Soapbox Science

Team Science – The Science of Collaborative Research

Dr. Simon Williams is a Research Associate at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, in Chicago, Illinois. As a member of the Scientific Careers Research and Development Group, he is interested in issues of scientific training and careers, as well as broader issues related to scientific knowledge and the scientific method.

Scientists are usually the ones doing the investigating, not the ones being investigated.  However, a growing number of researchers have recently decided that it is high time that scientists themselves are put under the microscope.  This is a response to the fact that science, as practice and culture, is itself undergoing a rapid evolution.

The science of the twenty-first century looks very different to the science of the Enlightenment or even to the science of the twentieth century.  The days of the lone scientist, immersed in their laboratory, locked in their disciplinary silo, narrowly focused on basic research problems is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In their place, we see the emergence of a new breed of “Team Science”; where  large, cross-disciplinary teams focus on complex, applied and translational problems.

Because Team Science is evolving so quickly, how are we to be sure that it is working? Enter the “Science of Team Science”, or SciTS for short.  SciTS is a growing field of scholarly research that explores and evaluates the latest methods and tools used in the practice of Team Science.   SciTS is being spearheaded by a group of researchers, including Holly Falk-Krzesinski and her colleagues, at Northwestern University’s Clinical and Translational Science (NUCATS) Institute.  Building on a National Cancer Institute (NCI) conference on “Assessing the Value of Transdisciplinary Research” in 2008, the first Annual International Science of Team Science Conference was held in Chicago in April 2010, and has continued to grow in size and scale since.

A full range of the online tools available to Team Science researchers (The Team Science Toolkit) can be found on the NCI’s website.  We are, I feel, witnessing a digital revolution in the organization of scientific collaboration.

Here, I want to summarize some of the latest tools being used in Team Science.  As SciTS starts to discuss and evaluate these tools, it can help to address the three main questions on any would-be collaborator’s mind: How do I find suitable collaborators; how do I fund my collaborations and; how do I know if my collaboration is working or not?

  • Firstly, how do we connect with people whose interests match our own?  Whilst we’ve all heard about Facebook (well at least 1 billion of us worldwide have), less well known is the Team Science networking site, VIVO.  VIVO is kind of like a Facebook for scientists, except the aim is to form interdisciplinary connections, rather than primarily to share embarrassing drunken photos or holiday snaps!  Actually, VIVO is perhaps more like a for scientists.  Although again, instead of searching for your perfect match according to whether they prefer cats to dogs, or hiking to horror movies, you are searching for your perfect match according to whether they prefer nature to nurture, Vygotsky to Piaget, or whatever.  Having previously braved the world of online dating myself, I just hope that “science matchmaking” is a more humane and less arbitrary experience than its romance-oriented equivalents.
  • Speaking of matches made in heaven, the course of true love across disciplines rarely runs smooth.  Many a well-intentioned pair of natural and social scientists have found themselves to be “star-crossed collaborators”, thwarted by their different disciplinary dispositions.   Never is this more apparent than in my own field of public health, where a constellation of social and clinical psychologists, sociologists, epidemologists and molecular biologists often struggle to reach a compromise between their competing philosophical and theoretical backgrounds.  To this end, Michael O’Rourke at the University of Idaho, developed the philosophical toolbox project.  This approach sees collaborators responding to a set of 34 statements both before and after a dialogue-based workshop.  The statements seek to uncover an individual’s views on how science should be practiced. Examples include, whether a researcher prefers quantitative vs. qualitative methods or reductionist vs. holistic approaches.  By asking questions, the idea is that, by making our dispositions more explicit, we are able to more effectively work through and round them.  Research into this method is showing how it has a positive effect on the majority of participants and how in some cases how a substantial proportion of responses changed as a result of the workshop.
  • Now you’ve done the hard part and found suitable collaborators, it’s time for the even harder part – finding a grant to support your project.  As scientists, we all know we either “publish or perish”, but isn’t it equally (if not more so) the case that we either “fund or fail”?  In a time where we need larger grants (precisely because we need larger research teams for more applied problems) and where research budgets are being reduced  (e.g. the effect of the Sequester on the US National Institutes of Health), science finds itself in a bit of a catch-22.  The website In4Grants aims to revolutionize the way in which science teams seek and secure funding for their research. It’s sort of a combination of a meta-database and social media.  In4Grants has a context-based search engine, which allows users to find opportunities, contracts and funding websites   Also, as they prepare their grant applications, users can invite collaborators, draw up project budgets and establish project timetables.  In4Grants essentially facilitates the complicated processes of finding grants and preparing grant applications, and is particularly relevant for multi-institution Science Teams.
  • So, you’ve created your team, and better still, found enough funding to ensure that everyone gets suitably paid for services rendered in the lab (yes, even the grad students!).  What next?  One of the main things SciTS is interested in is measuring and maximising productivity of science teams over time.  Back to the dating analogy: once the honeymoon period wears off, scientists like daters, need to work at their relationship.  One popular tool to measure and monitor collaborative harmony is the Collaboration Success Wizard .  This is an online “diagnostic survey” which allows research teams who are globally distributed to assess the potential strengths and weaknesses of their collaboration, through personal and project-level reports.  For current projects, the reports can be used to provide useful information about whether any mid-course corrections might be useful.

These tools are part of a wider move toward the institutionalisation of Team Science.  One example is the creation of collaborative research ventures, like the Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers (TTURCs) in the US.  Another is the birth of inherently interdisciplinary journals, like Translational Behavioral Medicine, which has recently published a special issue on Team Science.

Although I am convinced that the use of these remote and technologically-mediated collaboration tools will continue to grow, the continued popularity of conferences like the SciTS annual meeting, is proof that the ol’-fashioned face-to-face conference, as a platform for intellectual exchange, is not set for extinction just yet.

The Fourth Annual Science of Team Science conference is being held in Chicago, 24-27th June 2013.  Registration for the conference is now open.  The organizers are currently accepting abstract submissions until March 15th.  For more details, see:



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    Allison Stelling said:

    Face-to-face will never go extinct- this is always the best way to evaluate a scientist. However, it will be severely reduced from Boom-level funding times. Heck, I put my Facebook profile into my job applications. Although I am seriously considering China, the US seems more wedded to its hypothesis than it is to its data.

    Additionally, a huge block of text is poor writing and worse Editing. I expect more from Science.

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    Allison Stelling said:

    Wait, I mean Nature. This is why Authors need Editors….

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    Holly Falk-Krzesinski said:

    Much like the Team Science tools piece published earlier this year at, which also features the Northwestern-developed ( Also, it’s worth noting that Northwestern doesn’t use only VIVO, rather its choice of a research networking solution, called Northwestern Scholars, is based on Elsevier’s SciVal Experts platform with robust semantic searching capabilities + VIVO for representing information as RDF triples, see

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