Being Together in Place as a Catalyst for Scientific Advance

The COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread social distancing, affecting every aspect of society, including universities. Face-to-face interactions, crucial for sparking innovative ideas and collaborations, were replaced by video conferences, raising concerns about the impact on scientific knowledge and discovery. As organizations adopt hybrid or fully remote work models, questions arise about the “death of distance” in science and whether the collapse of physical spaces affects the production and consumption of complex scientific knowledge. Recent studies indicate that distance influences collaboration, with remote work leading to more siloed collaboration networks.

While some argue that geographical proximity is no longer crucial for creative contributions, other research suggests that geography still matters. This study, authored by Karim Lakhani and Eamon Duede in the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard, along with Misha Teplitskiy and James Evans, delves into the relationship between physical proximity, intellectual influence, and knowledge transmission. It challenges the notion that virtualization can fully replace face-to-face interactions, highlighting the importance of co-location for fostering diverse epistemic cultures and facilitating the transfer of skills and tacit knowledge. The research design aims to directly assess intellectual influence and knowledge transmission using publication data from various fields, providing insights into the impact of distance on scholarship.

The study acknowledges limitations in prior work, emphasizing the need to differentiate between citations that denote intellectual impact and those that serve other purposes. It also explores potential mechanisms for the difference between face-to-face and virtual interaction, suggesting that virtual interactions may limit subtle influences and creativity. The research design involves surveying corresponding authors about the influence and knowledge of referenced papers, considering both organizational and intellectual distances. Ultimately, the study aims to provide valuable insights for institutions grappling with the decision to embrace virtualization or prioritize physical co-location, recognizing the potential effects on innovative capacity.

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