Small research teams produce ‘riskier and more disruptive science’


Small research teams are more likely to develop new and riskier ideas, but their value risks being overlooked by funders, according to the authors of a new study.

As contemporary science asks larger and more complicated questions, the prevalence of small working groups and solitary researchers has declined since the mid-20th century in favor of larger multidisciplinary teams – but small and large teams” are essential to a thriving ecology of science”. writes a group of American researchers.

To study the effects of team size on scientific output, the group analyzed a dataset of more than 65 million articles, patents, and software products contained in repositories, including the Web of Science , over a period of 60 years.

The findings, published in Naturesuggest that investigations undertaken by small groups of collaborators produce more disruptive science by “expanding ideas from older, less popular work”.

Conversely, large teams have proven to be more risk averse because their projects are less flexible, require more money, resources, and ultimately “succeed” in matching their findings to a funded proposal.

Talk to Times Higher EducationJames Evans, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and co-author of the report, said the advantage of “the agility of a small team… holds true across all times, places, fields [and] subjects”.

The biggest surprise, Prof Evans said, was that despite evidence pointing to the value of small teams, those that were well funded tended to be just as ‘conservative’. [and] developmental” in their work to those of larger teams.

This suggests that “when these teams are funded, they’re likely funded through a conservative process that doesn’t value what small teams offer: risk.”

For each dataset, the researchers assessed the degree to which each work disrupted its scientific field, for example by introducing something new. Nobel Prize-winning papers, for example, have proven to be among the most disruptive 2%.

They found that solo authors were just as likely to produce highly cited papers as five-member teams. But articles written solo were 72% more likely to be flagged as “disruptive.”

As teams grew from one to 50 members, the measured disruption of their articles dropped by 70 percentage points, according to the study. Their patents have also become much less disruptive.

“It was striking to us that the effect was so strong that a researcher deciding whether or not to add one more to the team will generally see a difference in disruption,” Prof Evans said, suggesting a direct correlation between the number of groups and the disruptive effect” which decreases for each additional team member. Too many collaborators will, on average, change both the research process and the disruptiveness of a work.

“I believe there has been an unequivocal push and support for large-scale science and technology teams over the past half-century, which…have probably been driven by funders and management, but also by teams trying to hedge their bets,” Professor Evans concluded.

“These systems need to understand the value of risk that small teams bring…the real message is to managers and funders who, if they are to shun diminishing marginal returns and support breakthroughs, will have to fund science like the venture capital, with a much higher failure tolerance.

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