Dec 1, 2023 - Science

Remote collaborators don't generate as many breakthrough scientific ideas: study

Illustration of a lightbulb being buried in a sea of paper.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Teams of scientists that collaborate remotely are less likely to generate disruptive ideas, a new study suggests.

Why it matters: The finding lands as debates about the benefits and drawbacks of remote work roil workplaces and some studies suggest there is a slowdown in discoveries that push science in new, fruitful directions.

What they did: Analyzing 20 million scientific research articles and 4 million patent applications spanning the last half century, the researchers first described the increase in remote collaborations between scientists around the world during that time.

  • They defined teams as "on-site" if the authors of a paper or patent were in the same city. When a team had an author from another city, it was considered a remote collaboration.
  • A paper was deemed to be disruptive based on how it was cited: If a subsequent scientific paper cites the original paper and the references in it, it is seen as incremental work. If a paper cites the original patent or paper but doesn't include the references in it, that suggests the original work was disruptive because it eclipsed the old ones referenced, the researchers reported in the journal Nature.
  • They determined who was involved in idea generation from the contributions of each author — in conceiving the idea or study design, data analysis, writing the paper and other tasks — that are included in papers.

What they found: The team reports "remote teams develop and on-site teams disrupt both in science and technology."

  • "We can divide many things, but not ideas, especially in the early stage of making those ideas," said Lingfei Wu, a social scientist in the computer science department at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the study.
  • They also reported that less established researchers were more likely to be involved in conceiving new ideas if they were on-site.
  • "It shows with enormous empirical power over a wide range of inventive and discovery activities ... that there is a huge premium that comes with creativity on site," said James Evans, who studies the sociology of science at the University of Chicago and wasn't involved in the research but has collaborated with Wu.

Yes, but: Work isn't all idea generation, all the time.

  • The study found some tasks — like data analysis — may be suited for remote collaboration.
  • That could be because data analysis can be divided into smaller, discrete tasks that can be distributed among people, Erin Leahey, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, said.
  • The causation behind the correlation is also unclear, Ars Technica's John Timmer writes. Scientists working on new ideas may be more likely to work with the experimental approach they know, he said.

The big picture: The findings echo other recent studies, including one by Evans that is not yet peer-reviewed that found scientists are heavily intellectually influenced by other scientists at their same institution, especially when they are in different fields.

  • It seems from serendipity: Researchers might get to know each other — and their ideas — by serving on a committee or because their kids play soccer together, Evans said.
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