Good ideas in science continue to emerge face-to-face, not through remote collaboration

Collaborative and global science, facilitated by new technologies, has a very good press, but it has an undeserved reputation for its innovative capacity, if we pay attention to the results obtained by the researcher from the University of Pittsburgh. Lingfei Wu And your team. In a work published this Wednesday In the magazine natureWu’s team analyzed 20 million research articles published between 1960 and 2020 and 4 million patent applications filed between 1976 and 2020 worldwide. Their conclusion was that the majority of groundbreaking discoveries, those that open up new areas of science, are still being made by teams working face-to-face.

“In science and technology, the shift toward remote collaboration is often seen as a way to leverage geographically dispersed talent and accelerate innovation,” says Wu. “However, our analysis of planetary-scale data suggests otherwise. While remote teams excel at breaking down and executing tasks around existing ideas, they often struggle to integrate these ideas into cutting-edge innovations.”

In the last half-century, according to the authors, research teams have expanded geographically across all areas of science, and the average distance between members signing international collaboration articles has increased from 100 kilometers to approximately 1,000 kilometers. At the same time, the proportion of collaborations over very long distances of more than 2,500 km, roughly the distance from Brazil to Liberia across the South Atlantic, rose from 2% to 15% for articles.

Across the board, researchers on remote teams were less likely to make breakthrough discoveries than their in-person counterparts

How did you measure the degree of pioneering innovation of all these articles and patents? Authors created a value called a “D-score” based on the references articles received: if later works cited the article or patent, but ignored its earlier references, this production was considered destructive by suppressing the earlier contributions. “We analyzed unique datasets on the contribution data of authors of articles published in academic journals to understand how team roles and interactions change with distance, even among the same group of scientists,” explains Wu.

tasks dividing

As team members move around, says the study’s lead author, they are less likely to engage in conceptual work and more likely to engage in technical tasks, especially when there is a hierarchy among team members. For example, a graduate student will find it easier to discuss ideas informally with an experienced professor in the hallway than via emails. “One famous example is how James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA through intense discussion when they met at Oxford,” says Wu.

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The authors show that across domains and team sizes, researchers in remote teams were less likely to make breakthrough discoveries than their in-person counterparts. “Geographic proximity breaks down hierarchy, generating more horizontal teams and intense communication, which is essential for generating disruptive ideas,” says Wu. “If the goal is to generate breakthrough ideas, the mobility of team members, even in the final phase of the project, is likely to hinder the shared strength in conceptual work, since intense personal communication is necessary throughout the entire development cycle of the project.

The results are under discussion

This work is published in the context of a discussion about whether current science is losing steam when it comes to generating new ideas. A recent study published in the same journal concluded that Disruptive ideas are generally declining And it is not due specifically to the imbalances produced by the current publishing system. And a Work 2019 Wu, who also heads it, pointed out these differences, although this time the focus is on the size of the teams, rather than the physical distance between them.

There is a difference of opinion among specialists about these results. Professor at the Public University of Navarra (UPNA) Joaquin Sevillaco-author of the article The evils of scienceIt is true that proximity is always valuable in research. Remember that in history, great developments have often occurred in local ecosystems, where people physically collaborate, like MIT, or Cambridge, or Oxford, or the University of Calcutta in Bose’s time. “The annoying thing always happens at the bar, with a few beers and scribbled on a napkin,” he points out. “This remote, no matter how successful it is, is not recreated.”

In larger groups, the most troublesome proposals will be difficult to accept by consensus, and there will be unavoidable hesitation.

Isidro F. AgheloThe head of the CSIC Cybermetrics Laboratory, which specializes in scientific impact metrics, believes that the results are generally “acceptable.” What is striking in his opinion is that achieving “consensus” among consortium members will be more difficult the larger the group, the more geographically dispersed it is, and the less physical contact it has. “In those cases, the more confusing proposals will be difficult to accept unanimously, and whether the decision is at the design stage or the interpretation stage, there will be unavoidable hesitation,” he admits.

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to Thomas Marquis Bonnet, a geneticist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology who has been involved in several large-scale international studies, the conclusion regarding the division of labor is, to some extent, quite clear. “In genomics, macro projects are basically production,” he says. “Then, using these databases, individuals and local groups change them and do their own reanalyses, which takes more time.” Of course, he stresses, this does not mean that one or the other is worse. “Science today (especially genomics) needs major global efforts to advance knowledge, generate new data, and generate hypotheses,” he says.

Francis VillatoroThe University of Malaga researcher and publisher believe the disruption measure could be biased because it does not take into account how citation dynamics change over time. He points out that in the twentieth century, citations to the original sources of work became more difficult to find than they are today, so it may misleadingly appear that pioneering findings have declined despite increases in the number of researchers and the size of research and research groups. Number of long-distance international cooperation operations. “Without removing confounding variables associated with this change in citation dynamics from statistical analyses, any conclusion will be biased,” he concludes. Harry Collinsprofessor of social sciences at Cardiff University (UK), expresses himself in a similar sense in his statements SMC. “I’m very skeptical of studies that use citation patterns as an indicator of epistemic relationships,” he says. “Scientists cite or do not cite others for a variety of reasons, such as to gain favor or convince reviewers.”

Overlapping effects

to Felix de Moya Anegón, a bibliometrics expert and founder of the SCImago group, seems clear to him that what is produced in close environments is more disruptive than what is produced in distant environments, and his work on the topic indicates this. “If you work with those who are part of your immediate environment, that seems to give rise to thoughts that seem more disturbing,” he says. “On the other hand, if you collaborate remotely, it may lead to more continuous knowledge.”

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He and other researchers who study indicators of disruption are interested in understanding whether the work referred to in the immediate environment is of a different nature than remote work or whether it is due in part to something more troubling: specifically international collaboration. More citations than jobs in the immediate environment. He confirms: “Because this may mean that there is an inverse relationship between disruption and remote work.”

The publishing system can create a perverse incentive to create many works that have greater impact and help scholars’ individual careers even if they are not a major advance

In other words, these data could indicate that the publishing system generates a perverse incentive to create many works that give greater impact and help to individual scientists’ careers even if they are not major advances. “I think more work is needed to come to a conclusion of this kind, because it would be very powerful, but I think there is an impact from the growth of production of a certain type,” he explains.

The expert points to the not-so-obtrusive flag, which is designed to score points “in continuous areas.” But at the same time, he warns that there are other influences at play. “Since scientific communities are very conservative, they tend to conserve… the current situation In every field of knowledge, when many have to work together they choose what is generally accepted, and will only be more troublesome with those of like mind in the immediate environment. In any case, the basic issue is relevant to society in general and deserves further research, because it ultimately serves to determine public policies for investment in science. Above all, ensuring the advancement of knowledge so that humanity can benefit from it.

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