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Collaboration in a distributed research program: Islands of intensity in a sea of minimal interaction

Magdalena Haman (University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark)
Morten Hertzum (University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 23 November 2018

Issue publication date: 19 February 2019




Researchers need to collaborate to address grand challenges such as climate change, poverty and sustainable food production. The purpose of this paper is to investigate how the researchers in a globally distributed research program interact to move their research forward.


The authors interviewed 14 participants in the research program.


In spite of the spatial distribution of the researchers the output from the research program is predominantly collaborative; as much as 79 percent of the publications are co-authored by researchers from multiple countries. However, the researchers mostly work alone on their contributions to their joint work and spend minimal time interacting. This strategy of minimal interaction is punctuated by islands of intense interaction when they occasionally meet in person. Interaction feels natural, productive and satisfying to them when they are co-located but less so when they are distributed, probably because they experience technology-mediated interaction over a distance as somewhat impoverished. The interviewees mention that the minimal-interaction strategy incurs the risks of cracks in common ground and of misconstruing minimal interaction as lack of commitment. But the strategy is generally well-liked.

Research limitations/implications

The experience of technology-mediated interaction as impoverished points to an explanation for the finding of less interaction in distributed than co-located research. It should be noted that the study is restricted to one research program.


By questioning widely touted recommendations for ongoing, regular and sustained interaction this study provides a fresh look at scientific collaboration.



This study has not received external funding. The authors declare that at the time of the interviews the first author worked part-time as a consultant for CGIAR, but not for the Flagship. The authors are grateful to CGIAR and the Flagship for allowing us to conduct the study. Special thanks are due to the interviewees.


Haman, M. and Hertzum, M. (2019), "Collaboration in a distributed research program: Islands of intensity in a sea of minimal interaction", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 2, pp. 334-348.



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