In academia, collaboration is a recurring topic, as it is seen as a valuable resource that helps research groups accomplish better results, more efficiently.
We usually define an academic collaborator as someone who can provide you with something that you need for a project, but don’t have immediately available: Expertise on a certain technique, a reagent, access to a specific equipment. Or vice-versa, you may have any of those easily accessible and people will approach you looking for help.
The common rule is that, by providing what the other person needs for their project, and should things work the way they are supposed to such as it leading to a publication, the beneficiaries will include the helping scientist (grad student, postdoc), and their PI as authors in their manuscript.
Generally, when everything is well defined from the beginning, there will be no major issues. I have asked for help, as well as given help to other research groups through these type of agreements, and I personally find them quite enjoyable and productive. In a way, it breaks the loneliness that can be attached to academic research by adding an element of human interaction, by bringing more heads to think together on a common problem.
However, I have also observed situations in which the unwritten rules of collaboration are not respected, and things don’t work so well.
Big “academic egos,” budget constraints, lack of a clear definition of what the individual contributions are to a collaborative project, and unjust recognition contributions, can turn an exciting opportunity into a bitter experience.
There are also grey areas such as when one of the parts needs the results for a grant application, a situation in which the hands-on scientist is not acknowledged on paper, and his/her PI is recognized. In this case, a monetary compensation can be considered.
I believe that the first few important steps in setting up an academic collaboration are to gather everyone involved at a table, lay out the problem, project the time needed to accomplish each task, and at least tentatively, delineate authorships on a possible manuscript.
If you are helping with it, try to gauge how far you’d like to contribute, and think if the time you will spend will be justly recognized. Keep in mind that you should focus on your main project, and not channel most of your time into something secondary, career-wise.
In a fair agreement, you should be able to speak up if you feel that your return is not proportional to your efforts. When everything is discussed and planned beforehand, there should be less margin for detrimental deviations, and it is more likely that things are going to work out in a reasonable and time-efficient manner.