Does Teamwork Make For Better Science?

Teamwork as a personal characteristic and as a feature of the research enterprise is often, on faith, taken as an unalloyed good, But is that so? Personally, I have always liked the single author publication and I have admired the independent researcher. I think this attitude was shaped by early experiences being exposed to strong, independent researchers. I remember in particular one investigator whose work I reviewed closely when I was acting as one of the editors of Springer’s Encyclopedia of Neuroscience. This gentleman was an uncontested authority in the field of the regulation of cardiovascular function. He generally published alone, or perhaps with a single co-author, and over the course of his career had produced ‘only’ a few dozen papers, but each one changed how people thought about the field. He was one of those investigators who was singularly motivated by the question, and he had no regard for publication or citation numbers.

While I continue to regard this researcher as exemplary, I realize now that his career ought not to be the paradigm for current early investigators. Times have changed. I am now looking at a database of chiropractic research articles which we have gathered and see that among recent publications approximately 5% are single author papers, and these can largely be attributed to a very small number of authors who repeatedly publish alone. Furthermore, a quick glance at the last 100 publications coming out of CMCC shows that approximately 90% involved collaborations outside of this institution. This is in stark contrast to 10 years ago when most papers from CMCC were authored entirely within the institution. What has happened?

Well, science has changed and society has changed. We now have the technology and the motivation to address much more complex questions, and this necessarily means larger, more diverse teams. As an example of this, fully 70% of biomedical publications coming out of the UK in 2019 involved international collaborations. There are social pressures from within the research enterprise driving this trend. It is not uncommon now for journals to ask that investigators identify the roles of each investigator and, in some cases, to specifically identify a statistician/methodologist. There are also less savoury social phenomena, such as the growth of transactional authorships – ‘you put me on your paper, and I will put you on mine.’ This is a common problem, but is not the prime mover behind the clear trend to larger numbers of authors. It turns out, that teams – done right – work. They make more and better science.

To define what we are talking about here, teams have been described as groups of at least three people who “exist to perform organizationally relevant tasks, share one or more common goals, interact socially, exhibit task interdependencies, maintain and manage boundaries, and are embedded in an organizational context that sets boundaries, constrains the team, and influences exchanges with other units in the broader entity.”(1)

Furthermore, across disciplines, the personal characteristics of good team members and certain roles on teams have been validated by research.(2) These roles include:

  • Idea Creator (thinks of unconventional ways of coming to solutions and great ideas)
  • Information Gatherer (searches for information, for example, on best practices)
  • Decision Maker (processes and integrates available information, makes decisions and clarifies the goals)
  • Implementer (controls the current status and takes measures to work toward the goals)
  • Influencer (presents the product for acceptance internally and/or externally)
  • Energizer (infuses energy into their work and others)
  • Relationship Manager (helps to run relationships smoothly and to resolve conflicts)

The more of these core roles there are on a team, the better the team performs, even if one person has to take on multiple roles. This is probably the key lesson here.

As an aside, the personal qualities of fairness and prudence seem to be particularly important in teamwork, and diversity of education (but perhaps not demographic diversity) also seems helpful to teamwork. Not surprisingly, certain personal characteristics also correlate with performance in a team role; for example, creativity, curiosity and love of learning correlate with performance as an Idea Creator. Furthermore, both internal (team based) and external (supervisor based) assessments place the highest value on the roles of Idea Creator and Implementer, and on real world teams having more team members represent these roles does not saturate the beneficial effect – too many cooks do not spoil the broth in this case. On the other hand, the roles of Information Gatherer, Decision Maker and Influencer do have a saturation effect which may be attributed to competition and rivalry.(2)

In any event, since we now have good evidence that teams work, and we know some of the characteristics of good teams and good team members, this opens the door to thoughtful team development rather than a casual or ad hoc approach which has probably been the norm in the past.


1.         Kozlowski SWI, Bell BS. Work groups and teams in organizations. In: Weiner IB, Schinka JA, Velicer WF, editors. Handbook of Psychology. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 203.

2.         Gander F, Gaitzsch I, Ruch W. The relationships between character strengths-balance with individual and team-level satisfaction and performance. Front Psych. 2020;11.

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