A guide to improving collaborative (interdisciplinary) research projects

Topic 3: Learning in communities: networked collaborative learning

Networked collaborative learning refers to group learning that goes beyond the traditional “divide and conquer” method of group work that most of us have experienced from high school and university, and probably also from the working life. Collaborative learning environments stimulate knowledge transmission through active participation of learners in discussions and information searches together (Brindley et al. 2009). Learners are working towards a common goal, and reaching that goal is dependent on all learners’ contributions to the discussion.

From a teachers perspective it becomes self-evident that we desire this type of collaborative learning among our students, as opposed to just splitting up the work and putting the results together in a final document. However, I realize that my own collaboration skills, both as a teacher and researcher, are not that well developed. My current research projects follow the same pattern as my undergrad group works did, i.e. the first author (myself) takes on most responsibility and delegates some work to the co-authors with appropriate skills. I have had a lot of communication issues, I’m not always sure we have a common goal (or that I’ve been able to communicate my goal to the others), and the process is far from efficient, time and energy wise. When planning courses or course modules, the work plan has been more or less the same.

So how can we expect our students to work collaboratively if we don’t lead by example?

Here is a suggested framework for research projects, based on Brindley et al. (2009) in combination with my own experiences, that can be useful to follow throughout a research project:

Beginning of the project

  1. Set up the objectives of the project or sub-project. If you’re working on a paper, formulate some preliminary objectives and research questions that are clear to everyone.
  2. Create a (realistic) time plan where everyone’s responsibilities are outlined. It may be relevant already here to plan how many times and in what order the paper should be circulated before submission.
  3.  Define the needed skills to solve the problem and draw up a figure showing where the skills of the collaborators overlap. This can be helpful when getting an overview of who can assist with what. Some roles may be vacant at the beginning of the project, but will be filled as more collaborators join.
  4. Set some ground rules that should be followed (e.g. always use track changes, always make notes during meetings)

During the project

  1. Make sure that there are scheduled meetings with a suitable time in between. The meetings should be brief and efficient, and the meetings can have a pre-decided time limit. If using the free version of Zoom, for example, the meeting cannot be longer than 40 minutes.
  2. Allow for extra time to organize and plan meetings and work. This will take more time in the beginning, but will make work much easier later on.
  3. Communicate to all group members through e.g. Google+ or Facebook or some other social media tool. Here you can share relevant literature you have found, or discuss smaller issues, without having to flood everyone’s inbox.
  4. Be transparent:
    • Make sure that all group members have access to the documents through e.g. dropbox or google drive.
    • Schedule meetings ahead of time and make sure all collaborators have the option to join the meeting (i.e. no informal meetings).
  5. Create a community feeling! For collaboration to develop there needs to be a sense of community, which is nurtured by familiarity, openness, dialogue, trust and many other factors that help develop relationships between group members. This is especially important in online group work.

This framework may be particularly useful for collaborations on projects that involve multiple disciplines, where the goal is to move from multidisciplinarity to inter- or transdisciplinarity. Why do we want to move from multidisciplinarity? These “fancy words” are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact different.

  • Multidisciplinarity is when several disciplines work on separate issues that belong to a common theme. The results are combined and compared, but no new integrated knowledge is generated. This is often the outcome of traditional group work that includes different disciplines.
  • Interdisciplinarity means that researchers from different disciplines cross disciplinary boundaries to gain new knowledge. Interdisciplinary research has a higher level of integration and cooperation than multidisciplinary research, and the common goal is often to address a complex problem, which requires a more collaborative approach. This also means that the understanding of other disciplines than ones “home discipline” is fundamental for integration of knowledge.
  • Transdisciplinarity is seen as the highest form of integrated research, and it involves non-academic participants in addition to multiple disciplines. Transdisciplinary research is thus described as a collaborative effort including both scientists and non-scientists with the goal t not only generate knowledge, but also to generate decision making capacity for the involved stakeholders.

(Stock & Burton 2011)

Examples of a multidisciplinary project with little collaboration (left) vs an interdisciplinary project with high collaboration (right).

With the above descriptions we realize that inter- or transdisciplinarity requires collaborative efforts on a higher level than multidisciplinarity does. Inter- or transdisciplinary projects will also help solve more complex problems, although it may be challenging to reach these levels of integration. To get closer to reaching the goal of inter- or transdisciplinarity, collaborative group work is fundamental.

I have written this post as a “notes to self” post, that may help myself to create more collaborative projects in the future. I’m sure I will come up with more guidelines as I gain new experiences, but I believe the ones above can be a good place to start.

Let me know if you find it useful or if anything should be added!


Brindley, J., Blaschke, L.M. and Walti, C., 2009. Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3).

Stock, P. and Burton, R.J., 2011. Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research. Sustainability, 3(8), pp.1090-1113.


13 thoughts on “A guide to improving collaborative (interdisciplinary) research projects

  1. A great read. Thanks for including the area of research and highlighting that collaborative work does need multi-disciplinary aspects whether it is related to knowledge or skills. An idea that came to my mind after reading your blog is that collaborative work is also democratic. But how can it solve the issue to authorship of research? who becomes the first author and so on…


    1. Thank you Raheel! Yes, it is democratic! Authorship is a great question, and I need to think more about that. Authorship is a hassle even when there is a hierarchy, and I feel it leads to a higher sense of responsibility for the first author, and a lower sense of responsibility for the other authors (in many cases). In general I think the authorship order should be decided on when starting the project and outlining the roles of the different collaborators. Perhaps there will be someone who gets more responsibility (after all we have people who are responsible for each topic in this course). If the collaboration is a good one, maybe there will be more projects and then someone else in the group can be first author, right?

      What do you think?


  2. Thank you Lina for sharing your insights on collaborative and networked learning. This was especially of relevance to us as educators, despite our varying backgrounds and fields of discipline, in that you covered the topics of multidisciplinarity. Your suggested framework for improving collaboration on research projects is an important contribution as it has prompted me to consider how I can work more collaboratively eg. when co-presenting a paper for a conference. The realisation that collaborative learning, as Raheel too suggests, encourages lifelong learning and builds community is a wonderful development for both ourselves as students on this ONL course, as well as for our own students.


  3. This is a fantastic introduction to collaborative working; clear and easy to follow. So many mistake co-operation, where each person contributes an isolated task, for collaboration; where participants truly co-construct knowledge and understandings together. I think our group is making excellent progress in developing collaborative skills, and you have captured part of that process very well. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Very nice overview of Blaschke et al!

        I think that the reason for us being successful in collaborating might be the following: We are positive about learning, we are active, we want to share the authorship and give each other room for learning.

        Good job!



  4. It was a very fantastic post. Thank you for sharing your insight on collaborative working. The relevance of what you have written to research is valid and I really enjoyed it when I read it. I also enjoyed of reading the definitions of multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. Based on these definitions, although currently research communities emphasize on multidisciplinary researchers, seems that the emphasize should be on interdisciplinarity instead.


    1. Thank you Ali! I’m so glad you liked it, do you think we can get more of this type of collaboration with INES people? That would be really great. And yes, interdisciplinarity should be the goal, not multidisciplinarity!


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