How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb?

A twist on the old joke may now have a more formal answer. I was recently pointed to a paper The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge, published in Science magazine, which looks at the size of teams involved in the production of new research. The authors, Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin Jones and Brian Uzzi reviewed the authorship of 19 million papers produced over five decades to see if there were any patterns.

What they claim to have found is a move from the lone artisan to larger teams of researchers. This was the case not only in science and engineering, where there are obvious, practical drivers to move towards teamwork (shared use of expensive equipment for example), but also, to a lesser extent, in social sciences, humanities and arts. The lone genius battling against the prevailing consensus is a powerful image in the history of science: think Darwin or Einstein. What these researchers are arguing is that they don’t believe this is the case any longer.

But is this accurate? I have to confess I’m a bit worried about this piece of research, partly because the authors only look at (predominantly US) research papers and patents and don’t take account taken of, say, the impact of funding regimes or the ‘politics’ of producing papers. I suppose what it boils down to is that, for me, if you wanted to investigate the question that the research purports to shed light onto, you’d have to do a lot more than add up the number of contributors to academic papers and show that this number has increased over the years. Still, the Wisdom of Crowds tribe will love it and I dare say we’ll hear a lot more about the paper from that quarter.

And the answer to the joke? According to the statistics given in the paper it’s 3.5.


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