International teams shy away from risky science, Nature Index
International collaborations are extremely common in today’s cutting edge science discoveries. They are popular among scientists because it was claimed that international collaborations among people with different backgrounds can provide new insights and create novel science. However, new findings suggested that, surprisingly, international science projects are highly conventional and do not produce the novelty they were expected to have.
To quantify the novelty of science, Brian Uzzi from Northwestern University and his colleagues studied reference list of roughly four million papers in the Web of Science database. The analysis involved measuring the frequency of paired combinations of article references and comparing the observed frequency to those expected by chance. Unlikely co-occurrences represent a unique recombination of ideas — the nexus where existing knowledge is forged into new ideas. Using several regression techniques, researchers were also able to determine the relationship between the number of countries listed in the author line and measures of novelty, conventionality, and atypicality characterized in reference lists.
The results from this study turned out to be very disappointing. The majority of internationally collaborative science projects were highly conventional and low in novelty. Such projects were expected to fall into the sweet spot of being highly novel and with a strong conventional base, but only very few (6.93%) of them actually did. Researchers also consistently found that the more countries listed on a paper, the higher the conventionality score and the lower the novelty score.
Many factors contributed to the lack of novelty in international collaborations. Those who work at international levels were usually highly reputed scholars. However, those with big reputations work to retain them, rather than ‘make’ them, according to Robert Merton, one of the earliest 'science of science' scholars. This tendency of the big names might lead international science to lean towards conventional rather than ‘risky’ or novel work. Some alternative causes include higher transaction costs, a reliance on information technologies, and the need to use English as a common language.
One of the ways to reverse this trend lies in better judgement of funders. Today, as more elite scientists have reached abroad, funding has followed. However, the findings here suggest there could be losses of creativity and novelty in international research collaboration. Funders might want to look more closely at the composition of the international team, to favor those projects with emerging leaders who seek to push the frontiers of knowledge, those who can form flexible teams, and those who can work across disciplines to recombine knowledge in creative ways.