International collaboration and the changing world of scientific research

Julie Marentette
22 June 2014

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Did you know? In 2006, the average number of authors on a scientific publication was 3.8. In 2011, it was 4.5. Fifty years ago, single-author papers were most common.Many people picture scientists as lab coat-toting, independent thinkers who ponder the secrets of the universe alone in their laboratories. But this vision of science is increasingly out of date and it’s important for today’s science students to understand how scientific research is changing. In particular, the scientists of tomorrow need to be prepared to work closely with colleagues from around the world in large research projects.

Today, scientists increasingly work in teams. The more researchers learn about the world, the bigger the next questions become! Big questions require big answers, and big answers require collaboration. Enormous research teams have been created, allowing collaboration across institutional, geographic, and political boundaries.

Did you know? When a paper describing the CERN Large Hadron Collider was published in 2008, it set a record with almost 3000 authors. The record was repeatedly broken in 2011, when dozens of papers were published with over 3000 authors.In part, these collaborative projects have been made possible by advances in technology. The Internet allows rapid worldwide communication that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. At the same time, globalization has increasingly linked different countries through shared economic and cultural interactions.

Some of the most significant collaborative research projects have been in the field of biology, with the Human Genome Project (HGP) leading the way. It was launched in 1990 with the goal of identifying and sequencing all of the genes in human DNA. This US-led initiative spanned 13 years and cost nearly $3 billion. Laboratories in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and China were all involved. Together, they advanced not just the sequencing work itself but also the development of technologies that made it possible.

Did you know? The effects of climate change on crops, the growing problem with honeybee colony collapse around the world, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are some of the most popular subjects of collaborative scientific research projects today.

The HGP was followed up in 2004 by the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, a Canadian-led initiative involving hundreds of geneticists from over 25 different countries. This ongoing project aims to obtain DNA sequences for all living species on Earth and create unique barcodes to identify each of them. These barcodes will be a powerful tool for understanding and protecting Earth’s biodiversity.

In a similar vein, the Census of Marine Life was a ten-year (2000-2010) collaboration between nearly 2700 scientists in over 80 countries. Their goal was not only to inventory all of the species living in the oceans, but also to understand migration patterns and how different ocean ecosystems are linked.

Physicists have also launched large-scale collaborative research projects . For example, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. This particle accelerator is most famous as a key tool for identifying the Higgs boson. The enormous apparatus measures 27 km in circumference and straddles the border between France and Switzerland. More than 10,000 scientists from around the world have worked on the project.

Did you know? Thomson Scientific is a company that tracks trends in science and publishes annual reports on its findings.Projects with such ambitious goals would simply not be possible without the collaboration of scientists from around the globe. Only time will tell if the current trend toward “big science” projects will become dominant in all fields of research. However, one thing is certain: tomorrow’s scientists must be prepared to coordinate their efforts with large networks of other researchers, transcending old barriers of time and space to expand the limits of human knowledge.


Multiauthor Papers: Onward and Upward (Christopher King, ScienceWatch Newsletter) Science Is Now a Vast Global Enterprise (John Sexton, Scientific American) Thomson Scientific Takes a Fresh Look at Multiauthor Papers (

Collins FS, Morgan M, Patrinos A. 2003. The Human Genome Project: Lessons from large-scale biology. Science. 300:286-290. Greene M. The demise of the lone author. Nature. 450:1165.

Julie Marentette

Dr. Marentette is a Canadian scientist working on national environmental monitoring issues. She is a toxicologist and a behavioural ecologist who enjoys researching how animals, including people, are affected by toxic chemicals. Mostly, she really likes fish.

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