Measuring interactions among research grant recipients through social network analysis: insights into evaluating and improving research collaborations.

Author:Barron, Gary R.S.


This project aimed to assess how a major collaborative research grant initiative affected interactions among grant recipients. The Collaborative Research Grant Initiative: Mental Wellness in Seniors and Persons with Disabilities (CRGI) was funded by a grant awarded by the Alberta Minister of Human Services to Alberta Health Services-Addiction & Mental Health. The CRGI had two main goals. First, it funded both academic and practitioner-driven research designed to assist individuals living with a mental illness and disabilities to maximize their independence in the community. In addition, the CRGI was meant to increase awareness of Alberta-based research, and foster collaboration and knowledge exchange, among policy makers, researchers, and community agencies. Developing research collaborations across multiple organizations, disciplines, and locations is a complex challenge and requires significant support (Craven & Bland, 2006). Researchers have argued that we must demonstrate effective knowledge exchange practices in order to better understand what forms of support are effective under real world conditions (Norman & Huerta, 2006).

The CRGI steering committee agreed that a first step toward enhancing collaboration within Alberta was to increase awareness among practitioners and researchers in the mental health field. Several information sessions and knowledge exchange events were held to support potential research grant applicants through the CRGI application process, to encourage collaboration, and to disseminate research results. Activities important to the Ministry included capacity building within community agencies funded by the Ministry; capacity building within the Ministry itself; and multi-sectoral collaboration. The CRGI steering committee also decided to evaluate the effectiveness of the workshops using social network analysis. This paper focuses on the social network analysis results, based on data collected from 26 CRGI participants who were surveyed. The project aimed to assess effects of the CRGI on collaboration between grant recipients and their knowledge of one another's work. Therefore we also aimed to illustrate which components of the CRGI were affective in achieving the Ministry's goals. The survey asked grant recipients for demographic information, through which CRGI activities they had met, and about their collaborative activities with one another before and after winning a CRGI grant and engaging in related events. We include information regarding support activities below and further details regarding the grants, projects awarded funding, and the activities that were undertaken to support their collaboration are available at the Alberta Addiction & Mental Health Research Partnership Program website (

Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis (SNA) is the study of the structure of relations between actors, people, or organizations who have the capacity to take action (Wasserman & Faust, 1994; Scott, 2000). Key SNA principles include: actors are interdependent; resources such as information can be transferred between actors via the nature of their relationships; the form that relationships take between actors can limit or enable the capacity for individual action and; models of networks--their structure--are considered as regularly occurring patterns of relationships between actors within a network (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). In SNA, structure is often illustrated using sociograms or graphs where points (typically actors) are connected by lines (relations) (Scott, 2000). In other words, a sociogram is a graph that represents the people within a social structure and their connections to their peers. These graphs can be effective in visualizing what a network looks like by allowing relations to become visually observable in situations where the observation is typically theoretical or ephemeral.

Social network analysis is a useful means to examine interdisciplinary collaboration (Stokols et al., 2003; Godley, Barron, & Sharma, 2011; Godley, Sharkey, & Weiss, 2013). For example, a comparison of individual attributes and network structure can provide valuable information regarding changes in interdisciplinary cooperation over time (Aboelela, Merrill, Carley, & Larson, 2007). Social network analysis can also be applied to facilitate collaborative innovation and knowledge exchange by elucidating structure and qualities of collaborator networks (Hargadon, 2002), examining how particular characteristics of collaborations affect performance (Thomas-Hunt, Ogden, & Neale, 2003), or revealing forms of collaboration between actors most likely to be productive and maintained (Provan, Harvey, Guernsey de Zapien, 2005; Long, Cunningham, Wiley, Carswell, & Braithwaite, 2013).

For example, Aboelela et al. (2007) used SNA to evaluate a Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Antimicrobial Resistance (CIRAR). They designed questionnaires to ask participants about their knowledge of others involved in the collaboration, as well as the types of work they engaged in with each other. Surveys were administered at the beginning of the group's formation and at 6 and 12 months afterward. By examining changes in disciplinary network composition over time, Aboelela et al. (2007) were able to determine whether the goal of facilitating interdisciplinary research was accomplished. Results demonstrated that after one year of CIRAR's existence, the network ceased to be dominated by participants from medicine and nursing and became composed of a variety of other disciplines. Aboelela et al. (2007) found that the most productive network members were highly connected to others and positioned between many others (bridges), making them potentially good facilitators for the transfer of information and building new connections.

While there have been a number of studies identifying leadership in networks (Long, et al., 2013), exchange of specific information (Wensing, Lieshout, Koetsenruiter, & Reeves, 2010), or implementation of specific evidence based practices (Palinkas, et al., 2011), this current project provides evidence of effective support for enhancing awareness as a first step in building connections between otherwise isolated potential collaborators. As such, this paper provides useful insights for major research grant evaluation, knowledge exchange, and collaboration building practices. We assess CRGI member connectedness and awareness before the CRGI, determine which of the CRGI activities were effective at enhancing awareness of research among CRGI research grant recipients (if any), and describe what changes in networks occurred in relation to the CRGI. The research questions we used to guide this process are; 1) How well integrated were CRGI network members prior to the CRGI-related activities?; 2) Did CRGI activities affect integration?; 3) What changes in relationships among network members occurred after CRGI related activities?

Research Methods

In order to examine the links and relationships between members of a bounded population it is important to survey as complete...

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