Get offline and meet in person to make breakthroughs, claims study


People doing videoconferencing
Screen time: teams of scientists that work remotely are less likely to make big research breakthroughs, claims a new study (courtesy: iStock/AndreyPopov)

The online world makes it easier for researchers to collaborate – but does not result in more groundbreaking work. That is according to a new study, which finds that teams of scientists working remotely are less likely to make big research breakthroughs. The discovery could help to explain a recently observed slowdown in the rate of innovation in science and technology (Nature 623 987).

Carried out by a team led by Carl Frey, an economist at the University of Oxford in the UK, the study looked at over 20 million papers published between 1960 and 2020 across the sciences, arts and humanities. The team also analysed four million patent applications filed between 1976 and 2020.

Using information on researchers’ affiliations, the authors first worked out how far apart collaborators are, finding a steep rise in all fields. For science and engineering, the average distance between workers increased from around 110 km to 920 km during the period studied. For physics patents, the collaboration distance grew from 280 km to 840 km.

The authors then assigned papers and patents a “disruptiveness” score by looking at citation records. If a paper is deemed highly disruptive, then subsequent articles that cite it will be less likely to also cite earlier work on the topic. This is because the paper has broken with previous ideas and established a new paradigm.

When the researchers plotted the average disruptiveness of papers against collaboration distance, they found the disruptiveness falls with increasing distance. This effect was seen across all fields and for both papers and patents. For a distance of 600 km or more, physics papers were about 37% less likely to be disruptive than papers whose authors were all in the same city. The drop was about 13% for physics patents.

To explain their findings, the authors distinguish between two types of task: conceptual work that involves developing new ideas and theories, and practical tasks like experimentation and data analysis. They speculate that the former type of work may be more likely to produce breakthroughs, but also requires intensive communication and opportunities for informal conversations.

To test this hypothesis, the authors analysed data on over 89,000 researchers’ roles in papers. They found that the same individuals were more likely to be involved in conceptual work when collaborating on-site, and more often conducted practical tasks remotely.

The next generation

While the study could have different implications for theoretical and experimental work, the authors caution that a lot of research involves both. “Even in projects with a strong experimental focus, the early stages – centred around theoretical work like designing the experiments – are still critical,” co-author Yiling Lin from the University of Pittsburgh told Physics World. “This underscores the need for supporting projects with appropriate funding for frequent in-person meetings.”

As well as encouraging policymakers to invest in physical infrastructure, the authors recommend that principal investigators engage junior colleagues in conceptual tasks, rather than just assigning them technical work. “This approach brings the team a wealth of cognitive power and helps train the next generation of scientists,” adds Lin.

The authors now plan to delve further into the mechanisms behind the creative fusion of different ideas. “Merely assembling experts from varied fields does not automatically lead to successful knowledge integration,” explains Lin. “We want to understand the nature of knowledge integration – whether having more knowledge available makes it easier or harder to integrate this knowledge for innovation.”

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