Remote collaborations deliver fewer scientific breakthroughs - Oxford co-led research

30 November 2023

Remote teams are less likely to make breakthrough discoveries compared to those who work onsite, according to research published today [29 Nov], which was led by the universities of Oxford and Pittsburgh into the rise of remote collaborations among scientists and inventors across the world.

In their study published in Nature, the researchers’ key finding was that, while remote collaboration has the potential to deliver new and creative scientific ideas through easier access to a global knowledge pool, it is harder for such teams to integrate effectively to deliver breakthroughs.

Lead co-author Professor Carl Frey, Dieter Schwarz Associate Professor of AI & Work at the Oxford Internet Institute and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Work, said, ‘The computer revolution and the rise of the Internet has connected talent from all around the world yet, rather than accelerating as many predicted, studies have shown that breakthrough innovation is in decline.

‘Our paper provides an explanation for why this happens: while remote collaboration via the internet can bring together diverse pools of talent, it also makes it harder to fuse their ideas.

‘Today, there is much talk about Artificial Intelligence supercharging innovation. Yet many predicted the same with the advent of the PC and the Internet. This should serve as a reminder there is unlikely to be a pure technological solution to our innovation problems.’

The team analysed more than 20 million research papers published between 1960 and 2020, from 22.5 million scientists in 3,562 cities. They also examined four million patents filed between 1976 and 2020, by 2.7 million inventors across 87,937 cities.

Over this time period the researchers found:

  • The average distance between team members for papers increased from 100 kilometres to nearly 1,000 kilometres and, for patents, from 250 kilometres to 750 kilometres;
  • The fraction of extremely long-distance collaborations (of more than 2,500 kilometres – the distance from Brazil to Liberia) increased substantially from 2% to 15% for papers, and from 3% to 9% for patents;
  • But researchers in these remote teams relative to their onsite counterparts were consistently less likely to make breakthrough discoveries; and
  • Researchers in remote teams were also less likely to engage in conceptual tasks (needed to produce breakthrough research), such as conceiving research or writing papers. But they were more likely to contribute to technical tasks, such as performing experiments and analysing data.

The team says its findings have important policy implications: the shift to remote work after the pandemic could facilitate smaller and more gradual improvements in scientific research, but might make it harder for breakthroughs to happen. Therefore, the focus on digital infrastructure should not take precedence over investment in physical infrastructure that helps reduce travel costs and makes housing more affordable.

Lead co-author Professor Lingfei Wu, Assistant Professor of Information Science at the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh, said, ‘True innovation often has a hometown. This is because geographical proximity breaks hierarchy, enabling flat team structures and intensive communication essential for conceiving ground-breaking ideas.

‘It is easier, for example, for a graduate student to discuss informally ideas with a senior professor in a hallway than through email. Even with digital advancements, online meetings cannot fully replace the unique value of face-to-face interactions in fuelling innovation.’

Notes for Editors

For an interview with the researchers or further information, please contact Amjad Parkar on [email protected]

The paper can be accessed here: The doi number is 10.1038/s41586-023-06767-1

About the Oxford Martin School Programme on The Future of Work
The Future of Work programme aims to provide an in-depth understanding into how technology is transforming the economy, to help leaders create a successful transition into new ways of working in the 21st Century.

The programme will provide novel and relevant evidence on:

  • How technology is transforming companies and industries;
  • Why some places are better at adapting to this transformation;
  • Related implications for living standards, inequality and social mobility.

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Work is part of a research partnership between the Oxford Martin School and Citi, analysing some of the most pressing global challenges of the 21st Century.

About the Oxford Martin School
The Oxford Martin School is a world-leading research department of the University of Oxford. Its 200 academics work across more than 30 pioneering research programmes to find solutions to the world's most urgent challenges. It supports novel and high-risk projects that often do not fit within conventional funding channels, with the belief that breaking boundaries and fostering innovative collaborations can dramatically improve the wellbeing of this and future generations. Underpinning all our research is the need to translate academic excellence into impact – from innovations in science, medicine, and technology, through to providing expert advice and policy recommendations.

About the Oxford Internet Institute
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the eighth year running, and number three in the QS World Rankings 2024. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.