Teamwork in Geosciences

Professor Emeritus James S. Aber
Emporia State University

This webpage remains available in archive status,
but it will not be updated after May 2017.


In the typical college science course, students may conduct laboratory exercises, go on field trips, write term papers, and take final exams. In most cases, students participate and are graded as individuals; in fact, students feel strong pressure to compete with each other to achieve higher grades. This continues the pattern they have experienced throughout their academic careers since grade school. As students move into their own senior undergraduate, master's and doctoral research programs, they are increasingly evaluated, again, as individuals.

In contrast, nearly all actual science is undertaken in teams or groups in which individuals cooperate to achieve a research goal. Modern science is conducted within large organizations—universities, governmental agencies, engineering and scientific corporations—with substantial financial commitments from federal and state governments, charities, private trusts, company stockholders, venture capitalists, etc. From this brief discussion, it should be clear that the normal academic preparation of science students bears little resemblance the actual practice of science.

Modern geoscience publication

Scientific accomplishment is evaluated on the basis of peer-reviewed publications. Take a look at the current issue of the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, one of the premier geoscience journals in North America.

GSA Bulletin.

Chances are, most or nearly all of the articles have multiple coauthors. The May 2017 issue, for example, had 14 articles on subjects ranging from paleoclimatology to volcanology. Of these, only one article was written by a single author. All the others had three or more coauthors, and one had 12 coauthors. This is absolutely typical of modern geoscience. The number of coauthors is even greater in some other disciplines.

The days of the lone scientist working long hours in the laboratory or field on his or her own are long gone. Science, like most other human endeavors, is a cooperative venture normally pursued in teams or groups of individuals who collaborate on a common project or problem. The people may work together closely on a daily or frequent basis. In other cases, collaboration may be intermittent with long gaps between sharing information or reviewing each other's work.

Members of the Estonian field crew at the observation tower in Männikjärve bog; relaxing after a long day of kite aerial photography. From left to right: Karin Muru, Edgar Karofeld, Susie Aber, Kai Kimmel, Katrin Möllits, and Kiira Aaviksoo; J.S. Aber at top. Not shown: Andres Kimmel and Meeli Vilbaste. Right: aerial view of the observation tower.

As a general rule, the first author did most of the actual writing of the journal article or book, but everyone who made significant contributions to the project is given credit as coauthors. In fact, one or more of the coauthors may have been crucial contributors toward successful outcome of the research. In other cases, some coauthors played mere cameo roles. For some situations, the last author is actually the most important! The relative importance of coauthors is usually impossible to know just from reading the article, however. Taken all together, the published article represents a team project.

Faculty career

The author's own career has followed a trajectory toward more team projects and group research in three phases. Post-doctoral and junior faculty work was mostly independent, as with the traditional college student model. During a middle phase, increasingly large international projects developed along side continuing individual research. In the third phase, nearly all significant scientific work has involved group projects. Representative publications illustrate these developmental phases.

Post-doctoral and junior faculty

Mid-career scientific phase

Senior scientific phase

Student group projects

Nearly all students have some anxiety about group projects, because this means interacting with other students, who may not be their friends or may not even be known to them beforehand. This situation especially affects distance-learning students, who make up more than half of graduate students in the earth science program at ESU. Nonetheless, becoming proficient with team projects is essential for further professional development and eventual careers in science. For a good overview of the problem and solutions, review the following presentation by Ken Haycock, former Dean of the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at San José State University, California.

Working in teams (ppt file).

This presentation was given primarily for graduate SLIS students. It also applies quite well to many other disciplines, including the geosciences, and has been widely circulated. The goal of course team projects is to reach at least the 80% level of learning (see slide 4).

Effective communication is the key to any successful group project (see slide 9). This does not necessarily mean daily contact, but frequent contact among team members is important as well as prompt replies to queries or suggestions from other team members. Many means exist nowadays—ranging from in-person meetings to online chatting and video conferencing. The mode of communication needs to be established early on and should match the technical capability of all members.

ESU field geology students collect a core sample from a peat bog at Bear Lake, near Cuchara, Colorado. The basal peat was sent to a radiocarbon laboratory where it was dated 3630 to 3700 calendar years old (Beta 2007).

Students often have quite varied academic, work, family, and leisure schedules, particularly distance-learning students, who may live in several different time zones. The whole group needs to agree on a shared means for communication, and do not expect instantaneous feedback—asynchronous communication may be the best mode for some groups. Most importantly, make sure to copy all members when sending updates, questions, or suggestions—everybody needs to be involved as the project moves forward. Some web sites support collaborative work.


© Notice: This information is presented by the Earth Science department for the express use and benefit of students enrolled at Emporia State University. Anyone else may view and enjoy the information here. No other use or repackaging of course curriculum is permitted without permission of the author.

Please send your comments to the author, J.S. Aber. Last update: May 2017.