Are big international teams leaving creativity out of science?

Over the last few decades, research has grown ever more international. Big projects, like major astronomical observatories, genome sequencing, and particle physics, are all based on large teams of researchers spread across multiple institutions. And, because of the technology that makes remote work possible, even small collaborations that cross countries or continents have become increasingly commonplace.

In theory, this should make it easier for researchers to build teams that have the right talents to bring a scientific project to completion. But is it working out that way? Some recent studies have indicated that the research we produce may be getting increasingly derivative. And a study released today ties that directly to the growth in what it calls “remote collaboration.”

So, is science-by-Zoom at fault? While it’s a possibility worth exploring, it’s difficult to separate cause and effect at this point.

Measuring collaboration and creativity

The new work was performed by three researchers: Yiling Lin, Carl Benedikt Frey, and Lingfei Wu. It’s based on a simple idea, namely that “scientists in on-site teams are better placed to fuse knowledge and conceive the next breakthrough idea.” Following up on those ideas, however, may require talents or access to equipment that the local team lacks, so they turn to long-distance collaborations to get the data they need to test their ideas. So, you’d expect that local teams would be behind the most disruptive research and that large, dispersed teams would be performing the incremental work that pushes these disruptive ideas into acceptance.

The challenge of following up on this sort of hypothesis is figuring out how to measure the features of these different types of research. Getting the data is not a problem—scientific developments are cataloged in the peer-reviewed literature, and we have lots of large databases of publications. Figuring out how to identify which ones contain disruptive ideas, and were written by distributed teams, however, is substantially more challenging.

For distributed teams, the researchers focused on city-based proximity. If any two authors of a paper were in the same city, they were considered part of a team that could frequently meet on-site. As soon as a research team included someone from a different city, however, then it was considered a remote collaboration.

Disruptive research is harder to measure, although a number of different methods have been developed for doing so. Most of these methods involve analyzing how future research cites the original work. For this paper, Lin, Frey, and Wu develop what they call a “D score,” which is based on a simple rule: If subsequent papers cite both the research paper in question and the papers cited in it, then the work in the paper is incremental—it fits in with the general flow of ideas. If subsequent papers that cite the research in question do not cite its references, then that’s a sign that the research paper took a field in a new direction.

So, the Watson and Crick paper on the structure of DNA gets a D score of 0.96 out of a possible 1.0, placing it among the top 1 percent of disruptive papers. By contrast, the human genome paper was built on a lot of earlier work and only gets a D score of -0.017, putting it in the bottom 10 percent of disruptive papers.

The approach was used to evaluate over 20 million papers, with 22.5 million scientists contributing as authors, all published between 1960 and 2020. Separately, a bit over 4 million patents with 2.7 million authors were also considered (with patent data starting in 1976).

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