Background: Within many health care disciplines, research networks have emerged to connect researchers who are physically separated, to facilitate sharing of expertise and resources, and to exchange valuable skills. A multicentre research network committed to studying difficult cancer pain problems was launched in 2004 as part of a Canadian initiative to increase palliative and end-of-life care research capacity. Funding was received for 5 years to support network activities. Methods: Mid-way through the 5-year granting period, an external review panel provided a formal mid-grant evaluation. Concurrently, an internal evaluation of the network by survey of its members was conducted. Based on feedback from both evaluations and on a review of the literature, we identified several components believed to be relevant to the development of a successful clinical cancer research network. Results: These common elements of successful clinical cancer research networks were identified: shared vision, formal governance policies and terms of reference, infrastructure support, regular and effective communication, an accountability framework, a succession planning strategy to address membership change over time, multiple strategies to engage network members, regular review of goals and timelines, and a balance between structure and creativity. Conclusions: In establishing and conducting a multi-year, multicentre clinical cancer research network, network members were led to reflect on the factors that contributed most to the achievement of network goals. Several specific factors were identified that seemed to be highly relevant in promoting success. These observations are presented to foster further discussion on the successful design and operation of research networks.