Novelty and international research collaboration

In a recent article in Nature Index, Caroline Wagner, Travis Whetsell and Satyam Mukherjee describe the findings of their work(preprint) to investigate the extent to which internationally collaborative research is novel. They conclude:

is the rise of international collaboration pushing contemporary science into new frontiers? We assessed whether international research tends to be novel and found, surprisingly, that it does not.

The analysis is based on a previously described method for assessing the extent to which an article is novel. The approach looks at the extent to which journals tend to occur together in the reference lists of articles. Journal pairs that occur together more than expected at random are take as indicators of 'conventionality', whereas combinations that occur less than expected indicators of 'novelty'.

Clearly, the approach looks at a very specific measure of the extent to which work is novel; the occurrence of novel journal combinations in reference lists may indicate novelty, but there is also the possibility that highly novel and original work is not reflected in the reference lists. Nonetheless, the findings that internationally collaborative research tends to score high on conventionality and low on novelty, and that this tendency increases as the number of countries involved increase, have important potential policy implications.

An effective research policy environment is probably one that has a mix of conventional and novel research. While trying to predict the emergence of novel research in advance seems a fruitless task, making sure that the conditions support novel research is a reasonable goal. Work like this is, therefore, helpful in pointing to conditions that influence the mix. As ever, though, we need to keep in mind the limitations of citation-based methodologies.