Can Big Science Be Too Big?

When the team correlated this disruption rating to the size of the group responsible for the project or paper, they found a clear pattern: smaller groups were more likely to produce novel findings than larger ones. Those novel contributions usually took a year or so to catch on, after which larger research teams did the work of consolidating the ideas and solidifying the evidence.

“You might ask what is large, and what is small,” said Dr. Evans. “Well, the answer is that this relationship holds no matter where you cut the number: between one person and two, between ten and twenty, between 25 and 26.”

It also holds within every field in science, whether physics, psychology, computer science, mathematics, or zoology, he added: “You see it within field, within topics. And two-thirds of the effect we found is within the individual. That means that if I’m writing a paper, and I partner with one other person, or two, the result is less disruptive with each person I add.”

Psychologists have found that people working in larger groups tend to generate fewer ideas than when they work in smaller groups, or when working alone, and become less receptive to ideas from outside. Why that would be isn’t entirely clear, but it runs counter to intuition, said Suparna Rajaram, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University.

“We find that the product of three individuals working separately is greater than if those three people collaborate as a group,” Dr. Rajaram said. “When brainstorming, people produce fewer ideas when working in groups than when working alone.”

There are upsides to working in groups, Dr. Rajaram said. Over time, group members learn a lot from each other, and incorporate that knowledge. “But overall, this new study provides findings on a large scale that are consistent with the underlying principles of our work,” she said.

It makes sense that science has shifted toward a large-team model. Large teams have clout; they typically include a number of prominent, influential figures at big-name institutions. They attract some of the best younger scientists, who gain a career boost by signing on. And these trends, in turn, lead to more published papers, promotions, grants and tenured positions.

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