Purpose This paper seeks to understand the strategic behaviour of researchers when producing knowledge in two scientific fields – nanotechnology and social sciences. Design/methodology/approach The author conducted semi-structured interviews with 43 researchers to analyse the needs for strategic interdependence (resource-sharing) and for organisational autonomy (decision-making) in knowledge production. When aligned, these two concepts form three modes of behaviour: mode1, mode2 and mode3. Findings The empirical study results show that, besides well-studied differences in various publications, there are large behaviour differences between social science and nanotechnology researchers. While nanotechnology researchers’ behaviours are mostly in mode3 (sharing resources; highly autonomous), social science researchers’ behaviours tend to be in mode1 (highly autonomous; no need to share resources). Practical implications This study delivers an understanding of the differences in the strategic behaviours of researchers in different scientific fields. The author proposes managerial interventions for research managers – university and research group leaders. Originality/value While most studies that compare scientific fields look at knowledge production outcomes, the author analyses conditions that differentiate these outcomes. To this end, the author compares individual researchers’ behaviours in different fields by analysing the need for collaboration and the need for autonomy.