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Collaboration Fosters More Productive Scientific Careers than Competition

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Posted August 12, 2015

Scientists are frequently faced with the important decision to start or terminate a creative partnership – perhaps even more frequently than people working in fields directly unrelated to science – with early career professionals assuming the role of pursuers, and senior researchers acting as “attractors”.

Collaborative efforts increase any given researcher’s publication rate by up to 17 percent, new PNAS study suggests. Image credit: US Embassy Panama via flickr.com, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Collaborative efforts increase any given researcher’s publication rate by up to 17 percent, new PNAS study suggests. Image credit: US Embassy Panama via flickr.com, CC BY-ND 2.0.

The importance of collaboration in science is commonly understood as an extension of its relevance in most other areas of inquiry  – the more minds work on a particular problem or set of problems, the better the chances of reaching a satisfactory outcome.

With the value of working together established, what’s the best way of going about it – pairing up with someone for the long haul or building one’s career on serial pairings with different partners?

That’s the question Alexander Michael Petersen, a researcher at the Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies in Italy, tried to answer in his study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (or PNAS).

To find out who comes out on top in terms of career success – as measured by the number of academic citations – Petersen surveyed as many as 94,000 scientific papers by 473 professional scientists who got involved in 166,000 collaborations to produce them.

Somewhat predictably, results showed that around 60 to 80 percent of any given researcher’s collaborations lasted just one year – or even less.

However, those who elected to become part of a super-tie – a term Petersen coined to describe a long-term partnership where both parties collaborate on roughly half of their projects – achieved superior productivity and increased their publication rate by almost a fifth.

“We find that super-ties contribute to above-average productivity and a 17 percent citation increase per publication, thus identifying these partnerships – the analog of life partners – as a major factor in science career development,” wrote Petersen.

The prevalence of these formidable ties suggests they might arise from career strategies based upon cost, risk and reward sharing, as well as complementary skill matching.

The study also highlights a common problem in scientific publications, namely the tendency of some researchers to game the system by doing just enough work to get their names on as many papers as possible, thereby boosting their resumes and, subsequently, their careers in a particular field.

A potentially useful next step would be to find out whether scientific collaborations that involve many researchers and go on for several years are as effective at bolstering one’s academic output as long-term pairings of just two people.

Sources: study abstract, phys.org.

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