Why the Future of Research is Collaborative

This is an excerpt from “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a free report from ACS Publications. Download the full report to learn more about how landscape of science is changing.

Once upon a time, collaborating on a paper meant meeting a colleague face-to-face and comparing research notes. This often meant traveling some distance, usually to a conference, to bring the collaboration to fruition. Now, you never have to meet your collaborator in person. With video chat options like Skype and FaceTime, the only condition for “meeting” someone is a reliable Internet connection.

The interdisciplinary nature of science and chemistry in particular encourage collaboration—and sometimes practically mandate it. “The moment the solution to a problem has societal relevance, it is no longer acceptable to restrict the tools used to find the answer to a single field,” says Kai Rossen, Editor-in-Chief of Organic Process Research & Development.

One of the clearest signs of this trend is in the increase in the number of coauthors on papers. Papers with large numbers of coauthors are increasingly common, with the number of papers sporting more than 50 coauthors increasing from about 200 a year in 1990 to about 1,400 in 2014. A paper on the Higgs boson may well hold the gold medal for most collaborators, with more than 5,000 participants. But with increased collaboration becoming the new normal that record may not stand for long.

These papers are fantastic contributions to the scholarly record and could not have been achieved without contributions from throughout the global scientific community. Collaboration isn’t just about efficiency. It’s also about bringing a wide variety of expertise to bear on a problem, making it possible to discover solutions no one could have envisioned before. “Expanding classical organic chemistry tools with chemical engineering is highly enabling—and thus beneficial—as it will result in better solutions that will benefit society,” Rosen adds.

Funding concerns are also a reason for collaboration. Research funding is competitive. More participants can mean a diversity of funds and a greater likelihood that the research will be completed. In ACS Publications journals, the average paper has funding from two sources. This pooling of resources provides better value to funders and prevents duplication of effort. This is especially important in countries where researchers receive government funding. Being able to show efficiency in the research process helps justify the public expense.

The opportunities for collaboration don’t stop with publication. Scholarly communication networks help researchers share and discuss their work with others. Companies such as Kudos help authors share their work’s implications in simple terms with the general public and media, while FigShare helps authors share their supporting information freely, including datasets that can help avoid duplicating work.

Despite its benefits, collaboration can present new challenges to authors. Scientists may need a wider base of knowledge to be able to work effectively with peers in other disciplines. They may face ethical issues surrounding who gets to take credit for discoveries or blame for errors. If your paper has hundreds or even thousands of coauthors, how will you decide what order to credit them in?

About 35% of all research published in 2010 was the result of international collaboration. This means research will have to contend with logistical challenges as well. You might no longer have to get on an airplane to meet your co-author, but you may have to have a difficult talk about who needs to get on Skype for a 6 a.m. meeting to compensate for different time zones. Scientists will have to develop new skills, tools and work habits to get the most from these collaboration opportunities.

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.