academic collaboration in science helen kellerScience is collaboration. Saying that scientists would stand on the shoulders of giants to see further is not a cliché. Science advanced because generations of scientists build on other generation’s knowledge and experience, thus leaping forward into the unknown. Acknowledging other peoples’ findings – maybe questioning the results – is one of the key ingredients of scientific enquiry. This may seem hard to believe at times when doubt and negation of scientific findings are flourishing – rather than acknowledgement. Yet, new research conducted by Microsoft Research reminds us of the fact that science prospers when scientists partner and work without borders.

Science is Everywhere

Despite all of the doubters: science is everywhere. Well, at least its results are. Actually, the best indicator to prove the importance of science is what we see in our day-to-day life. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari comes up with a great analogy to show the importance of science for human progress.

Harari describes a person who falls asleep around 1000 A.D. and wakes up 500 years later. Although he would experience considerable changes to the world he lives in, it would still look quite familiar. Yet, imagine someone falling asleep at around 1500 A.D.: “had one of Columbus’ sailors fallen into a similar slumber and woken up to the ringtone of a twenty-first-century iPhone, he would have found himself in a world strange beyond comprehension. ‘Is this heaven?’ he might well have asked himself. ‘Or perhaps – hell?’”

Where Does all the Progress Stem From?

newton academic collaboration in scienceProgress stems from innovations that often build upon scientific findings. While we can experience progress and the development of innovation every day, a big question that remains is how science itself develops. A new study published on arXive, A Century of Science: Globalization of Scientific Collaborations, Citations, and Innovations, aims at finding an answer to exactly this: how did science develop?

Dong et al. of Microsoft Research parsed through 89 million publications published between 1900 to 2015, with 795 million citations and 1.23 billion collaboration relationships stemming from 53 million authors. Besides making a compelling read, the findings provide lots of support for openness and collaboration.

From Lonely Researchers to Joint Efforts

To start with, single-authored publications were the standard around 1900 with about 80% of papers written by only one researcher. This number dropped significantly with nowadays, merely 15-20% of research papers being single-authored. As research itself is, so is its communication a collaborative effort.

Moreover, at the beginning of the 20th century, more than 99% of this collaboration happened between researchers within the same country. Yet, with the increase in joint efforts, researchers skipped borders so that nowadays at least one in five research partnerships are international. In this domain, the EU seems to be a huge asset. Dong et al. notice that the UK, Germany, and France have higher international collaboration rates than the global average. In detail, this stems from the varied partnerships within the EU as well as between the EU and the US. An advantage that will certainly diminish with Brexit.

Referencing: The Meta-Collaboration of Science

Another great indictor for joint forces in science are citations. Unsurprisingly, reference lists have profoundly grown in length during the past 116 years. For instance, in physics, papers tended to have reference lists with only two sources on average. The number of works cited skyrocketed with a 15-fold increase in positions.

Yet, this may not be an inflation. Dong et al. point out that referencing evolved from myopic to deep, e.g. from citing young papers to older ones. Until about 1975, the average age of a paper’s references was 6 years, while it was nearly twice as high – 11 years – in 2010. This hike can partly be attributed to the advancement of technology that helps track and find relevant research. Additionally, the top 1% research papers – those that received the most citations – got most of their citations within 5 years in the first half of the last century. This gradually changed so that nowadays top-notch research is likely to receive most of its citations in a longer time frame of up to 20 years. This may vary among different subject areas. However, it is certainly an indicator that the Journal Impact Factor (JIF, issued through the Journal Citation Report) and even competitors like Eigenfactor or ScimagoJR don’t provide comprehensive values.

Citation Behaviour: More Inclusive

A good sign appears to be the overall decrease of self-citations. While it has been at about 30% in the 1900s, the rate of self-citations has been falling and is now at about 10-15%. Again, the Journal Citation Report (JCR) had a mayor influence: 1975, the year of the first release of the JCR, shows an immediate swell of self-citations. However, whether this is to be attributed to the new detection of self-citations in the data or an actual increase of citing one’s own papers is unknown.

Coming back to the issue of more openness in science, we get evidence for this even in citations: While in the early 20th century, 95% of the world’s citations were created and even 97% were received by the then most prominent scientific forces, the US, Germany, and the UK, these numbers nearly halved to about 46% and 58%, respectively, nowadays.

Science: Open. And Inclusive. And at Best Without Borders!

academic collaboration in science, bynumConclusively, this science of science provides us with great evidence for why science should be open, inclusive, and at best without borders. Or as William Bynum puts it in A Little History of Science: “Science is dynamic, building upon the ideas and discoveries which one generation passes on to the next, […] We might know more today, but people who thought deeply about their world 3,000 years ago were just as smart as we are.” We shouldn’t prevent future generations from finding out about how smart we are today.

On the side, if there was a Moore’s Law for science, it would be this: the volume of scientific publications doubles every 12 years, resulting from the exponential growth that the body of literature shows for the past 116 years. This growth hopefully does not slow down.