Fostering interdisciplinary collaboration: A longitudinal social network analysis of the NIH mHealth Training Institutes

J Clin Transl Sci. 2021 Sep 20;5(1):e191. doi: 10.1017/cts.2021.859. eCollection 2021.


Background/objective: Growing recognition that collaboration among scientists from diverse disciplines fosters the emergence of solutions to complex scientific problems has spurred initiatives to train researchers to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams. Evaluations of collaboration patterns in these initiatives have tended to be cross-sectional, rather than clarifying temporal changes in collaborative dynamics. Mobile health (mHealth), the science of using mobile, wireless devices to improve health outcomes, is a field whose advancement needs interdisciplinary collaboration. The NIH-supported annual mHealth Training Institute (mHTI) was developed to meet that need and provides a unique testbed.

Methods: In this study, we applied a longitudinal social network analysis technique to evaluate how well the program fostered communication among the disciplinarily diverse scholars participating in the 2017-2019 mHTIs. By applying separable temporal exponential random graph models, we investigated the formation and persistence of project-based and fun conversations during the mHTIs.

Results: We found that conversations between scholars of different disciplines were just as likely as conversations within disciplines to form or persist in the 2018 and 2019 mHTI, suggesting that the mHTI achieved its goal of fostering interdisciplinary conversations and could be a model for other team science initiatives; this finding is also true for scholars from different career stages. The presence of team and gender homophily effects in certain years suggested that scholars tended to communicate within the same team or gender.

Conclusion: Our results demonstrate the usefulness of longitudinal network models in evaluating team science initiatives while clarifying the processes driving interdisciplinary communications during the mHTIs.

Keywords: Team science; communications; gender homophily; longitudinal network analysis; mHTI; program evaluation; team homophily.