SEI Shows Scientific Collaboration on the Rise


It could be argued that the days of Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein are over. That’s not to say that the twenty-first century does not produce outstanding scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but rather that we are living in an age in which scientists and engineers must collaborate to produce the outstanding and voluminous results that are now expected of them. The Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) of 2014 show this to be true.

This year’s SEI was published earlier this month, and offers public access to a wealth of data about trends in these fields. Topics discussed include education in sciences and engineering from kindergarten through higher education, the current labor force, business, and public attitudes.

Amongst this year’s findings in the SEI was the report that the proportional number of publications with multiple authors has increased. Multiple authors on a paper indicate that multiple people contributed to the research that went into producing an important advancement or discovery.

The trend of collaboration seems to have started in the 1990s and increased steadily. Then, in 2010, the number of authors jumped dramatically and has continued to rise. Before the average number of authors on a paper was three. After the spike, it jumped to eight.

The SEI report indicates that collaboration is happening through multiple channels. Within the USA, researchers are twice as likely as they were in the 1990s to collaborate with other researchers from different disciplines, with other US institutions, and even across international borders.

There are many reasons why collaboration is becoming increasingly common. In part, the Internet and international travel have seemingly “shrunk” the world. In addition, governments from the European Union and smaller nations such as South Korea have specifically funneled resources towards stimulating internationalization in their R&D programs.

In addition, since the 1970s, English has increasingly grown to become the recognized language of science. Today more than 98 percent of all scientific articles are published in English. This common language augments researcher’s abilities to communicate with each other despite differences in their native languages.

A number of publications specifically address issues of starting collaborations, trouble-shooting, and assuring that all parties are recognized for their contributions. Among them, Bennett et. al.’s Collaboration & Team Science: A Field Guide offers advice that encompasses matters of fostering trust, leveraging networks, and even a section on “fun and games.”

The increased rates in collaboration are important factors to consider when structuring national science policies.

In particular it is noted that smaller nations—those that perhaps do not have the infrastructure or resources to conduct large-scale and expensive research on their own—may now be able to contribute.

Although the era of the singular scientific genius seems to be behind us, the combined brain-power of multiple researchers from diverse backgrounds is sure to lead to even greater and more rapid advances in the sciences and engineering fields.

By Sarah Takushi


National Science Foundation

National Cancer Intitute

Cornell University Library

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