26 January 2011

Can a champion team beat a team of champions?

Jonah Lehrer argues that teams, not single individuals, are driving scientific discovery.

I’m most convinced by an alternative explanation, which is that our modern problems have gotten so hard – so damn intractable, complicated and multi-disciplinary – that we can no longer solve them by ourselves.

He supports this with several pieces of evidence, but I think many of them can be explained in other ways.

The first piece of evidence suggesting that the difficulty of problems is increasing comes from historiometric data on the “peak age of creativity.” It turns out that the peak age has been getting older for the past several hundred years. Dean Simonton, for instance, has shown that while Leonardo Da Vinci might have benefited from tackling the problems of medieval science in his mid-20s, the ideal age for modern scientists is closer to 40. Why? Because it takes longer to learn the field, to know enough to create new knowledge.

Alternate hypothesis: Post-doc glut. Training has extended in part because there has been an oversupply of beginning scientists. Training has lengthened out because of that, and it takes longer to get a job in science.

Along with Stefan Wuchty and Brian Uzzi, Jones has found that teams have become a far more important part of intellectual production. By analyzing 19.9 million papers produced in the last fifty years (and 2.1 million patents), the Northwestern researchers were able to show that teamwork is a defining trend of modern research

Alternate hypothesis: Equipment is expensive. Not every researcher can have her own Large Hadron Collider. This problem of running the experiment to get the data forces collaborations and teams to form, not necessarily the intellectual difficulty of the problem.

(T)he best research now emerges from groups. It doesn’t matter if the researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics: science papers produced by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those authored by individuals.

Alternate hypothesis: Self citation, self promotion, networking. A dozen authors can promote a paper in a way that a single author cannot. And as we all know, nobody promotes your work like you do.

Of course, the original research might correct and answer some of these alternative hypotheses and find them wanting. But alas, I cannot find them, as Lehrer provides neither links nor citations because I am apparently an idiot. (It’s in there, I just didn’t see it, and Lehrer says some of my points are dealt with in the original paper.)


Anonymous said...

When was the last time you saw a paper authored by a single individual? Most papers have multiple authors anyway, that's how science is done - so what does he mean by teams?

Zen Faulkes said...

One of my recent papers was by me alone. But I most of what I have written has been 2-3 authors, which is still common in organismal biology: a student or two and a supervisor.

I'd put a break point at between papers with less than 5 authors and those with more than 20 authors. By the time you hit 20 authors, you are doing science in a different way than with 5.