Remote collaboration leads to less innovative science – study

Analysis of growing distance between researchers looks at puzzle of why digital connections have not led to upsurge in innovation

November 30, 2023
A man in a dark room overlooking a cityscape at night uses a laptop
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Scientific teams who collaborate remotely are less likely to produce breakthrough discoveries than those who work together at the same site, a new study has found.

The power of digital communication to connect researchers from across the world – often in real time thanks to video-conferencing platforms – has long been viewed as an important way to accelerate scientific discovery. But a new paper published in Nature suggests that work by geographically distanced researchers is less likely to lead to influential and disruptive findings.

The paper, by researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Pittsburgh, helps to shed “new light on one of the great puzzles of our time: why the connectivity brought by the internet has not led to the upsurge in innovation that recombinant theory predicts”, it says.

“Our key finding is that, although remote collaboration permits more new combinations of knowledge in principle, it also makes it harder for teams to integrate the pieces,” it adds.

The study, which analysed 20 million research articles published between 1960 and 2020 and 4 million patent applications submitted between 1976 and 2020 across the globe, found that the average distance between team members had increased over the past 50 years from 100km to 1,000km for papers and from 250km to 750km for patents.

However, co-located teams are more likely to produce disruptive work rather than papers that simply build on existing literature, the paper contends.

“Our results point to the critical role that in-person interaction plays in fusing disruptive discoveries and training the next generation of talent in science and technology, even in the age of remote work,” the paper explains, adding: “Colocation still plays a key role in the fusion of radical ideas, suggesting that the post-pandemic shift towards remote work will probably favour incremental innovation at the expense of disruptive discoveries.

“Our study also underlines an important trade-off that policymakers face: although remote collaboration might allow for the effective exploitation of existing ideas in the short run, it might also curtail the kind of innovation breakthroughs that drive progress and productivity over the long run.”

For “policymakers interested in reviving productivity growth and innovation, physical infrastructure investment to reduce travel costs and make housing affordable where knowledge industries cluster should not take the backseat to the construction of digital infrastructure”, it adds.

The paper was authored by Yiling Lin at Pittsburgh and Carl Benedikt Frey and Lingfei Wu at Oxford.

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Reader's comments (2)

Very interesting, and ties in with my own experience and observations. Online workshops and remote learning also have little impact.
In the 90s, The EU Amodeus-2 project explored how different techniques from multiple discipline could be brought together to improve design of human-computer interfaces.Predating the web we relied on email, post, shared online repositories. However even taking that into account the most effective method was to get the different disciplines in the same room, working on he problem concurrently so that an idea found in one perspective could immediately trigger a new line of thought in the other investigators. And dually questions could be answered immediately. Online has its uses but has been over-hyped.