Science as Team Sport
Skip to content
Innovation Strategy Policy Oct 10, 2008

Science as Team Sport

Collaborating at a distance pays off

Based on the research of

Benjamin F. Jones

Stefan Wuchty

Brian Uzzi

Listening: Interview with Ben Jones and Brian Uzzi
download
0:00 Skip back button Play Skip forward button 14:09

The Large Hadron Collider, accelerating subatomic particles to light speed before crashing them together in spectacular fashion 100 meters beneath the Franco-Swiss border, unites thousands of physicists and engineers from dozens of nations and hundreds of universities in one of the world’s largest scientific collaborations. But calculus, a cornerstone of mathematics that is wielded en masse in the collider’s humming tunnels and glowing control rooms, was developed by just two men, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton, each of whom worked independently in the latter half of the 17th century.

Recent research by Benjamin Jones (Management and Strategy), Stefan Wuchty (National Institutes of Health), and Brian Uzzi (Management and Organizations) sheds light on how scientific discovery—for ages sprung primarily from the minds of singular giants—is now more likely to arise from large, distributed teams. Published in the journal Science, the study shows that while the reach and influence of teams is growing, the benefits of this evolution are concentrated largely among the nation’s most elite universities.

“There’s the old, classical idea about the lone scientist, like Aristotle or Newton. As recently as the 1950s you had a higher probability of hitting a home run if you came to the plate by yourself,” said Jones, describing how landmark scientific discoveries had been achieved for centuries. “Now, you have a better chance to hit that home run as a team.”

Even among the very best schools—where rock star researchers and founders of fields shared washrooms and water coolers—there was still an advantage to collaborating with other schools. But this advantage was concentrated primarily among the elite.

But as any fan of the Chicago Cubs can tell you, simply assembling a team does not guarantee that you will be able to swing a bat, let alone hit a home run. And with the global, knowledge-based economy depending more and more upon ideas and innovations, the ability to understand and fine-tune research initiatives takes on heightened significance.

“How do you assemble a network and figure out where to plug in your ideas to get the best return? Where do you place your bets? How do you create systems to enhance research?” asked Uzzi.

Following the Research Paper Trail

The beating heart of science can be found in the pages of research journals, where reports of the latest studies are published. Authorship of such papers is a primary indicator of scholars’ productivity. So to take the pulse and measure of the national research apparatus, Jones and colleagues followed the paper trail. This particular trail was weighty and wired, with roots stretching back to the 1960s and the austerely named Institute for Scientific Information (ISI).

The ISI Web of Science (WoS) is an online database that tracks the contents of roughly 8,700 leading academic journals. Jones and colleagues studied thirty years worth of WoS data, a total of 4.2 million research articles published from 1975 to 2005. Researchers from 662 major U.S. universities were represented, spanning 172 fields of science and engineering (SE), from astronomy to zoology. Another 54 fields of social science (SS), such as psychology and economics, were also represented.

Collaboration across Academic Borders

“In the 1950s, worldwide, there were forty thousand publications in science and engineering. Now, there are about a million papers this decade,” said Jones. “To be a renaissance man today, with a million papers published, is tough.”

So tough, perhaps, that savvy scientists are teaming up, not just across campus but increasingly across time zones. In both SE and SS, multi-school collaborations were relatively rare in 1975 when no more than 10 percent of published collaborations involved more than one institution. Over the thirty years that followed, multi-school collaborations grew steadily to account for 30 to 35 percent of publications in 2005. Over that same period, single-author papers became increasingly rare, down from roughly 30 to 10 percent for SE, from 60 to 40 percent for SS. The number of collaborations that were confined to a single school remained fairly constant, roughly 60 percent for SE, 30 percent for SS.

“Some of our earlier work was on this changing nature of the production of knowledge in science, the inversion from sole authorship to team-based publications,” said Uzzi. “This was becoming clear in fields that were capital intensive, requiring big grants and special equipment, like in nuclear physics. But now we’re finding that it’s more universal, even seeing changes in the social sciences.”

While some might attribute this trend to the emergence of the Internet and its telecommunicating kin, the data suggest otherwise, revealing a pattern that largely took hold prior to the communications boom of the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s surprising,” said Jones, “but it doesn’t seem to be a result of increased ease of communication. The trend is mostly smooth back to the 1970s.”

Specialization Drives Team Formation and Collaboration

“Instead,” he continued, “it could be due to increasing specialization. Researchers innovate by becoming more expert along the expanding frontier of knowledge.” Single institutions, let alone isolated researchers, typically cannot amass expertise in more than a slight fraction of a field. To harness increasingly specialized knowledge and skills that are needed to solve ever more complex problems, researchers seek collaborators based on expertise and interests, not location. But, added Jones, “They’re not reaching further, just more often.” While the overall level of multi-school collaboration has increased, the average distance between collaborators has grown only slightly to 800 miles, up from 750 miles for SE, 725 miles for SS.

To examine how collaborations influenced the quality of research, Jones and colleagues first determined how often average, run-of-the-mill research articles were cited by subsequent research papers, focusing on the decade spanning from 1995 to 2005. To find the crème de la crème—the game-changing, high impact publications that arose from particularly fertile collaborations—they then identified papers that were cited significantly more than the average paper. For example, the average SE paper published in 2001 was subsequently cited about 17 times, while a high impact paper was cited at least 38 times.

Collaborating beyond a single school improved the odds of publishing high impact research. In SE, multi-school collaborations had a 35.6 percent chance of having high impact, 2.9 percent higher than for single-school collaborations. A multi-school boost of 5.8 percent was seen for SS as well, increasing the probability of publishing high impact research from 34.1 to 39.9 percent.

Jones and colleagues next considered ways to rank and categorize the more than 600 institutions, recognizing that not all schools are created equal, and that those inequalities could influence—or be influenced by—the structure and strength of collaborations. Schools were ranked according to the total number of times that their researchers were cited by others, considering only single-authored papers and within-school collaborations. The top 5 percent of schools were categorized as Tier I. Tier II encompassed schools from 6 to 10 percent, Tier III from 11 to 20 percent, and Tier IV the remaining 80 percent.

From 2001 to 2005, researchers from Tier III and Tier IV schools, which account for 90 percent of the institutions in the study, participated in only 18 percent of multi-school collaborations in both SE and SS. At the other end of this spectrum, Tier I schools, a mere 5 percent of the institutions, participated in 55 to 60 percent of multi-school collaborations. Even among these very best schools, where rock star researchers and founders of fields shared washrooms and water coolers, there was still an advantage to collaborating with other schools. Within Tier I, multi-school collaborations were 6.19 percent (SE) to 11.7 percent (SS) more likely than single-school collaborations to achieve high impact status. “A Harvard-Harvard connection doesn’t do as well as a Harvard-Stanford connection,” said Jones.

But this advantage was concentrated primarily among the elite. Multi-school collaboration offered diminished advantages within Tiers II and III, and was ineffective—even slightly detrimental—within Tier IV. In the 68 percent of collaborations that spanned multiple tiers, the higher tier schools blunted the impact of their research and realized less benefit than if they had collaborated within their own tier. However, the higher tier school pulled the overall impact up more than the lower tier school pulled it down.

With so much at stake, researchers probably did not choose their collaborators like slumber-partying teens making prank calls, blindly flipping through the phonebook and dialing numbers at random. But what if they did? Assuming that the researchers were not self-destructive or intent on career suicide, such a selection process would suggest that all potential collaborators, the whole phone book, were deemed equally likely to share valuable skills, efforts, and insights, regardless of institution or tier. Jones and colleagues modeled this random scenario to see if it reflected real collaborative processes.

Contrary to the egalitarian predictions of the random matching model, researchers collaborated in a skewed, stratified manner, staying largely within their own tiers. Compared to the random model, same-tier collaborations among Tier I schools were 14 percent more common in SE, 27 percent more common in SS. Similarly, same-tier collaborations among lower tiers were more frequent by as much as 89 percent in the case of SE among Tier IV schools. But collaborations across tiers were unexpectedly rare. Compared to the random model, Tier I-IV collaborations were 19 percent less common in SE, 32 percent less common in SS.

“We see increasing stratification more than diversification,” said Jones, who noted also that these between-tier gaps have been growing over time. Since the late 1970s, within-tier collaborations among Tier I schools have increased, while between-tier collaborations of Tier I schools with partners in Tier IV have become more rare. And once the decisions were made to look beyond one’s own school for collaborators, said Jones, “If you’re going to reach a few kilometers, you might as well reach a few thousand kilometers.” He pointed to analyses of specific research hotspots, such as Boston, the Bay Area, Chicago, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. These showed, again, that social proximity and the relationships with one’s peers are becoming far more important than spatial proximity. Top tier schools in those cities increased their collaboration with same tier peers in distant locales, while partnerships with local schools declined.

These findings, far from an esoteric exercise in library science, could advance policy and practice and have significant impact on economic development. Said Jones, “Economists are concerned with production functions, inputs and outputs, efficiency. We looked at knowledge production functions. How do you put individuals together? How does that influence decisions, career paths? And how do those individual functions aggregate up to the level of the economy?”

Further reading:

Whitfield, John (2008). “Collaboration: Group Theory,” Nature, October 8, 455(7214): 720-723 (Accessed October 10, 2008; subscription required)

Featured Faculty

Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship; Professor of Strategy; Faculty Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI)

Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change; Co-Director, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO); Faculty Director, Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative (KACI); Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, McCormick School (Courtesy); Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College (Courtesy)

About the Writer
Brad Wible is with the Office of Research, Kellogg School of Management.
About the Research

Jones, Benjamin F., Stefan Wuchty, Brian Uzzi (2008). “Multi-University Research Teams: Shifting Impact, Geography and Social Stratification in Science,” Science, forthcoming. Posted in Science Express on October 9, 2008.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  2. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
  3. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  4. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  5. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  6. 5 Ways to Improve Diversity Training, According to a New Study
    All too often, these programs are ineffective and short-lived. But they don’t have to be.
    diversity training session
  7. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  8. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  9. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  10. Podcast: China’s Economy Is in Flux. Here’s What American Businesses Need to Know.
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader: the end of “Zero Covid,” escalating geopolitical tensions, and China’s potentially irreplaceable role in the global supply chain.
  11. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  12. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  13. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  14. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  15. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  16. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  17. Jeff Ubben Explains His “Anti-ESG ESG” Investment Strategy
    In a recent conversation with Kellogg’s Robert Korajczyk, the hedge-fund leader breaks down his unique approach to mission-driven investing.
    smokestacks, wind turbine, solar panel
  18. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper