Studies in the “science of team science” are now identifying specific practices that encourage more effective and productive collaborative teams. LTER synthesis working groups benefit from NCEAS’ and the LTER Network’s experience with working group dynamics, as well as the literature of team science and open science for synthesis.

Building your team

Participation in a synthesis group can be a career altering opportunity. Everyone wants a team with good chemistry, where you know people will pull their weight and respect each other’s ideas. So it can be tempting to choose only people you know personally. We urge you to reach beyond your comfort zone to engage individuals with different skills and approaches, from different backgrounds. Draw on your extended network, keep a special eye out at conferences, and build partnerships with undergraduate or minority-serving institutions.

A paper published in 2019 by a group of then-early career researchers, Hear Every Voice — working groups that work, shares suggestions for making the working group experience more equitable and inclusive.

Try to be deliberate about adding knowledge and skills to complement those already on the team. Adding another community ecologist or biogeochemist (for example) may not add as much to the team’s capabilities as a biostatistician, a modeler, or a hydrologist. 

Identifying appropriate data

Think about the data you need and why you need them.”

— Kathleen Gregory

It’s easy to make assumptions about what data might or should be available when you are in the throes of a good idea. By thinking carefully about what data will be needed early in the process, researchers can save themselves a lot of time and frustration down the road.

Eleven Quick Tips for Finding Research Data (Gregory et al. 2018) has a plethora of ideas for where and how to look, but the authors’ first tip is this: “think about the data you need and why you need them.” Remember to consider what kinds of data may be needed to normalize your primary data and be sure they are available.

Derived data products developed under this funding opportunity must be made publicly available, so be sure that contributors understand the requirement when they agree to participate—and remember to keep track of the sources, access dates, and any constraints associated with each data set.


The very quality that adds value to a synthesis group can also be its downfall. By including multiple perspectives on a problem, researchers increase the chances of arriving at a new solution. But it can take a surprising amount of time to identify and resolve conflicting understandings. Participants often reach a plateau (or even a valley) where they feel they are simply not comprehending one another — or the insights they are reaching are completely derivative.

Persist! That’s what’s known as the groan zone (a concept drawn from Sam Kaner’s book,  Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making) and it is where the real intellectual work of synthesis happens.

Not all researchers are born facilitators, but it is a skill that can be learned. Kaner’s book is one good resource, as are these shorter articles and reports:

diagram relating number and diversity of ideas through the duration of a working group
Adaptation of Kaner’s Diamond Model of Participation, as found in his book ‘Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.’ Credit: Carrie Kappel.

Discussing Authorship

Candidly discussing expectations for authorship early in the collaboration process can avoid conflict, hard feelings, and wasted energy later in the process.  When individuals from diverse fields, sectors, and backgrounds come together, it is especially helpful to have a transparent discussion of what the group understands as an author-level contribution. For an anecdotal case of how and why groups need to discuss authorship, see Equity in Author Order: A Feminist Laboratory’s Approach.

The CRediT framework has become the default for many journals and institutions in the past few years. This is a great starting point for determining authorship, though many perspectives exist (see Smith et al. for a selection). Also, data-intensive research efforts such as synthesis may demand consideration of a wider variety of roles, as noted in this opinion piece from the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Research Artifact Citation Cluster.

The exact boundaries of what constitutes authorship will vary by the group and the type of paper, but they should be discussed as a group, early in the process, to minimize misunderstandings. The simplified authorship, data, and acknowledgements template linked here provides a solid starting point for discussion.  

Maintaining Momentum

Working group meetings can be exciting, with in-depth discussion and  rapid progress toward shared goals, but they will be most productive if the group has maintained momentum between meetings. Everyone doesn’t need to be involved in every decision, but working group leaders should establish a mechanism for regular group interaction between meetings. The best mechanism for your group is the one they will use. Some approaches that we have seen work well are:

  • An email list. (LNO can set up a shared list with immediate delivery and digest options.)
  • Instant messaging on LTER Slack or the LTER Forum and a running task board on GitHub Projects or other project manager, such as Trello.
  • A google website, with space for a shared calendar, uploaded documents, and group discussion. Simple to set up and maintain, this can also serve as a public presence for the group.
  • For those who are reasonably fluent in it, GitHub has great versioning for code, markdown for private/public documents, shared wikis, and assignable task lists.

The growing use of remote collaboration has introduced both new challenges and new opportunities to the practice of group synthesis. Maintaining momentum for collaborative working groups in a post-pandemic world,” authored by a number of researchers who represent synthesis groups, is an excellent resource specifically tailored to synthetic science.

Leveraging the liabilities of virtual collaboration, co-written by members of the LTER Network Office and NCEAS, offers a variety of approaches to capitalize on the remote environment.

Computing and analysis

Using resources such as GitHub, R, Python and other scripting languages, savvy investigators can develop reproducible workflows that encourage effective documentation and allow users to quickly adapt analyses or rerun them with new or expanded data. The LNO computing staff is eager to help you find solutions to your data and collaboration challenges. They offer:

  • set-up of collaborative tools (e.g., shared drive, mailing lists, project management, team websites),
  • training and consultation in reproducible and collaborative workflows,
  • help with data discovery, data harmonization and wrangling,
  • direct assistance with setting up scripted analyses,
  • access to NCEAS’ high-performance analytical servers,
  • assistance with documentation and archiving of derived datasets

LTER synthesis groups can expect support from LNO data analysts for a period of two years for full synthesis groups and one year for SPARC groups.

For a brief primer on the how and why groups should participate in open science and reproducible research, see The tao of open science for ecology and The History and Future of Data Citation in Practice.

Additional resources are also available through the NCEAS/DataONE Learning Hub, The Environmental Data Initiative‘s resource pages, Data Carpentry,  and many other entities in the Earth and environmental sciences space.


When you publish, please remember to acknowledge support provided through the LTER Network Office, grants DEB 1545288 and DEB 1929393, alert the LTER Network Office, the NCEAS Communications Office, and the National Science Foundation Office of Public Affairs of your publication on acceptance.

Communicating Results

The LTER Network Office and NCEAS also provide communications training and advice to broaden the impact and social utility of the synthesis research, and leverage connections through other partnerships such as NCEAS’ Morpho Initiative to engage audiences such as NGOs and public agencies in using synthesis results.