Research groups as communities of practice—a case study of four high-performing research groups


The aim of this paper is to investigate the organization of research in high-performing research groups in an age of increasing competition and pressure from outside and within higher-education institutions. To explore how researchers navigate such pressures and demands, the practice and perceptions of four high-performing research groups in Denmark and the Netherlands are examined, and the extent to which these groups can be understood as “communities of practice” or if they are displaying “team”-like characteristics is discussed. Previous studies have shown the benefits of communities of practice for organizational performance, and the present study demonstrates that the successful groups do indeed share many characteristics with such communities. A central argument of the paper is, however, also that incentive structures, inherent in many new policy initiatives that are meant to foster excellence in science, are more directed at “team-like” organization by focusing on, e.g., formally organized work processes, predefined goals, milestones, work packages, and hierarchically organized consortia. The potential implications of this are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    This study was conducted by Lise Degn and Mads P. Sørensen, and data from this project has also been used in Young et al. (2016).

  2. 2.

    This study was carried out by Sarah de Rijcke and Alex Rushforth, and findings from this project were also published in Rushforth and De Rijcke (2015) and Müller and De Rijcke (forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    This study was conducted by Thomas Franssen and Sarah de Rijcke.


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Degn, L., Franssen, T., Sørensen, M.P. et al. Research groups as communities of practice—a case study of four high-performing research groups. High Educ 76, 231–246 (2018).

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  • Research groups
  • Practice
  • Communities of practice
  • Performance