Small research teams are better than large ones at disrupting science

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Interviewer: Nick Howe

Scientific research today seems more complicated than ever. There are just too many things for one person to be an expert on everything. This may be one of the reasons research teams are getting bigger and bigger. And big teams can bring benefits. For example, there is a strong positive correlation between the number of authors of an article and the number of citations it receives. But are there advantages to working in a small research group? Are we losing anything by focusing on bigger teams? A paper that comes out in Nature This week we looked at how the size of teams, across all areas of science and technology, affects their results. I spoke to the corresponding author of this article, James Evans of the University of Chicago, who calculated the numbers.

Interviewed: James Evans

So we looked at 65 million teams – scientific teams, inventive teams, teams that develop software – and we identified the extent to which the products of each of these teams either developed things or shook the frontier of ideas and technologies. And we found that with each additional member on those teams, there was a dramatic drop in the likelihood of their products disrupting the frontier of science.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

But what does it mean to be disruptive? James and his colleagues were trying to distinguish between papers that upset the scientific status quo, causing sudden, potentially significant change, and papers that consolidate and expand on existing knowledge. So what is the value of disturbance?

Interviewed: James Evans

For the vast majority of science and technology, our goal is not just to attract a few extra eyes, in the same way that a large production studio is more likely to choose Transformers 9 and fund that on an independent script, as part of the development of new films. If our goal is to develop and feel new ideas that have the potential to really change science and technology, our findings show that these are much, much more likely to come from small teams.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

But how do you measure how disruptive a piece of paper is? In this research, the disturbance relates to the types of citations an article gets. The authors argue that disruptive papers are often the start of something new, so authors tend not to cite research that preceded them, whereas groundbreaking papers are part of a body of work in course, so when cited, it will be alongside alumni. and more recent research. Thus, James uses how an article was cited as a measure of disturbability. Pierre Azoulay of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote a News and Views article on this research, thinks there is a compelling argument to suggest that the quotes and disruption are linked.

Interviewed: Pierre Azoulay

And so they did a number of checks that really establish the plausibility of this kind of interpretation of perturbability. So, for example, they looked at contributions from Nobel laureates and conversely they looked at journal articles, right, so articles are kind of written without necessarily introducing new ideas. Thus, for example, they were able to verify that contributions worthy of a Nobel are very disruptive according to this index, while review contributions are very consolidating according to this index.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, after checking the metric assuming that Nobel Prizes are “disruptive” and journal articles are not, the team is able to support their claim that small teams are more disruptive. But does this new discovery hold up on all levels? In some fields, large teams are often the norm — think of the huge collaborations in physics projects like the Large Hadron Collider — whereas in math papers there are usually just a few authors. How universal is this new correlation?

Interviewed: Pierre Azoulay

They established that this is a fairly robust conclusion, so valid across disciplines – valid for publications, for patents, and for code repositories. And then they do something that, to me, seems really good, is that in the case of articles, they show that the result is valid even for a given author, that is, let’s imagine that you observe this individual in a small team and in a large team, you will see that articles that were written with a large team tend to be more consolidating than articles that were written when this same person was part of a small team .

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Thus, this article suggests that large teams are less disruptive, and this holds true across different fields of study and looking at the same authors. But this begs the question – why? Why do small and large teams behave differently and what could be the cause? James has some ideas.

Interviewed: James Evans

So, for example, small teams are much more likely to search much deeper into the distant past, they are much more likely to pick up and cultivate unpopular ideas that they have built on, and small teams are more likely to be flat, so that a higher proportion of team members are likely to take on multiple roles within the team, they are less likely to be well funded. And it turns out that all of these characteristics end up contributing to the fact that their work – if and when it becomes important – becomes disruptively important.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

James has some thoughts on other potential mechanics. Maybe big teams with big budgets are less able to change their approach – if you’ve spent billions building infrastructure to search for, say, gravitational waves, it’s not easy to change direction and to be interested in particle physics. The flexibility of a small team could allow them to pursue new and riskier paths. At the moment, it’s unclear what the mechanics are, so what happens next? Here is Peter.

Interviewed: Pierre Azoulay

We must proceed with caution here. It is not a guidance document. It does not establish some sort of causal mechanism. What we need now is to have some major backers who take these results as some sort of hypothesis to be tested and run experiments to think about what happens when you somehow vary the measurement in which you push scientists to form large teams rather than small teams.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

One thing that is unclear is how much do the results of this research have to do with the changing nature of science? Fifty years ago, when small teams were the norm, was research more disruptive? There is also a potential problem with the perturbability metric. It can only be applied to articles after they have been published for years and accumulated citations – it cannot be used to rate recent articles. While small can be splendid, big isn’t necessarily bad. Pierre and James believe that we need both small and large teams to advance science.

Interviewed: Pierre Azoulay

Science needs both types of input. It’s not like incremental innovation and the elaboration of initial ideas, it’s not like it’s not an important activity. It’s a super important activity and we need a balance.

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