Scientific teams and institutional collaborations: Evidence from U.S. universities, 1981-1999

This paper explores recent trends in the size of scientific teams and in institutional collaborations. The data derive from 2.4 million scientific papers written in 110 top U.S. research universities over the period 1981–1999. The top 110 account for a large share of published basic research conducted in the U.S. during this time.

We measure team size by the number of authors on a scientific paper. Using this measure we find that team size increases by 50% over the 19-year period. We supplement team size with measures of domestic and foreign institutional collaborations, which capture the geographic dispersion of team workers. The time series evidence suggests that the trend towards more geographically dispersed scientific teams accelerates beginning with papers published at the start of the 1990s. This acceleration suggests a sharp decline in the cost of collaboration. Our hypothesis is that the decline is due to the deployment of the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET and its connection to networks in Europe and Japan after 1987.

Using a panel of top university departments we also find that private universities and departments whose scientists have earned prestigious awards participate in larger teams, as do departments that have larger amounts of federal funding. Placement of former graduate students is a key determinant of institutional collaborations, especially collaborations with firms and with foreign scientific institutions. Finally, the evidence suggests that scientific output and influence increase with team size and that influence rises along with institutional collaborations. Since increasing team size implies an increase in the division of labor, these results suggest that scientific productivity increases with the scientific division of labor.

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