Don’t make me turn this research around!

Coaching scientists to play well together

News Release 18-Jul-2019

Free tool shows how to avoid fights over data and authorship conflicts

Northwestern University

  • ‘You stole my idea’ or ‘I’m not getting credit for my work’ are common disputes
  • Only tool validated by research to help scientists collaborate smoothly
  • Many NSF and NIH grants now require applicants to show readiness for team science
  • Scientists can’t do it on their own

CHICAGO — When scientists from different disciplines collaborate – as is increasingly necessary to confront the complexity of challenging research problems – interpersonal tussles often arise. One scientist may accuse another of stealing her ideas. Or, a researcher may feel he is not getting credit for his work or doesn’t have access to important data.

“Interdisciplinary team science is now the state of the art across all branches of science and engineering,” said Bonnie Spring, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “But very few scientists have been trained to work with others outside of their own disciplinary silo.”

The skill is critical because many National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation grants require applicants to show readiness for team science.

A free, online training tool developed by Northwestern,, has been been proven to develop skills to work with other scientists outside their own discipline.

A new study led by Spring showed scientists who completed the program’s modules – called COALESCE – significantly boosted their knowledge about team science and increased their self-confidence about being able to successfully work in scientific teams. Most people who completed one or more modules (84%) said that the experience of taking the modules was very likely to positively impact their future research.

The study will be published July 18 in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science.

There are few training resources to teach scientists how to collaborate, and the ones that are available don’t have evidence of their effectiveness. is the only free, validated-by-research tool available to anyone at any time.

Almost 1,000 of the COALESCE users opted voluntarily to respond to questions about the learning modules, providing information about how taking each module influenced team science knowledge, skills and attitudes.

‘You stole my idea’

The most common area of dispute among collaborating scientists is authorship concerns, such as accusations that one person stole ideas from another or that a contributor was not getting credit for his or her work, the study authors said. Other disputes arise around access to and analysis of data, utilization of materials or resources, and the general direction of the research itself. Underlying all of these issues is a common failure to prepare for working collaboratively with other scientists.

“Preparing in advance before starting to collaborate, often through the creation of a formal collaboration agreement document, is the best way to head off these types of disputes,” said Angela Pfammatter, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Feinberg and a coauthor on the paper.

Spring suggested “having scientists discuss their expectations of one another and the collaboration to prevent acrimonious conflicts.”

Skills to play well together

These skills are critical to a successful scientific team, the authors said:

    • 1) The ability to choose team members who have the right mix of expertise, temperament and accessibility to round out a team.

2) The ability to anticipate what could go wrong and to develop contingency plans in advance.

3) The ability to manage conflict within the team.

The modules help scientists acquire these skills by letting them interact with different problem scenarios that can arise in team-based research. They can try out different solutions and learn from mistakes in a safe, online environment.

More than 16,000 people have accessed the resource in the past six years. Demand for team science training is expected to increase as interdisciplinary teams set out to tackle some of science’s most challenging problems.


Other Northwestern authors on the paper are Ekaterina Klyachko, Phillip Rak, H. Gene McFadden, Juned Siddique and Leland Bardsley.

Funding support for COALESCE is from the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences grants 3UL1RR025741 and UL1TR001422 and its Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

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July 19, 2019 8:40 pm

Rules for collectivized science:
1. Never criticize stupid ideas
2. Ignore your colleagues irregular procedures like fusing different kinds of data
3. Favourable reviews for those who agree
4. Work to end the careers of those who disagree
5. Cite as much of the team’s work as possible even if it is a rehash of something done 50 years ago by somebody else
6. Corollary to 5., if a publication is older than 10 years, it doesn’t count.
7. Never make female team members cry, they have long memories.
8. Always be nice to team members’ faces, only when they leave the room is it okay to conspire to get credit for their contributions.
9. Remember, all ideas have equal value.
10. The majority is never wrong.

Gunga Din
July 19, 2019 9:05 pm

Not sure what to think of this.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to hear that “scientist” are as human as the rest of us.
On the other hand, the government job I have has introduced training programs over the years so we can “all get along”. Each was replaced by the new “latest and greatest”.

Gunga Din
Reply to  Gunga Din
July 19, 2019 9:48 pm

PS The best manager we had in regards to listening and encouraging input was the one before any of these trainings programs were implemented.

Reply to  Gunga Din
July 20, 2019 12:43 am

You know what they say

“Everyones input is important as this is a team building exercise we are doing my way.”

Alan McIntire
Reply to  Gunga Din
July 20, 2019 7:59 am

I also had a government job with “sexual awareness” training. I felt the training to be a waste of time and a personal insult- implying that I might be an insensitive predator.

John V. Wright
July 19, 2019 9:29 pm

Congruent behaviour is not an attribute of successful teams. Yes, we all have to get along and be grown-up in our interactions with others; but progress is generated by having individual approaches and mindsets, differences which are tolerated within a group in order to evolve novel solutions; the Ying to someone else’s Yang; the grit in the oyster.

I once occupied a senior position in an organisation which, before I arrived, had developed a moribund internal mindset created by a group of ‘worthies’ who had been there forever and had a way of doing things rooted in the past. We brought in a chief executive to reinvigorate the organisation and
modernise it for the new challenges that were obviously emerging.

The resistance to change from this core group proved so intractable that, in the end, we had to sack the ringleader ‘pour encourage les autres’. During my interview with her I asked this person what in her opinion was the most required attribute of a chief executive. She replied it was to be congruent with the rest of the people working in the organisation. She was baffled when I patiently explained that the exact opposite of that behaviour was what we required from a CEO.

Congruency leads to groupthink – and as every contributor to this blog well understands groupthink, certainly in relation to climate research, leads to the bastardisation of science and the failure to make coherent progress

R Shearer
Reply to  John V. Wright
July 20, 2019 5:34 am

Many times it’s too much grit and not enough oyster.

July 19, 2019 9:38 pm

“When children from different classes compete for money – as is increasingly necessary to confront the complexity of challenging, but not too challenging, PC games – interpersonal tussles often arise. One child may accuse another of stealing her ideas. Or, a crybaby may feel he is not getting credit for his whining or doesn’t have access to the correct color ball.”

Okay, maybe not a quote… But I lose patience… when I was in gradual school, and subsequently moved into industry, no one cared about how I “felt”. Because it doesn’t matter. So long as I would do the job for the specified money, and so would everyone else, we were golden.

Gunga Din
July 19, 2019 9:52 pm

PS The best manager we had in regards to listening and encouraging input was the one before any of these trainings programs were implemented.

Matthew K
July 19, 2019 11:29 pm

I have a solid argument to use against the climate doomsayers in my little coastal hometown who predict it would be flooded in the next 30 – 50 years by showing them a photo of my waterfront from the 80s and then getting them to look at it now. We have a concrete breakwater and a small concrete pier at the entrance to the harbour. If it is true that the sea level has risen dangerously the piers would have been quite low in the water. Surprise, the piers are still the same level as in the 80’s photos. Our aquarium sits on the waterfront above a rocky outcrop, and the rocks below it are still high and dry. There is an old shipwreck dating to 1898 IIRC just opposite the small pier, and at low tide the wreck is visible. If the sea level had risen dangerously over the time, that wreck would no longer be visible. Yet I still have arguments with people that believe in this rubbish, their argument is that many independent scientists and groups came to the same conclusion in their research.

In all honesty should I just ignore them?

Reply to  Matthew K
July 20, 2019 12:46 am

No you must immediately sell and move from your coastal hometown because of the impending doom the models trump any reality you may be seeing 🙂

Reply to  LdB
July 20, 2019 5:55 am

My wife and I are looking for a town like this in the south. I want to find a place where these people really believe what they say and are looking to get out at all cost. I want to get their property for nothing as after all, they believe it will be underwater soon so it will be worthless. Basically I want to use their wacked out beliefs to my advantage.

July 20, 2019 12:04 am

It seems sensible to have agreed rules on ownership and attribution and some form of leadership but beyond that, if scientists behave like adults they should be able to sort things out: if they don’t, then threatening to stop their pocket money is probably the answer. That or putting them on the naughty step.

July 20, 2019 4:28 am

Arguments between scientists is not new. Go back tot the original research on Penicillin. Alexandra Flaming got the credit for first observing a accidental spore in a overnight culture in 1926, but then did not follow it up.

Many were working on the same idea but it was a tem under Florey a
Australian who did all the hard work to finally in the USA bring it to mass production and saved millions of lives.

But the Nobel Prise was shared between Fleming and other members of
Florey’s team ands some of that team missed out. One was a man with a gift of making the necessary bits of tubing for the research, without it it would not have happened, but he did not get a mention.

The discovery of DNA was said to be by two men, but seldom mentioned was a woman scientists who’s X rays first showed the outline of the double helix. She was air brushed out of the final announcement as she had just died. Yet it was well known that she had shared this discovery with the two men. who never gave her the credit she clearly deserved.

The days of the sole penniless researcher working in the back yard are well past, but in the fantasy world of Climate research, each person wants both the honour plus of course the government grant to continue.


July 20, 2019 6:21 am

It’s not surprising to me that researchers often don’t collaborate well. PhD students are selected for their ability to argue convincingly to their thesis committees. Once confirmed as part of the club they value independence more than cooperation. Then fighting for tenure tends to select for politically duplicitous behavior. Finally, bad experiences with trusting untrustworthy people make them wary. Not all succumb to this warping of good character of course, but enough do to make it apparent. The same pressures contribute to the rising number of cases of research fraud.

July 20, 2019 7:01 am

Post says: “There are few training resources to teach scientists how to collaborate,…”

I disagree. Do unto others seems to satisfy the problem. Or love thy neighbor would work. Or maybe thou shalt not lie, steal, covet etc.

William Astley
July 20, 2019 9:08 am

Universities are chaos.

Multidiscipline teams and the ability to work on multidiscipline teams is the standard for effective companies. People are trained and if that does not work out they are asked to leave or given a rare job where team work is not required.

Getting people to work together is easy (easy sharing of data is enforced) if they all work for the same company and someone plays the role of unbiased, motivated, management. Effective management does what is best for the team and success.

Management is full of smart critics, who are all looking for opportunities to get credit for getting something important accomplished.

July 20, 2019 10:40 am

Best way to avoid conflict in collaborations is to have a good nose for sociopaths. Avoid them at all costs.

Jim Whelan
July 23, 2019 1:13 pm

I always hated it when a PhD recipient was on my team. They were, almost without exception, arrogant and difficult to work with. I attribute that to the way universities conduct PhD programs which tend to treat the PhD like an exclusive club which not everyone can get into and the members of which are better than those who are not members. Those make it through the initiation are guaranteed to be conceited, self-centered and poor team players

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