Come together: Networking and collaboration in tropical forest scientific research

Emilio Vilanova is a forest ecologist studying the dynamics of tropical forests with an emphasis on patterns of tree mortality, biomass and carbon across a wide range of environmental conditions in Venezuela, northern South America.





The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – Aristotle

The world is interested in the tropics for multiple reasons with the conservation of species diversity and mitigation of climate change being probably the most powerful and compelling arguments. They are also very important for a lot of people across the world. Near 1.5 billion people seems to rely to some extent on what these forests can provide in terms of water resources, food for their livelihood[1]. Furthermore, tropical forests are perhaps the embodiment of what a diverse nature means. Thousands of animal, insect and plant species are part of these systems each one with unique functions and roles. One could perceive this as a clear example of Aristotle’s words: “…the whole greater than the sum of its parts…”.

Well, to some extent, scientific research these days might not be too different. Conducting research these days is rarely a one-person deal. For example, writing publications has become a multiauthor thing in recent years[2]. This, of course is not absent from controversy about the legitimacy and quality of these studies, but that would require a parallel discussion. In the realm of tropical forest ecology and management, the surge of research networks in the last two decades shows how relevant Aristotle’s message might be. We, not only scientists, but society in general, wouldn’t be aware of some of the most important aspects of tropical forests if it wasn’t for the products, mostly in the form of scientific publications, delivered by some of these networks. Did you know that tropical forests may harbor more than 50,000 species of trees alone?[3]; Did you know that among the 16,000-tree species estimated to be in the lowland forests in the Amazon Basin, only a handful of 227 account for half of the millions of trees living in these areas?[4]; Did you know that the very important service of carbon storage and climate change mitigation provided by Amazonian forests might be at risk?[5]. This is just a small sample of the questions we have been able to answer through the work of collaborative networks of hundreds of people and institutions across many countries in the tropical region. Two examples that I can personally relate to are the Amazon Tree Diversity Network (ATDN[6]) and the Amazon Forest Inventory Network (RAINFOR)[7]. These have served as an impressive way to connect a large group of people coming from different backgrounds, both scientifically and geographically, and have been substantially important for many young scientists in developing countries allowing us to be part of exciting discussions. Certainly, this relationship was essential in my desire for being part of science aiming to respond relevant questions with regards to forest ecology, conservation, and sustainable management of tropical forests in Venezuela, my home country.

Being part of a scientific network, however, is not an easy task. “Networking” involves way more things than just sharing a common research interest. It requires enormous efforts of planning, coordination and, most importantly an idea of trust and genuine sense of collaboration and some work exists to show effective ways to engage in successful collaborative research initiatives[8]. In my experience, the “Ten rules for successful research collaboration[9] are a good way to start when thinking about joining collaborative projects in your research career. Overall, knowing that summing little pieces to a whole would probably yield better and more relevant results for all, is a general principle that have helped me throughout my career. Overall, it is important to understand the implications of being part of an international research network where often personal interests and conflicts can obscure the nature of these multiple relationships. Building these relationships is a long-term deal.



[1] Vira B, Mansourian S, Martin A, Gross-camp N, Latawiec A, Swainson L. Chapter 4 Social and economic considerations relevant to REDD +. In: Parrotta, J., Wildburger, C., Mansourian S, editor. Understanding Relationships between Biodiversity, Carbon, Forests and People: The Key to Achieving REDD+ Objectives [Internet]. Viena: International Union of Forest Research Organiations (IUFRO); 2012. p. 83–112. Available from:

[2] All together now: Why research papers have so many authors:

[3] Slik JWF, Arroyo-Rodríguez V, Aiba S-I, Alvarez-Loayza P, Alves LF, Ashton P, et al. An estimate of the number of tropical tree species. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2015;112(24):7472–7. Available from:

[4] ter Steege, H, Pitman, N, et al . Hyperdominance in the Amazonian Tree Flora. Science. 2013; 342(6156). Available from:

[5] Brienen, RJW, Phillipis, OLP, et al. Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature. 2015, 519: 344-348. Available from:

[6] The map shows more than a thousand field sites where many researchers are conducting research in the forest of the Amazon Basin. See ter Steege et al (2013) paper for more information.




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