Large scale research programmes and networks are an increasingly prominent feature of global change and sustainability research. They aim to bring together researchers with different topical, disciplinary and geographical backgrounds around common issues of concern. Significant human and financial resources are invested in global research programmes and networks. Nevertheless, we know little about how these coordination mechanisms contribute to collaboration or the extent to which they manage to live up to high expectations. Addressing this gap, the current article combines a literature review and scientometric analysis of two large scale programmes in global change research in order to address the question ‘what does science coordination achieve?’ Insights from this study are relevant for identifying possible bottlenecks of science coordination as well as potentials for improved global research systems that support interdisciplinary and international collaboration.