I’ve written a few times recently about the importance of a free flow of people and ideas to the scientific process.  For instance, one study highlighted the importance of connectivity to academic performance.

At the heart of this apparent impact was the ease with which researchers can collaborate with peers and ensure a strong cross-fertilization of ideas.

It’s a concept that’s supported by a couple of recent papers highlighting the benefits of free movement of researchers between countries.  The first, led by researchers from Indiana University, examined the citation record of researchers who traveled a lot, versus those who don’t.

14 million research papers were analyzed from around 16 million researchers over a seven year period.  Around 4% of those researchers could be regarded as ‘mobile’, in the sense that they regularly authored papers with teams in different countries.  Those researchers typically had a 40% higher citation rate than their non-traveling peers.

The second paper, led by Ohio State University, compared the scientific influence of researchers by country.  They analyzed 2.5 million papers from researchers in 36 countries.  As with the previous paper, they also analyzed the mobility of the researchers and found that countries that are open and where citizens are free to travel produce science that is both more creative and innovative than those in countries with closed borders.

Indeed, they identified a number of countries, such as Switzerland and Singapore, that appeared to have an outsized influence, due in large part to the breadth and depth of their international relationships.  By contrast, much larger countries, such as South Korea, fail to make such an impact despite spending heavily on R&D, with the authors claiming this is down to the limited number of international collaborations by researchers in the country.

Collaborative research

The power of collaboration in the research process was underlined by another paper led by researchers from Elsevier.  The authors delved into the discovery of five major anti-cancer treatments to discover how they happened and what the key factors were.  The analysis reveals the importance of collaboration to the drug development process.

“I think our work serves as a reminder that basic science preceded and influenced these translational breakthroughs through collaboration,” the authors explain. “Public funding of basic research has many translational benefits; the inherently collaborative nature of scientific discovery leads to breakthroughs.”

The findings emerged after looking at a number of anti-cancer drugs.  The researchers examined the development of each, using both public and commercial sources, including FDA documents, patent applications, clinical trials and peer-reviewed papers.

The five drugs in question – Imatinib, Sunitinib, Nelarabine, Ramucirumab and Alemtuzumab (Campath) – were developed with the help of 235 researchers across five distinct networks.  Collectively, they had produced 106,000 peer-reviewed papers.  By analyzing this huge web of research, they were able to pinpoint core publications that were common across each of the networks, with 14 in particular standing out.

“We were surprised (and delighted) by the small number of cited publications that were common to the collaboration networks, and surprised to discover how influential they were in shaping future thought,” the authors say.

The team believe their work can easily be applied to other fields and help us to better understand the web of connections that sit behind research today.

“For us, this paper is a step towards the larger goal of being able to document inputs in science and map them to outputs and outcomes. Studies like this enable greater accessibility and transparency and facilitate large-scale work. Digital methods will continue to enable greater transparency and better evaluation science,” they conclude.

Pure science sits behind all of the great innovations we know and love today, and with it getting harder and harder to achieve the breakthroughs we crave, the better we become at getting the most out of our scientists, the better it is for society.