Home is where the impact is: Why the geography of offices matters

The proverb I would have preferred to use as a title for what follows is one I only know in Norwegian: Borte bra, hjemme best. Literally, this translates as Away [is] good, home [is] best. That’s what recent research suggests about choosing who you work with.

When you work with people at your home base — with those who literally sit close to you — the quality of your work is higher than when you work with someone further away. For researchers, the impact of an article you write is higher when you write it with someone who is in the next office rather than in the next building.

These are the claims in Does collocation inform the impact of collaboration?, published in PLoS ONE by Kyungjoon Lee, John S. Brownstein, Richard G. Mills, and Isaac S. Kohane. It’s a clever study and it has implications for how people in leadership think about creating the best circumstances for breakthrough research.

The authors looked at publications emanating from Harvard’s various life sciences milieux, across four locations, from 1993 to 2003. Each of the 35,000 publications had at least one Harvard author. A total of 200,000 authors were implicated in the study.

The finding of the project was that the proximity of the first and last authors correlated with the impact factor of the article.

[There were] significant relationships between proximity and impact: the closer the first and last author, the greater the number of citations.

Of course, causation and correlation must not be confused, and the authors themselves note that there are several possible explanations. Maybe sitting close together really does enhance research, suggesting causation. Maybe you save your best ideas for your own lab, suggesting correlation.

It may be that physical proximity truly allows for better collaboration, resulting in higher quality research that tends to be cited more often. It may also be that investigators have a strategic preference for keeping potentially high impact projects wholly within their own laboratory or close circle of research associates.

There are at least two important implications of this research for those in leadership positions, as the authors note. One is that the current rage for international cooperation must be approached with care, and not under the belief that the work of any individual will improve ipso facto through participation in international research groups.

The second implication is much more practical. Arranging offices really does matter. (Read how this was important for the establishment of linguistics at MIT.) Office assignment isn’t merely an administrative issue free from implications for the scientific productivity of a group.

Leadership is about creating the circumstances for great work and part of the task involves caring about such seemingly mundane issues as the arrangement of offices to facilitate daily (hourly!) face-to-face interaction between collaborators and potential collaborators. To take one of the most vulnerable cases, PhD students and post docs must sit close to their professors. If they don’t, their work may be worth less.

To further explore the impact of office geography on scientific quality, look at some of the articles that cite the one I’ve discussed here, as aggregated on CrossRef,  Scopus, Web of KnowledgeGoogle Scholar and mentions on Google blogs.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


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