The size of academic research “teams” has been increasing, inexorably, in essentially every field over the past few decades. This may be because of bad incentives for researchers (as Stan Liebowitz has argued), or because more expensive capital is required for research as in particle physics, or because communication technology has decreased the cost of collaboration. A much more worrying explanation is, simply, that reaching the research frontier is getting harder. This argument is most closely associated with my adviser Ben Jones, who has noticed that while team size has increased, the average age star researchers do their best work has increased, co-inventors on inventions has increased, and the number of researchers doing work across fields has decreased. If the knowledge frontier is becoming more expensive to reach, theory suggests a role for greater subsidization of early-career researchers and of potential development traps due to the complementary nature of specialized fields.
Agrawal et al use a clever device to investigate whether the frontier is indeed becoming more burdensome. Note that the fact that science advances does not mean, ipso facto, that reaching the frontier is harder: new capital like computers or Google Scholar may make it easier to investigate questions or get up to date in related fields, and certain developments completely subsume previous developments (think of, say, how a user of dynamic programming essentially does not need to bother learning the calculus of variations; the easier but more powerful technique makes the harder but less powerful technique unnecessary). Agrawal et al’s trick is to look at publication trends in mathematics. During the Soviet era, mathematics within the Soviet Union was highly advanced, particularly in certain areas of functional analysis, but Soviet researchers had little ability to interact with non-Soviets and they generally published only in Russian. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a “shock” to the knowledge frontier in mathematics as these top Soviet researchers began interacting with other mathematicians. A paper by Borjas and Doran in the QJE last year showed that Soviet mathematics were great in some areas and pretty limited in others. This allows for a diff-in-diff strategy: look at the change in team size following 1990 in fields where Soviets were particularly strong versus fields where the Soviets were weak.
Dropping papers with a Russian-named coauthor, classifying papers by fields using data from the AMS, the authors find that papers in Soviet-heavy fields had the number of coauthors increase from 1.34 to 1.78, whereas Soviet-weak fields teams grew only from 1.26 to 1.55. This difference appears quite robust, and is derived from hundreds of thousands of publications. To check that Soviet-rich fields actually had influence, they note that papers in Soviet-rich subfields cited Soviet-era publications at a greater rate after 1990 than Soviet-poor subfields, and that the increase in coauthoring tended to be driven by papers with a young coauthor. The story here is, roughly, that Soviet emigres would have tooled up young researchers in Soviet-rich fields, and then those young coauthors would have a lot of complementary skills which might drive collaboration with other researchers.
So it appears that the increasing burden of the knowledge frontier does drive some of the increase in team size. The relative importance of this factor, however, is something tough to tease out without some sort of structural model. Getting around the burden of knowledge by making it easier to reach the frontier is also worthy of investigation – a coauthor and I have a pretty cool new paper (still too early to make public) on exactly this topic, showing an intervention that has a social payoff an order of magnitude higher than funding new research.
Oct 2012 working paper (no IDEAS version). As a sidenote, the completely bizarre “copyright notice” on the first page is about the most ridiculous thing I have seen on a working paper recently: besides the fact that authors hold the copyright automatically without such a notice, the paper itself is literally about the social benefits of free knowledge flows! I can only hope that the copyright notice is the result of some misguided university policy.