Introduction

I came across a very dope article in Nature Journal of Science by Wu and Wang from UChicago earlier this evening. I was so enthralled by the findings that I threw the rest of my half-eaten dinner away just to digest this very interesting article. It compares the impact of the scientific output from large teams versus small teams over a three scores period. I do encourage you to read the paper yourself but if you are too busy, here are my key takeaways from the paper.

Takeaways:

TLDR

Small teams disrupt science and technology by exploring and amplifying promising ideas from older and less-popular work. Large teams develop recent successes, by solving acknowledged problems and refining common designs. Both small and large teams are essential to a flourishing ecology of science and technology.

Longer version

(1) Work by small teams will be substantially more disruptive than work by large teams; large teams may be better designed or incentivized to develop current science and technology, and that small teams disrupt science and technology with new problems and opportunities.

(2) Solo authors are just as likely to produce high-impact papers (in the top 5% of citations) as teams with five members, but solo-authored papers are 72% more likely to be highly disruptive (in the top 5% of disruptive papers). By contrast, ten-person teams are 50% more likely to score a high-impact paper, yet these contributions are much more likely to develop existing ideas already prominent in the system, which is reflected in the very low likelihood they are among the most disruptive.

(3) High-impact papers produced by small teams are the most disruptive, and high-impact papers produced by large teams are the most developmental. Case in point, within the pool of high-impact articles and patents, small teams are more disruptive w.r.t more new ideas.

(4) Solo authors and small teams much more often build on older, less popular ideas. Larger teams more often target recent, high-impact work as their primary source of inspiration, and this tendency increases monotonically with team size.

(5) Large teams receive more of their citations rapidly, as their work is immediately relevant to more contemporaries whose ideas they develop and audiences primed to appreciate them. Conversely, smaller teams experience a much longer citation delay.

(6) Even though small teams receive less recognition overall owing to the rapid decay of collective attention, their successful research produces a ripple effect, which becomes an influential source of later large-team success.

(7) Consistent diminishing marginal increases to novelty with team size, such that with each new team member, their contribution to novel combinations decreases.

(8) Whereas larger teams facilitate broader search, small teams search deeper.