Computer scientists from the University of Pittsburgh, among others, examined scientific articles from 1960 to 2020. During that period, scientists began working together over increasingly greater distances. While the average distance between authors of a research article was 100 km in 1960, it is now 1,000 km, facilitated in part by new technological options such as video calling.
The increased ability to collaborate with experts around the world should actually lead to more new ideas. Long distance teams are often more diverse in composition, ideally ensuring a greater ‘team mind’. But this doesn’t seem to lead to any more great inventions. On the contrary: the greater the distance between collaborating scientists, the fewer the groundbreaking results.
To express leadership in numbers, researchers used the so-called flaw a result. By checking whether others who cite the publication are also citing the publication’s sources, scholars can determine whether the publication in question was merely a step addition to existing knowledge, or was so innovative that it opened an entirely new window within the field.
Bernard Nijstad conducts research on creativity and group dynamics at the University of Groningen. Nijstad mentions the research that was published in the leading scientific journal nature“Very powerful” and meticulously executed. He praises the way researchers explain the different roles of scientists on long-distance teams.
Scientists who collaborate remotely appear to be less involved in the creative parts of research, such as devising experiments and writing the article. Instead, they work more on operational aspects, such as statistical analysis. The researchers, who come from England and the United States, point to this difference as the main explanation for the low chance of pioneering results.
Nijstad: “In the early stage of scientific research, ideas are still vague and difficult to put into words. Then it helps to be together physically, rather than online. For example, previous research has shown that video collaboration leads to less creative ideas. According to the researchers, remote collaboration is particularly harmful to young scientists. They are less involved in the research idea stage, while this difference does not exist between research teams from a single university.
Deployment step by step
Nijstad also sees alternative explanations for the diminishing opportunity for pioneering publication. Scientists have published more and more in recent years. This development may ensure that the results are published step by step, rather than in a single publication. Or, as Nijstad says, only non-pioneering studies increase in number, leading to a decline in the relative share of pioneering publications, but not the total number.
Although the study results are convincing, Nijstad says we don’t need to sound the alarm yet. “The difference is big, but not too big. It’s just a few percent.”
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