A few years ago, Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a study that looked at scientific research conducted by groups in an attempt to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations. The task, Kohane says, took a “small army of undergraduates” eighteen months to complete. Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.
The more I work with the internet, and the more I do research in interactive media, the more I have realized, and seen studies, which show that interaction through internet has some basic limitation. It seems that even in today’s highly connected internet society, physical presence is critical. This study shows that for academic collaboration the best research occurs when the authors are highly physically present in the range of metres. It is my hypothesis (and this needs further academic research) that this is partly because we communicate through all of our senses (including touch, taste, and smell) and through non-logical emotions. These still cannot be communicated effectively through the internet.