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Why Some Scientific Collaborations Are More Beneficial Than Others


Science is all about collaborations. But there is new evidence that some collaborations may be more beneficial than others. Turns out when scientists collaborate internationally, they are more likely to have an impact on science than purely domestic collaborations. And the new evidence itself comes from an interesting and unexpected collaboration, as NPR's Joe Palca discovered when he dug into the story as part of his project, Joe's Big Idea.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: I'm in Washington, D.C., and the two scientists I wanted to talk with about their collaboration were not. But in radio we have ways of making people talk. First, I made a digital connection with Emilio Bruna at the University of Florida.


PALCA: But all I heard was music, so I tried Stefano Allesina at the University of Chicago.

Is that Stefano?


PALCA: Hi, it's Joe Palca. How are you?

ALLESINA: Very good. Can you hear us all right?

PALCA: I can hear you pretty well.

Then I tried Bruna again.



PALCA: Ah, the music just stopped. Maybe that means we're hearing Emilio.

EMILIO BRUNA: You are hearing Emilio. How are you?

PALCA: Bruna and Allesina are both ecologists. They study the interplay between organisms and their environment. I asked Bruna to tell me when he started working with Allesina.

BRUNA: This must've been maybe a year ago.

PALCA: The collaboration started with a phone call.

BRUNA: The original reason for calling Stefano is that I was actually trying to get him to apply for a job at the University of Florida.

PALCA: But Stefano said he was happy in Chicago, thank you very much, and he told Bruna that.

BRUNA: Right away.

PALCA: But the pair kept chatting for a while.

BRUNA: And I think I made kind of an off-hand comment about the fact that I didn't actually know many Italian ecologists.

PALCA: Something Allesina says isn't all that surprising.

ALLESINA: It's true that in Italy as, like, an academic environment it's a little bit more isolated than other universities in Europe, so that's probably why people don't know as many. There are very good Italian ecologists.

PALCA: And that fact got them thinking. Bruna says maybe...

BRUNA: International collaboration in meeting and working with ecologists in other countries can be really beneficial to us as scientists.

PALCA: In fact, maybe they could show that international collaboration was already having a beneficial effect for those scientists who are doing it. So they came up with an idea for a research study. They would look to see whether international collaboration made a difference in what kind of scientific journal research was published in. Allesina says there's a good reason for asking that question.

ALLESINA: There's about 20,000 scientific journals that are published today. And of course, not all have the same quality.

PALCA: There's a much smaller number of top-drawer journals.

ALLESINA: And so scientists tend to want to publish in these very high-profile journals.

PALCA: These are the ones that other scientists read. These are the ones that tend to set the agenda for scientific research. So with the help of a graduate student named Matthew Smith, Bruna and Allesina looked at more than a million scientific papers, analyzing where the authors came from.

ALLESINA: And what we show is that your chances of getting into these top journals are much higher if you collaborate across nations.

PALCA: And as they report in the journal PLOS ONE, Allesina says they also found that publications from international collaborations tended to be more frequently cited by other scientists.

ALLESINA: So not only you get into a better journal, but then it has more impact than the typical article in the journal.

PALCA: These results mean a lot to Emilio Bruna because he studies the plants and animals of South American forests. So just by the nature of his work he has to do a lot of international collaboration.

BRUNA: It's a royal pain to work internationally and collaboratively.

PALCA: Why? Well, to start with...

BRUNA: The logistics of setting up a research program in a place that's 4,000 miles away is really challenging.

PALCA: But even when you get everything set up...

BRUNA: You don't speak the language. You don't know the cultural norms. You show up on a Monday to work, and you didn't realize that on Mondays, people only show up at 10:00. And, you know, you're starving for dinner at 6:00, but Argentineans only want to eat at 10 o'clock at night. I mean, it's personally really rewarding to get through those things, but it is a royal pain in the ass to work collaboratively.

PALCA: But his study with Stefano Allesina makes Bruna feel like all that effort is worth it. And he says their work together leads to a clear conclusion.

BRUNA: And that is that we should work to encourage international collaboration.

PALCA: Bruna and Allesina aren't done with their collaborations. Next, they plan to look at regional differences in this country, something I found out as I was finishing my interview with them.

Thanks very much, guys. I appreciate it.

ALLESINA: OK, thank you.

BRUNA: All right, thanks a lot, bye.

PALCA: I'm still here.

BRUNA: No, I was going to say, Stefano, I've got a guy writing a script to parse out zip codes, so we may be able to do some of the...


BRUNA: ...Work on...


BRUNA: ...Individual university affiliations.

ALLESINA: Yes, that would work well with the U.S.

PALCA: You're still collaborating? That's perfect.

BRUNA: Well, I don't get to talk to him very much. I've never actually been in the same room with Stefano and Matt, so it's nice to be able to talk and get this out of the way here.

PALCA: Well, I'm always happy to help. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.