Guidance for team science leaders: Tools you can use

By Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski, Elsevier

TEAM SCIENCE | Volume 2, Issue 2 – 2012

Overview of team science

Team science initiatives are characterized by cross-disciplinary collaboration (Figure 1) focused on complex problem-, project-, or product-oriented research.

Over the last decade, academia has generated an upsurge in team science initiatives, while external funding agencies in the United States and around the globe have made more collaborative and team-based science funding opportunities available. Studies on research centers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have demonstrated that team science initiatives entail significant coordination costs. As a result, team science takes more time, at least proximally, than individual research; however, studies have also demonstrated a distal payoff in terms of research acceleration.

Consequently, it’s imperative that team science leaders understand the most effective practices for productive cross-disciplinary collaboration. This article highlights guidance from recent findings about two such areas: 1) team assembly and composition, and 2) trust and communication. It also offers a collection of related tools leaders can use to implement effective practices in team science.

The science of team science

The science of team science (SciTS) is an emerging interdiscipline focused on understanding and managing circumstances that facilitate or hinder the effectiveness of large-scale, cross-disciplinary, collaborative research initiatives. Findings from the SciTS field can help guide team science leaders via an evidence-based approach. Recent team-effectiveness studies documented in the literature have found:

  • Teams are able to learn more and faster than individual researchers.
  • Teams foster creativity.
  • Teams tend toward speed and innovation.
  • Teams are able to address complex problems.
  • Teams are more likely to demonstrate success in challenging environments.
  • A team approach to research is increasingly common in virtually all fields.
  • Teams typically produce more highly cited research than individuals.
  • More diverse teams are more effective than less diverse teams.
  • More team science is occurring interinstitutionally, resulting in distributed teams that tend to produce work with even higher impact than other teams.
  • But, dispersed teams experience a high rate of failure.


These findings suggest that we can identify intervention points critical to a team’s overall success. But since team science projects often last several years, an investigator considering whether or not to lead such an initiative can face a daunting decision.

TeamScience.net, an online resource designed to foster learning and skill development in team science, offers a solution. Developed at Northwestern University, TeamScience.net couples expert interviews with empirical research and theory from SciTS and the broader field of team research. The tool enables team science leaders to access information relevant to forming, leading, funding, and evaluating teams. It provides examples of real-world scenarios in four 50-minute, self-guided learning modules.

Team assembly and composition

Intervention, especially early on in team formation, can help minimize coordination costs and maximize team benefits. Research using social network analysis and bibliometrics data has demonstrated that since incumbents contribute greater expertise and know-how to the team, a higher proportion of incumbents (investigators with established reputations) versus newcomers (rookies with little experience) is the best mix for a science team — but only up to a point, after which a team becomes less effective.

Research in the area of collective intelligence provides further insight into this approach to team assembly. As a positive predictor of overall team performance, collective, or shared, intelligence should be considered equally as important as identifying high-level achievers when forming a team.
Figure 2 - Internal co-authorship research network for Dr. Amy Paller, Northwestern University
Diversity also plays a critical role in overall team success. Teams that are less diverse and/or include collaborators who have previously worked together and interacted repeatedly, typically demonstrate lower levels of performance. But it’s challenging to identify new collaborators without being able to rely on past interactions as a guide.

A new area of focus in building effective teams is research networking, assisted by research networking (RN) tools. Also called collaboration finders, expertise profiling, and research discovery systems, RN tools facilitate new collaborations and team science efforts by helping leaders rapidly discover researchers with particular expertise. Combining expertise identification with the social drivers of scientific collaboration, these innovative tools create powerful recommendation systems and the ability to visualize investigators’ collaboration networks. Notable examples of RN tools include both open source and commercially available products, such as: Elsevier’s SciVal Experts, Harvard’s Profiles, and VIVO (see article on page 13). A robust comparison of RN tools is available on Wikipedia.

Trust and communication

In addition to focusing on the formative stages of team development, it’s critical that team leaders foster productive and efficient communication to develop and maintain trust among team members. Research from the fields of communications and organizational psychology has revealed a number of obstacles to building trust. Team science leaders who are aware of these issues can intervene to mitigate their effects. Most mistrust among science teams results from misunderstandings, disagreements, and conflict between members, as well as a failure to recognize others’ expertise and/or differing paradigmatic assumptions. Proactive collaborative communication is an effective mechanism to help overcome these barriers and promote trust.

One such approach is facilitated collaborative discussion, which can be assisted by The Toolbox Project. Rooted in philosophical analysis, Toolbox workshops enable cross-disciplinary collaborators to engage in structured dialogue about their research assumptions. Such discussions yield both self-awareness and mutual understanding, supplying leaders and team members with a robust foundation of trust needed for effective collaborative research.

Another approach encourages team leaders to communicate goals and expectations from the very beginning of a project. The NIH has developed a partner agreement that provides team leaders with a template of Questions for Scientific Collaborators. Despite their individual unique features, most research projects share certain core issues, which can be addressed through this series of questions about the team’s overall goals, individual responsibilities, authorship and credit, contingencies and communication, and conflicts of interest.

The Theory of Remote Collaboration and other lines of investigation into virtual and distributed teams have demonstrated that such groups face serious social and technical challenges in building trust. A tool recently developed at the University of California, Irvine offers considerable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of geographically distributed teams. The Collaboration Success Wizard explores sociotechnical factors that may enhance or inhibit collaboration. It provides team leaders with both individual and project-level reports, which can help produce satisfied teams, as well as successful and productive collaborative projects.

Bringing it all together

All of these findings and tools focus on only two important areas of team science leadership. Additional resources encompassing the breadth of SciTS findings, as well as practical guidance for team science leaders, provide insight into other aspects of team science, including: team evaluation, collaboration readiness, team cognition and learning, training and competencies for team science and interdisciplinary education, and integrity in collaboration.

The Team Science Toolkit is a free, user-generated collection of information and resources that support the practice and study of team science by integrating knowledge, disseminating effective practices, and preventing the unnecessary duplication of efforts. The Toolkit provides a forum for sharing knowledge and tools, such as team assessment guides and training resources, to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of team science initiatives.

Finally, the Annual International Science of Team Science (SciTS) Conference is a forum that serves as a point of convergence for team science leaders to meet and inform investigators studying science teams; guide funding agency program officers in developing resources to support team science leaders and maximize project success; and gain insight into new and developing tools for collaboration.

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