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Collaboration Roles and Responsibilities

Defining the terminology and roles of PIs, Co-PIs, co-investigators, consultants and subcontractors on a grant.

Leora Cherney

DOI: doi:10.1044/cred-pvd-path009

The following is a transcript of the presentation video, edited for clarity.

Your ultimate goal, in terms of research, is to be the principal investigator of a grant you’re going to submit. But there are lots of other roles that one could take on a research grant. So I’m going to go through some of the different roles and try to talk about what some of the differences are, because you may also be invited to take on a different role in somebody else’s grant. So we need to sort out what this terminology is.

Principal Investigator(s)

First, the principal investigator, the PI. This is the person who is responsible for the preparation, the conduct, and the administration of a research grant. And it really has two major parts to it: It has responsibility for the technical piece, the science of the project. But it also has responsibility for the administration, the financial piece, reporting back to the funding agency, and knowing policies and guidelines associated with having a grant—especially when it’s a federal grant because there are lots of pieces related to that. Being a PI really takes a lot of different skills, not just knowing the science in the topic you’re working on.

Can there be multiple program directors or multiple principal investigators? This is a relatively new model, but as the NIH has recognized the importance of team science and recognized the importance of collaborations, the multiple PI model has been introduced. There is no limit on the number of PIs that can be identified on a particular project. So there’s no upper limit. But all of the PIs that are involved in a multiple PI model take equal responsibility for the running, coordination, and reporting back to the sponsoring agency about what’s happening within that study or that project or that program.

In identifying or having this multiple PI model, you are required to write a plan. Some kind of administrative plan that shows first of all the need for having multiple PIs. And how that plan is going to be manifested. How are you going to communicate with each other? How often are you going to communicate with each other? And the specific roles and responsibilities that might be different. You do need to justify the need for having multiple PIs.

Key Personnel

The key personnel are the people who are actually listed and named on the grant application. The key personnel are people who are going to be contributing to the science, the conduct, and the development of that grant.


A co-investigator is somebody the PI is going to identify, usually that co-investigator is somebody who is going to be key personnel. The PI is also responsible for identifying investigators. Investigators may carry out some of the work—but you can have investigators who may not necessarily be named on the grant application as key personnel.

Other Investigators

In terms of the hierarchy, you have the PI, you may have your co-PI, you have co-investigators, but you can also have investigators who may not be key personnel and may not necessarily be named. Often they may be collecting the data for you. They may assist in certain aspects of analysis.


Collaborations versus consultation. A consultant is usually somebody who is going to be paid a fee for service. The consultant is usually not a person who does too much work on the grant, but the consultant is maybe going to lend their expertise in terms of the science, interpretation. Often we may ask people to be consultants because they are important people in the field, they are well recognized, and their expertise in terms of what they contribute to the grant development will be valued by the reviewers at the grant submission. Consultants may also be your statistician. Although sometimes your statistician may be a subcontractor.


A subcontractor—if the person is at the same institution that you are at, you usually would not have a subcontract with them. Usually a subcontract is going to be saved for somebody who is at a different institution where there is some kind of legal document written that identifies the scope of the work they are going to be doing and how much they are going to be paid.

If you have somebody at another institution, perhaps, who is just collecting data for you, recruiting subjects and maybe just collecting data, but not contributing to the science. You may want them to be listed as a subcontractor as opposed to a collaborator. Some of this will play in when you are determining things like authorship.

Memo of Agreement

If somebody is at the same institution as you, and you are figuring out what everybody is going to do and what the scope of work might be, then you probably want to develop some kind of memo of agreement that will be some kind of written document that will identify what they are going to be doing. And this could be just as simple as an email that lists what the understanding is on both your parts about what the person is going to be doing.

Some people are involved in the development of the experimental design, and the protocol development. You may have people involved in equipment purchases, in the recruitment, in the data collection, the analysis, and the dissemination of the results.

So all of this you want to be able, as much as possible, to identify up front. This is going to be written in the statement of work, the SOW, that will be part of a subcontract or a part of your memo of agreement.

Leora Cherney
Northwestern University and Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Presented at Pathways (2015) as part of a panel session on “Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Winning the Game of Chutes and Ladders.” Hosted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Research Mentoring Network.

Pathways is sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a U24 grant awarded to ASHA.

Copyrighted Material. Reproduced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in the Clinical Research Education Library with permission from the author or presenter.