Does It Really Help Research When Scientists Work Close Together?

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It's an old belief validated again in recent studies. But there may be less to it than people think. 

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The Boston Globe reports:

It's long been thought that proximity fosters fruitful encounters among researchers, but a recent paper showed just how powerful it can be: An analysis of a decade of Harvard biomedical research collaborations ... found that the closer the offices of key research partners, the more influential their joint papers were likely to be. It mattered whether collaborators were riding the same elevators in a building in Longwood, or working in labs on opposite banks of the Charles.

On closer examination the article is really talking about two distinct kinds of physical closeness. One is true serendipity, bringing together people who otherwise might never have collaborated:

Robert Langer, an MIT professor, said that proximity has mattered throughout his career. When he worked at Children's Hospital Boston in the 1980s, he often chatted on the elevator with a cardiologist who worked one floor below him. Those casual encounters led to a project focused on delivering drugs to replacement heart valves and a paper in a leading journal, Science.

But the other is really the opposite, as when a senior researcher and his or her junior collaborator are near neighbors. Thus the paper:

...found that the shorter the distance between two key authors -- the one listed first and the one listed last on a paper -- the more likely the paper was to have been cited by other researchers in the field, one measure of a paper's influence. The last author is typically a senior scientist who plays a leadership role and supports the work, and the first author carries out much of the research.

Not surprising. If you were a principal investigator, where would you put your star graduate student or postdoctoral fellow? As close to your own office or lab as possible. As for clusters of outstanding researchers, what else is new? Institutions with a critical mass of leaders have the funds to attract others. Influential mentors draw the ablest graduate students, who in turn help advance their own ideas and continued funding. The sociologist Robert Merton, a pioneer of the study of serendipity, called this and other forms of cumulative advantage the Matthew Effect. ("To those that have shall be given.")

Such dominance is self-reinforcing, but does that mean that concentration always produces the best results? Sometimes the well-meaning directors of the great laboratories inadvertently stifle innovation. That happened to Dr. A. Stone Freedberg at a Harvard-affiliated hospital 70 years ago, when he discovered the role of the bacterium h. pylori in ulcers. After initially discouraging findings by other scientists, his superiors stopped his research. Decades later, a pair of scientists in Perth, Western Australia, far from the world centers of gastroenterology, won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating the relationship.

Most lone mavericks aren't geniuses, just as most geniuses aren't mavericks. But to cite another idea of Robert Merton, research like that reported by the Globe may unintentionally become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it promotes too much skepticism about isolated thinkers and Internet-distance collaborators.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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