May 8, 2021

"The Water Cooler Effect" (Physical Proximity and Research Collaboration)

From Harvard Magazine (May-June, 2011):

The benefits of collaboration are well accepted in the scientific world, but researchers with the HMS Center for Biomedical Informatics wondered whether physical proximity affects the quality of those collaborations: Do scientists who have more “face time” with colleagues produce higher-impact results? To test the hypothesis, they examined data from 35,000 biomedical science papers published between 1999 and 2003, each with at least one Harvard author. The articles appeared in 2,000 journals and involved 200,000 authors.

After analyzing the number of citations each paper generated (a standard way to gauge article quality) and the distances between coauthors, they concluded that personal contact, especially between an article’s first and last authors, still matters—even in an age of e-mail, social networking, and video conferencing. (Their analysis, “Does Collocation Inform the Impact of Collaboration?” appeared in the online journal PLoS ONE in December.)


Gathering data was much harder than Lee expected. A team of 15 undergraduates used floor plans, staff directories, and their feet to track down the specific office and laboratory addresses of the 7,300 Harvard authors across several Harvard campuses and Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as addresses for the non-Harvard scientists included in the study. Then they built a three-dimensional image of authors’ locations, calculated the distances separating them, and evaluated the relationship between citations and distances.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.