the application that are inconsistent, or that aren’t convincing, you should point this out.
  7. Start as you mean to go on. The relationships, norms and working practices established at grant application stage set the tone for the whole project. And the whole project might last a while. So, make a commitment to get things right from the start.

Multidisciplinary teams

One thing is certain when it comes to co-Is: as we move to larger and more ambitious projects requiring multidisciplinary teams, the co-I role will become ever more important. This isn’t yet reflected in the organisational mindset of many academic or funding institutions, and I’ll talk about that in the next Research Fortnight. 

Adam Golberg is research development manager (charities) at the University of Nottingham

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com