Collaborating Across Universities Yields Better Research

cross uni image

‘Innovation happens at the intersections’ and this philosophy is becoming more important over time as researchers have to become more specialized to contribute meaningfully to a field. This is also true both in the natural and social sciences. So a natural question to ask, is what should these intersections look like and where should they happen? Fundamentally of course, the intersections for us are collaborations. However, the important question is who to collaborate with. A previous post discussed a few insights about collaboration group sizes and rank of the PI. Here we look specifically at collaborations between different universities. A research article in Science in 2008 showed that cross university collaborations create more high impact work than collaborations within a university.

This finding is somewhat intriguing, as one would expect it to be easier to collaborate within the same university. However, this finding is very similar to a finding my Michael Bikard that I discussed in a previous post – where inter-department collaborations produce more impactful work than intra-department collaborations. A similar logic can be applied here, where someone would only make the effort to collaborate across universities if the work is important. Another interpretation is that collaborations across different universities are constructed with a more effective division of labor as there is a geographic separation.

collaboration benefits
Essentially, simply having a top institution name on the research gives that research more perceived importance. This result is not very surprising, but it does have important implications. Unfortunately, it implies that there is a incentive for top tier universities to only collaborate with other top tier universities. The data also supports this hypothesis, over time, universities are stratifying more, i.e. tier I universities are collaborating with each other more than with non-tier I universities.What is also surprising is that the benefit of cross university collaboration is seen by all universities ranked in the top 20%, and is most pronounced the higher the rank of the university. This result is shown in the graph above which is taken from the original article published in Science. Essentially, what this graph is telling you is when two top schools collaborate there is a greater incremental benefit (as opposed to collaborating within the school) than when two ‘teir II’ schools collaborate. Amazingly, this is more significant in the social sciences than in the natural sciences/engineering. At first glance, one could assume that the reason for the increased benefit in science and engineering is a resource bias. Meaning, top schools have more equipment than tier II schools to perform science and engineering research. However, the increased benefit seen in the social sciences can’t be explained as easily via resource arguments. This seems to suggest that it could simply be a reputation issue at play.

So this leaves us with two important learnings:

1) It is important to collaborate across university borders

2) There is a perception benefit to collaboration with tier I schools

The first point is something we can actually do something about, i.e. collaborate more with others. The second one in many ways is what we should be fighting – unfair gains via reputation. I can only hope that with greater information access and collaboration tools that we can break down this reputation barrier. I am curious to know how we can design more cross university collaborations, if you have ideas and thoughts on this topic, please leave a comment below.


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