The year 2020 is the 40th anniversary of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s LTER Program, which has grown from a loosely organized set of research projects to a dynamic network of 28 sustained research programs across 18 major biomes. Hypothesis-driven, place-based research has been the Network’s bread and butter throughout its 40-year history. Approaches to cross-site synthesis have varied through time, yet collaborative synthesis is essential for understanding the generality of site-based insights, scaling the results, and making them useful for modeling.
A recent update of the LTER Network bibliography makes it possible to approach the question of “what works” to facilitate collaboration at both the site- and the network-level. Our analysis shows that between 1980 and 2019, the average number of LTER-based publications per site per year grew from 6 to more than 30. For the first 10-15 years of the Network’s history, the number of authors and institutions per publication was similar to a comparable sample of non-LTER publications. But the pace of collaboration accelerated rapidly between 1995 and 2019. Today, LTER papers involve nearly twice as many authors and institutions as comparable non-LTER publications. Site tenure and ecosystem type are predictably strong drivers of collaboration in the LTER Network. Researcher mobility emerged as an unexpected source of collaboration that merits further investigation.