Both of these words seem to mean much the same thing: working together to achieve some goal. I can instinctively feel a difference between them, but I can't easily put it into words.

Can you help me? Do these words come from different etymologies which might explain the difference?


Cooperating means working with someone in the sense of enabling: making them more able to do something (typically by providing information or resources they wouldn't otherwise have).

Collaborating means actually working alongside someone (from Latin laborare: to work) to achieve something.

The confusion comes from the overloaded meaning of "work with": In the "Work with me, people" sense, it means to go along with my idea - it's a passive condoning or suspension of disbelief rather than an active involvement. In the "I'm stuck, can you work with me on this problem?" sense it is a request for active commitment.

So in terms of helping achieve something, the ordering is something like collaboration, then cooperation, then passive indifference, then active obstruction.

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  • Well, cooperari is "to work together with" which is the same as laborare "to work", if not stronger, so etymology does not justify. I do agree with your ordering as collaboration seems stronger than cooperation; but I would say that it is more due to fact that cooperation can be passive or non-interfering and collaboration is active. I think your definition of cooperating as enabling is a bit arbitrary (for example providing information or resources can be called collaboration, too). – Unreason Jun 6 '11 at 14:54
  • @Unreason Thank you for the etymology clarification. I really like @tastapod's examples (examples are always good!) so I'm marking this one as accepted. – Lunivore Jun 6 '11 at 19:14
  • This is a great answer. The latin etymology of "collaborate" was really helpful. It's obvious but I had never thought of it. I found this page because I had the same question as the OP, and this answer explained the difference. – ktm5124 Aug 18 '15 at 15:17

I think it has to do with ownership of the outcome. If you collaborate with me on a project, we have shared authorship. Cooperation could just mean that you've given me help on something I'm working on and that I'm ultimately responsible for.

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  • I think you need to emphasize that the difference is slight" if you cooperate with me on the (whole) project, if the project is a cooperation, then responsibility and ownership is not so clearly separated. I agree that you can more easily say that there was cooperation than collaboration, and that the word collaboration implies (slightly) more involvement, but thats about it. – Unreason Jun 6 '11 at 8:49

If you start with etymologies, you can see that


also co-operate, c.1600, from L.L. cooperatus, pp. of cooperari "to work together with" (see cooperation). Related: Cooperated; cooperating.



1871, back formation from collaborator (1802), from Fr. collaborateur, from L. collaboratus, pp. of collaborare "work with," from com- "with" (see com-) + labore "to work" (see labor). Given a bad sense in World War II. Related: Collaborated; collaborating.

share the meaning coming from "to operate" and "to labor", whose meaning in the "co(m)-" sense is almost indistinguishable.

So, the actual usage is what distinguishes the two words; dictionary entries are almost the same, with the exception from the etymology, that collaborate took a specific meaning during WWII of "cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country."

Also, cooperate can be used for when someone is said to simply "be compliant" - without proactive involvement; where collaborate does imply a bit more active involvement ("cooperate" has slightly wider application, which might be directly related to the fact that the word started to be used almost two centuries before "collaborate").

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I agree that the distinction is "active" or "inactive" participation. People can "cooperate" with no action at all. Not true with "collaborate". I took a "Collaboration and Facilitation" class in college. We talked about the difference between "Cooperate" and "Collaborate" and felt it was distinct. For example, when facilitating a meeting where a group is trying to solve problems and make decisions, the goal is collaboration. We want each party to participate and come to a shared-ownership agreement. "Let's make decisions together." When someone only presents a solution, the other parties aren't part of the decision-making process so they are "cooperating". "Do you agree with this decision?"

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collaborate- different people working on the same project but in different areas in order to work towards a common goal.

co-operation -different people working on the same project but in the same areas in order to work towards a common goal. (or achieve a common goal )

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    Can you support this with some references and examples? As a short and unsupported answer, it will probably end up in the low quality review bucket. The highest rated answer so far basically contradicts your statements. – Phil Sweet Jun 14 '16 at 4:34

Please allow a foreign amateur to propose a slightly different angle to the problem - timing. To me co-operation and co-laboration tastes like:

  • Laboration = 'work', is short term, while
  • Operation = business as usual, is ongoing and long term.

That would lead to cooperation being linked to "partnering" (for common long-term benefits), while collaboration is linked to "agreement" (like a contract for a common short-term benefit).

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  • It's a cute idea, but that's not what the words mean. You can definitely cooperate for a short time, such as when enemies cooperate to prevent some disaster before going back to war immediately afterwards. In general you can't look at etymologies to decide current meaning. – curiousdannii Jul 28 '14 at 10:42

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