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Moreover, the exclusively academic environment is supplanted by an international and political setting, including academia, governments, funding bodies, business, media and the public. As in molecular biology, so too has research in ecology undergone major transformations, transitioning rapidly from single-investigator studies conducted within a few square metres over a single study season to large, highly interdependent, transdisciplinary, cross-sectoral collaborations blending basic and applied science. Grassle's interest in marine biology was triggered as an undergraduate when a biology teacher studying marine invertebrates invited him to study the mysteries of life at the sea bottom.

Believing that there was an insufficient focus on marine biodiversity, he also designed and initiated the Census of Marine Life—an ambitious, large-scale, international, interdisciplinary research project devoted to cataloguing all oceanic life. The Census has shown that the age of discovery is not yet over. It also created an international network of marine scientists, expanded the temporal range of marine research to include the past, present and future, and transformed research practice through the development of new technologies, databases, and new governance and communication strategies.

These scientific biographies evince in personal terms broad and enduring cultural, organisational and historical shifts in the ways in which biologists collaborate and relate to their study objects. This article focuses on these transformations in the orchestration, conduct and structure of contemporary collaborations in the life sciences. We do so by reviewing evidence of rising rates of collaboration in the life sciences while also showing that collaboration has been common throughout their history.

On the basis of this historical overview we discuss differences in the developmental trajectories of collaboration in molecular biology and ecology, arguing that ancestral epistemological and organisational legacies continue to structure and inform contemporary research practice. Doing so provides a general understanding of the causes and consequences of changing patterns of collaboration in biology while specifying and analysing important differences in lab- and field-based research.

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This distinction is one of degree — research blending elements of lab and field biology have always existed — but different environments impart important consequences for the ways in which science is performed and the kinds of outcomes that are created. We conclude by reflecting on the overlap between field and lab research and the potential courses life science collaborations may take into the near future. Scientific collaboration is on the rise. Examinations of the 2. This trend accelerates over time from a 2.

Average distance between collaborators also increased, with the annual rate of growth of average miles between collaborators within US universities rising from 3. During this same period rates of collaboration between US and foreign universities increased five-fold. Collaboration in biology follows the same patterns. With the single exception of medicine, biological collaborations also experienced the greatest growth in average distance between collaborators.

Quantitative studies clearly indicate a rise in collaboration, but leave unexplored the reasons for this increase and the precise character of the collaborations, begging many questions. One study suggests that the acceleration of collaboration has been made possible by a sharp decline of the costs of collaboration, 12 but is that the only reason, or might the character of scientific questions, their subject matter or the technologies employed also be of influence?

Moreover, is the increase driven by purely scientific motives, or do societal developments such as changing demographics increase the interest in human life and health, while issues such as climate change and biodiversity increase interest in non-human life? What can the tendency to collaborate within the European Union tell us?


Are we witnessing cultural proximity at work, or can the preference for intra-European collaboration be explained by patterns of research funding? And are collaborations in the life sciences one big category, or can we also find differences within biology when looking into its sub-disciplines?


In short, collaboration in the life sciences is increasing — but why? Science studies scholars have adopted varying definitions and approaches for conceptualising and researching scientific collaboration. Most of the studies that define and describe scientific collaboration are based on investigations of physics or space research. They study for instance an organisation like CERN in Geneva, where large-scale instruments are built to detect the very substance of matter: sub-atomic particles.

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As these so-called detectors are very big, single institutes or nations are unable to afford their construction, requiring collaboration. Similarly, space research concentrates around large-scale technology, and requires a centralised, hierarchical and tightly integrated organisational structure for successful execution. While a large body of research in science studies has demonstrated the centrality of systems and technologies for the organisation of collaboration, a concise and coherent narrative on collaboration in the life sciences remains absent. Nevertheless, the existing literature offers valuable insights.

While acknowledging the complexity of the phenomenon and noting the relative lack of qualitative studies, they advance various approaches for collaborating, reasons for doing so, as well as considering the structures in which collaborations occur. Reasons for scientific collaboration vary. The development of large, fabulously expensive instruments is a reason to share costs and collaborate. Other motives include the need for complementary specialties or disciplines, as well as pressure for societal relevance, decreasing travel and communication costs, and to increase scientific credibility at the level of the project or even discipline.

Research has also demonstrated the importance of strong interpersonal relationships and deep emotional commitments to the group and its ideas for motivating and structuring collective scientific work. Additionally, collaboration can be stimulated by funding incentives, political motivations, or simply because it is viewed as good in and of itself. Overall, collaboration is driven by a variety of purposes and reasons, at least some of which are ubiquitous across disciplines.

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Structures of scientific collaboration also vary. Shrum et al. In contrast, non-specialised collaborations have designated scientific leaders and are hierarchically managed, but are less formalised and differentiated than bureaucratic collaborations. Finally, participatory collaborations are highly egalitarian, with participatory and consensual decision-making, no formal organisational structure, and limited regulatory powers among scientific leaders.

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This last type is typical of particle physics, while the other types were found to exist across the investigated disciplines. However, which structures are present in biology? Some answers on this question may be found in existing research. Sociologist of science Knorr-Cetina compared collaborative practices in high-energy physics and molecular biology during the s, concluding that in opposition to the large transnational collaborations of physics, biology is an individual centred, non-collaborative science. The Human Genome Project was often viewed as the first true large-scale collaboration in biology, giving rise to a variety of publications discussing issues related to collaboration such as structure, data exchange and public-private competition.

The Human Genome Project also gave rise to debates about the benefits and demerits of collaboration, including arguments that large-scale projects can industrialise, bureaucratise and politicise research, potentially diluting scientific autonomy, creativity and job satisfaction. Overall, studies of collaboration in the life sciences are severely lacking, and the scholarship that does exist has focused primarily on the Human Genome Project, leaving other areas of biology unexplored. It is unclear how variable patterns of collaborations are in the life sciences, and if biologists collaborate for the same reasons and in the same ways as scientists in other fields.

Given these substantial uncertainties, the rising prominence of the life sciences, their increasing societal relevancy and the degree of societal investment in them, this situation demands amendment. In the following we consider how and why biologists collaborate, and why they are doing so with greater frequency and in collaborations of greater scope, expense, complexity and intellectual ambition.

Furthermore, we move beyond the current emphasis on molecular biological research taking place in laboratories, paying equal shrift to the organisation and changing patterns of collaboration in ecology and the field. We sketch the differences between field-based and lab-based data collection and analysis in the life sciences. Apropos to this endeavour, we begin with an historical overview of collaboration in these different research settings.

Although collaborative approaches to knowledge production are becoming more commonplace, their roots can be traced back centuries. Collaboration in biology is not new. Historical precursors exist in both natural history and laboratory biology, creating enduring epistemological and organisational legacies.

Understanding life together: A brief history of collaboration in biology

Historically, the most important reason for cooperation in field biology was the dispersed character of biological material. No one person can possibly get an overview of the variety of life on Earth, and so it makes sense that natural historians were part of the first forms of scientific collaboration. While in CE only around plant species of plants were known; by CE botanists had collectively discovered 12, new species, with similar accumulations in zoology. Naturalists did not only join forces with world explorers, they also set up networks of scientific assistants and colleagues.

Linnaeus, for instance, often used his former students to find new specimens in different parts of the world to bring back to his botanic garden in Uppsala. Early scientific expeditions gradually evolved into more coordinated multi-disciplinary research programmes, initially taking the form of scientific agencies, thematic years or decades. The IBP can be seen as the first time in which ecology became big science.

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In the same period, physicists at Oak Ridge and Brookhaven national laboratories interested in the effects of radiation started to work together with ecologists to conduct large-scale experiments introducing radio-isotopes into local environments to trace energetic and material flows through ecosystems. They also left a lasting legacy in the form of region-specific cancer clusters.

The Long-term Ecological Research Network was another major development in big field biology. Created to enhance understanding of deep-time ecosystem evolution, an initial set of six research sites was created in , to be studied and funded in perpetuity and since then many more inter national sites have been constructed. The network has increased collaboration between site members, added new disciplinary dimensions to ecosystem science, and enhanced understanding of long-term ecosystem dynamics. It also inspired the new National Ecological Observatory Network, and project promising to automate field data collection through the construction of a network of observational platforms containing instruments and sensors capable of remotely measuring and communicating field data.

The implications of these new technologies for collaboration in field biology are immense, allowing access to otherwise inaccessible ecosystems and as yet undreamed of forms of collaboration. Today's dominant image of biology is of a bench science confined to a laboratory. The natural history model of exploratory research gave way to the age of analysis and experimentalism, bringing a more mechanistic view of life with attendant efforts to control nature and create novelty within the lab. Nascent forms of collaboration were present during this era, including research schools, interdisciplinary collaboration and early cooperation between science, industry and government.

The Cambridge school of physiology exemplifies collaboration in late Victorian England. The emergence of large biomedical complexes focusing on medicine and involving industrial collaborators also exemplifies an early form of collaboration in laboratory biology. First forms of larger-scale physics research emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century and gave rise to biomedical research such as radiobiology. Also collaborations with industry began in the s and s when American pharmaceutical firms invested in research as a competitive strategy in medical reform movements aiming to make science the basis of therapeutic practice.

Firms opened in-house laboratories and funded academic researchers, stipulating that new processes and inventions be available to the firm. Collaboration in laboratory biology is usually depicted as developing in interaction with investigations into genetics.