The current trend towards increased research collaboration and larger groups is fuelled by the need to answer bigger questions, but this approach puts individual contributions at risk.
Guest contributor Lucia Possamai
Research ventures where several researchers, groups or institutions work together to answer a research question is becoming known as ‘team science.’ It can be seen at work today in large genetics studies, such as the 100,000 genomes project, in multi-centre clinical trials, or in rare disease consortia. Even on a smaller scale, it is becoming more common for publications to arise from collaborative projects.
As an early career researcher I can appreciate that team science is not just good for science: it gives those of us embarking on our scientific careers the opportunity to take part in research with high impact that would otherwise not be accessible to us. It can remove the pressure to obtain independent funding – in many cases, all funding will have been obtained as part of the larger project’s grant.
Team science also offers more opportunities for supervision and mentorship. Scientists working in collaborations are more likely to acquire transferable skills and training in a variety of research areas, and gain experience that will ease the transition to more senior roles. Like many, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in collaborative research and reap these benefits myself.
Despite these advantages, working in large teams today comes with drawbacks. Researchers can experience less autonomy over their work and a diminished sense of ownership and control, inhibiting the natural development of independence.
The rise of team science has also led to an increase in the number of authors on scientific papers, making assigning and recognising credit more difficult outside first and last authorships.
Discussions with colleagues at a similar career stage has confirmed that this is often the most concerning factor, as career progression still depends on demonstrating research output in the form of authored publications. Even success in applications for funding depends on authorship record.
Team science is certainly good for science, but it can leave scientists at the early stage of their careers wondering whether it’s worth the risk of ending up as only one of many poorly-recognised contributors.
It is now widely recognised that the traditional authorship list does not serve science well. It fails to convey meaningful information on the many contributions from middle authors, most of which have surely been invaluable.
A recent report by the Academy of Medical Sciences makes some exciting suggestions to tackle this problem, including discarding traditional authorship lists and calling on publishers, funders and employers to work together to produce a universal system where more nuanced contributions can be linked to a scientific study.
Replacing authorship lists with a more detailed contribution format could provide welcome security for those of us engaging in team science, ensuring our efforts will be recognised properly. Contribution information will provide clearer evidence to future employers of a scientist’s achievements and skills. If these changes are embraced by the community and adopted in a smart way, young researchers can look forward to having an accessible portfolio of contributions that will accurately reflect their research experience and achievements.
Lucia Possamai is starting her first postdoc as a clinical lecturer at Imperial College London. She has experienced the advantages of collaborative research, and believes much more could be done to facilitate teamwork in science.