Collaboration as a function of proximity vs. heterogeneity, MIT research

Read an article the other week in MIT news on how Proximity boosts collaboration on MIT campus. Using MIT patents and papers published between 2004-2014, researchers determined how collaboration varied based on proximity or physical distance.

What they found was that distance matters. The closer you are to a person the more likely you are collaborate with him or her (on papers and patents at least).

Paper results

In looking at the PLOS research paper (An exploration of collaborative scientific production at MIT …), one can see that the relative frequency of collaboration decays as distance increases (Graph A shows frequency of collaboration vs. proximity for papers and Graph B shows a similar relationship for patents).


Other paper results

The two sets of charts below show the buildings where research (papers and patents) was generated. Building heterogeneity, crowdedness (lab space/researcher) and number of papers and patents per building is displayed using the color of the building.

The number of papers and patents per building is self evident.

The heterogeneity of a building is a function of the number of different departments that use the building. The crowdedness of a building is an indication of how much lab space per faculty member a building has. So the more crowded buildings are lighter in color and less crowded buildings are darker in color.

I would like to point out Building 32. It seems to have a high heterogeneity, moderate crowdedness and a high paper production but a relatively low patent production. Conversely, Building 68 has a low heterogeneity, low crowdedness and a high production of papers and a relatively low production of patents. So similar results have been obtained from buildings that have different crowdedness and different heterogeneity.

The paper specifically cites buildings 3 & 32 as being most diverse on campus and as “hubs on campus” for research activity.  The paper states that these buildings were outliers in research production on a per person basis.

And yet there’s no global correlation between heterogeneity or crowdedness for that matter and (paper/patent) research production. I view crowdedness as a substitute for researcher proximity. That is the more crowded a building is the closer researchers should be. Such buildings should theoretically be hotbeds of collaboration. But it doesn’t seem like they have any more papers than non-crowded buildings.

Also heterogeneity is often cited as a generator of research. Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, frequently mentions that good research often derives from collaboration outside your area of speciality. And yet, high heterogeneity buildings don’t seem to have a high production of research, at least for patents.

So I am perplexed and unsatisfied with the research. Yes proximity leads to more collaboration but it doesn’t necessarily lead to more papers or patents. The paper shows other information on the number of papers and patents by discipline which may be confounding results in this regard.

Telecommuting and productivity

So what does this tell us about the plight of telecommuters in todays business and R&D environments. While the paper has shown that collaboration goes down as a function of distance, it doesn’t show that an increase in collaboration leads to more research or productivity.

This last chart from the paper shows how collaboration on papers is trending down and on patents is trending up. For both papers and patents, inter-departmental collaboration is more important than inter-building collaboration. Indeed, the sidebars seem to show that the MIT faculty participation in papers and patents is flat over the whole time period even though the number of authors (for papers) and inventors (for patents) is going up.

So, I,  as a one person company can be considered an extreme telecommuter for any organization I work with. I am often concerned that  my lack of proximity to others adversely limits my productivity. Thankfully the research is inconclusive at best on this and if anything tells me that this is not a significant factor in research productivity

And yet, many companies (Yahoo, IBM, and others) have recently instituted policies restricting telecommuting because, they believe,  it  reduces productivity. This research does not show that.

So IBM and Yahoo I think what you are doing to concentrate your employee population and reduce or outright eliminate telecommuting is wrong.

Picture credit(s): All charts and figures are from the PLOS paper.