The Lone Genius Loses to the Team

What’s your visual image of a brilliant scientist? A nerdy man in a lab coat, working late in some basement laboratory with beakers and test tubes? Someone typing at a computer in their office? Well, clear your mind of that image, because science today is all about collaboration and teamwork. This is the message of a truly impressive study published in SCIENCE magazine 18 May 2007. Three professors at Northwestern University, Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin F. Jones, and Brian Uzzi, analyzed huge databases–of 19.9 million scientific papers over 50 years, and 2.1 million patents–and found that collaboration is rapidly becoming the norm in science and in invention.

They focused on a few key numbers. First, the databases allowed them to determine which papers, and which patents, had one author, two authors, or more. Two or more authors means that the creation was collaboratively generated. In science, the average team size (number of co-authors) doubled over 45 years–from 1.9 to 3.5 authors per paper. Of course, science has become a lot more complex, and requires a lot more funding, and that might account for the larger team size. But the databases also had data about the social sciences and the arts and humanities; social science research hasn’t increased in scale and cost the same way particle physics and medicine have. And surprisingly, even in the social sciences, collaboration has become a lot more important. In 1955, only 17.5% of social science papers had two or more authors; in 2000, 51.5% of those papers did. And although papers in the arts and humanities still are mostly sole authored (over 90%), the trend over the last 50 years has also been toward more collaboration.

But what about quality and creativity? Can we find out if the collaboratively generated papers are any better? Fortunately, the databases allowed the researchers to determine the impact and influence of each paper, and of each patent, because those databases keep track of how many times the paper or patent was cited by a later publication. More citations means a more influential paper; and more citations have been shown to correlate with research quality. And guess what: over the 50 year period studied, teams generated more highly cited work in every research area, and in every time period. The implication is that teams generate better scientific research than solitary individuals.

One final interesting finding is that the creative advantage for teams has increased over the last 50 years. Although teams generated more highly cited work back in 1955, by 2000 the advantage of teams over sole individuals had become even greater. In 1955, team-authored papers received 1.7 times as many citations as sole authored papers; in 2000, they received 2.1 times as many.

In a later issue of SCIENCE magazine (14 September 2007) several letters challenging this research were published; the authors convincingly responded, by providing additional data. There’s no question that teams do better science than solitary individuals, and that the trend is working in teams’ favor.