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Small but Disruptive

As author lists on papers seem to sometimes drag on for pages, researchers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University look into the contributions of both large and small teams of scientists. As the New York Times reports, the researchers — themselves a trio — found that small teams seem to drive innovation, while large teams tend to confirm or consolidate those results.

Chicago's James Evans and his colleagues sifted through data from the Web of Science, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and GitHub, covering more than 65 million papers, patents, and software tools from between 1954 and 2014. As they report in Nature this week, the researchers assigned measure of disruption to that work. Papers that lead to Nobel Prizes, for instance, tend to be at the top of the disruption measure, while review articles have lower scores.

Evans and his colleagues found that papers with higher disruptive scores tended to have fewer authors and that the disruption score declines with each additional author.

"Small teams disrupt science and technology by exploring and amplifying promising ideas from older and less-popular work," the researchers wrote. "Large teams develop recent successes, by solving acknowledged problems and refining common designs."