Working near each other can boost collaboration among researchers, according to a team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. Matthew Claudel and colleagues examined the relationship between researchers’ collaborations and their physical proximity with each other around the MIT campus.
By analysing 40,358 papers and 2350 patents covering MIT research between 2004 and 2014, they found that spatial relationship was more important than departmental and institutional structures. “Intuitively, there is a connection between space and collaboration,” says Matthew Claudel. “That is, you have a better chance of meeting someone, connecting, and working together if you are close by spatially.”
The study confirms and extends the Allen Curve – a theory by Thomas Allen in the 1970s that proposed collaboration and interaction decrease as a function of distance. Allen even found that basic conversations were less like to occur when people were 10 m apart. Rather than just focusing on a single building as Allen did, the current work looked at campus-wide collaboration and interdisciplinary research across 33 MIT departments and programmes.
The team found that collaboration on patents has a slightly different dependence on distance than papers. Researchers in the same workspace are more than twice as likely to work together on both papers and patents than those 400 m apart. For papers the likelihood drops by a half when researchers are separated by 800 m, but for patents it drops in half less steeply, over 1600 m.
Importance of architecture
The paper, published in PLOS ONE, also discusses the importance of architecture on interdisciplinary research. The MIT buildings with the most collaboration were specifically designed to house a diverse set of researchers. For example, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research – which had the highest rate of co-authorship – was specifically designed to mix research scientists and bioengineering experts so as to encourage novel cancer-fighting technology. “If you work near someone, you’re more likely to have substantive conversations more frequently,” says Claudel.