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Impossible Medicine
Spring 2011

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aerial shot of buildings with some highlighted in purple
SPACE ODYSSEYS: The research team found that, in general, intra-building collaborative studies received higher citation rates. In this schematic, each building’s height reflects its average number of publication citations, and the color reflects the degree of authors’ co-location, from high (blue) to low (gray).
 

Absence makes your heart grow fonder, but close quarters may boost your career. According to research by HMS scientists, the physical proximity of researchers, especially between the first and last authors on published papers, strongly correlates with the impact of their work.

“Despite all of the profound advances in information technology, such as video conferencing, we found that physical proximity still matters for research productivity and impact,” says Isaac Kohane, the Lawrence J. Henderson Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and director of the Countway Library of Medicine. The research appeared in the December 15 issue of PLoS ONE.

Given that the Internet and social networks make it possible for people to collaborate remotely, the researchers investigated whether proximity corresponded to the scientific impact of research as measured by citations of resulting publications.

As part of the project, Kohane and colleagues analyzed life sciences articles published by Harvard investigators from 1999 to 2003. They looked at authors across four major research centers, for a total of 35,000 articles in 2,000 journals by 200,000 authors. The team then analyzed coordinates and geographic data for each location and developed a three-dimensional, high-resolution graphic to depict location-based collaborations.

The researchers found that, on average, a paper with four or fewer authors who are located in the same building was cited 45 percent more often than if the authors were in different buildings. Generally, citations decreased as the distance between first and last authors increased.

“The closer the first and last authors are located, the more impactful that paper is as measured by how much more it is cited,” says Kyungjoon Lee, a research assistant in the HMS Center for Biomedical Informatics. He and Kohane suggest that these findings have implications for those who design research centers.

“The question is, ultimately, which individuals do you want to bring together?” says Kohane. “If you want people to collaborate, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures and facilities that support frequent, physical interactions. Otherwise it’s really out of sight, out of mind.”

Image: Kyungjoon Lee

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Impossible Medicine
Spring 2011

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