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Study: Proximity Still Matters to Collaboration

July 11, 2017
 
 

Face time -- the real kind, not Apple’s version -- still matters, at least when it comes to collaboration among researchers. That’s according to a new study in PLOS ONE. Researchers studied a decade’s worth -- tens of thousands -- of papers and patents affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and found that cross-disciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration is driven by face-to-face interaction in shared spaces.

“If you work near someone, you’re more likely to have substantive conversations more frequently,” lead author Matthew Claudel, a Ph.D. candidate in urban studies and planning, told MIT News. While that makes sense intuitively, he said, “It was an exciting result to find that across papers and patents, and specifically for transdisciplinary collaborations.”

Claudel and his co-authors used network analysis, mapping out of a network of MIT collaborators to find that spatial relations on campus mattered more than departmental and institutional structures. They focused on interdisciplinary research and plotted distance and collaboration across campus, not just within single academic buildings.

Over the years, MIT buildings have been constructed to promote cross-disciplinary research, but the authors were particularly interested to see that the proximity premise held up even in the digital age. Paper collaborators in the same workspace were three times more likely to work together than those located 400 meters apart, according to the study. That frequency was cut in half when the distance was 800 meters apart. Results for patent collaborators were not quite as stark, but still significant. “An Exploration of Collaborative Scientific Production at MIT Through Spatial Organization and Institutional Affiliation” is available here.

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