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The collaborative world of academic research


I’ve written before how much of the inventive thoughts and ideas we have are often built upon the extensive canon of work that has gone before us.  Indeed, there is much to say that the bulk of innovation is simply remixing what has already gone before, but in new ways.  A famous study by economist Paul Romer highlights the value of this recombination.

“Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that make them more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.”

So it’s perhaps not surprising that collaboration in the academic world is on the increase, and a new paper highlights just how international many of these collaborations are.  The study found that the scientific impact of a paper rose when the authors were from a number of different nations.

“Some of the countries that we don’t necessarily think of as leaders of science are now rising quite rapidly both in how many papers they’re putting out and how well those papers are doing once they’re published,” the researchers said. “Whereas some more established countries, such as the United States, are decreasing in both the proportion of papers published and how well their papers are performing.”

The researchers regard this level of international collaboration as the fourth age of research, with more traditional and insular behaviours disrupted as science becomes globalized.  The study itself built upon previous efforts that highlighted that papers with authors from different countries tended to receive higher numbers of citations than their peers.

They built upon this to look at the journal placement itself, with the prestige of the journal used as an additional marker of quality for each paper.

“I think this is a more democratic measure of ranking countries,” the researchers explain. “This tells you a little bit more of the story because it uses two steps, and one of them is really to do not with the country itself, but with the way science works. Looking at how you are doing once you published is a better measure of the relative quality of the paper itself.”

The study saw around 1.25 million articles examined over a 16 year period, with the articles focused around eight specific subject areas.  Interestingly, it emerged that international research teams trumped their more home grown rivals in terms of both citation numbers and journal prestige.

“International papers do better than non-international papers across all the fields we looked at,” they explain. “There are differences in the magnitude of the effect, but it’s always better to have authors from various countries, even after controlling for the effect of just having more authors.”

In a finding that mirrors anecdotal evidence from the likes of open innovation challenges and even the MOOC student body, the study found that there is a fundamental shift away from more traditional scientific powers in the western world towards a more distributed map of participation.

Just as organizations are realizing that there is an awful lot of brain power in previously untapped parts of the world, it seems the academic world is arriving at the same conclusion.

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