Being a Team Player: Opportunities and Challenges in the Era of Collaborative Science

Özge Gürcanlı Fischer-Baum is an award-winning educator and John Hopkins University trained cognitive scientist who applies the science of learning to ground educational initiatives in research.

For the past two decades, the number of authors per publication has been on the rise, and international and interdisciplinary collaborations have become more common (Adams, 2013; Wu et al., 2019). This trend reflects the blossoming of team science—outcome-oriented research involving multiple collaborators, often from different institutions or disciplines (Ridley, 2016).

A prime example of team science is the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES). CHILDES was founded in 1984 to provide a platform where language-development researchers could publicly share transcripts and recordings from their studies (MacWhinney & Snow, 1985). As of late 2023, the database hosts 30 languages from 230 distinct corpora and has given rise to over 3,000 publications (MacWhinney, 2023).

Similarly, the ManyBabies Consortium (2020) is a recent developmental collaborative project that started with 69 labs from 16 countries testing 2,845 infants globally. The consortium has produced 37 publications since its founding 4 years ago, and those publications have garnered 800 citations. Developmental scientists would agree that human infants are incredible learning machines who can outperform artificial intelligence (AI) models in novel learning tasks (Gopnik, 2023), and these two databases provide an infrastructure for psychologists to explore the mysteries of the human mind from a universal standpoint.

Teamwork goes beyond creating data-sharing platforms, though that’s always a good starting point. The Advanced Computational Neuroscience Network (ACNN) is a recent big data neuroscience collective that brings together seven institutions from the United States. In addition to creating sustainable and efficient information-sharing practices, the collective organizes workshops to educate a new generation of researchers who will pursue a consensus on the basic requirements and principles of neuroscience research.

Team science can bolster your opportunities to get your work published. Why? First, having a data-sharing infrastructure eliminates redundancies, such as developing multiple analysis plans for the same data set and working on similar methodologies that will address the same research question (Forscher et al, 2023). This saves time and creates space for scientists to dedicate their time to writing.

Second, this type of collective gives visibility and citation opportunities to scholars who would otherwise be subject to “global citation inequality,” a term coined by social scientists in Denmark to explain how well-known scientists receive awards and get cited more than their research alone merits (Nielsen & Andersen, 2021). According to this claim, scientific communities resemble stratified social systems and create their privileged groups with a bias favoring prestigious and western institutions. Writing a scientific article in a collective, therefore, helps scholars who would have been left behind receive the opportunities and recognition that they deserve.

Collaborative projects do come with unique barriers and challenges, however.  Even the most amicable collaborations require considerable time and effort, from scheduling time for meetings to authorship decisions on publications. For example, in a 2020 report, the ManyBabies Consortium stated that creating a leadership team was essential for the success of the project. Leaders were charged with assigning tasks, creating deadlines, and making the final decisions on how to push the project forward. An organizational system, along with administrative staff, was among the many suggestions that the consortium offered to advance science.

External barriers exist as well. Despite the recent push toward a more collaborative path, the current scientific incentives, infrastructure, and institutions have been formed with the idea that research is conducted by solo principal investigators (Forscher et al., 2023). This approach creates clear barriers for tenure and promotion. Department chairs and promotion committees should develop new criteria to support their collaborative junior faculty. Funding agencies also need to adjust to a new era of team science. To encourage team-science researchers, the agencies could consider making documented collaboration plans a part of funding applications (Hall et al., 2015). Scientific institutions should adapt their evaluation practices in five key areas—research behavior, training, skill specialization, funding, and recognition—to help scholars who dedicate their time and energy to team science (Ridley, 2016).

The growing number of collaborative science teams changes the landscape of science and technology; whereas small teams disrupt science and technology by creating novel systems and ideas, large teams build on existing knowledge systems (Wu et al., 2019). Both will be crucial for moving science forward.

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