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Proximity matters

Study shows that scientific collaboration in Brazil is still influenced by geographical proximity among researchers

Colaborações_241-YellowThe increase in collaborations among Brazilian researchers is still heavily influenced by the geographical proximity of the partners This finding, obtained from analysis of data from more than a million academic résumés accessible on the Lattes Platform, suggests that advances in communication technologies are not strong enough to break down the effects of distance when it comes time to lay the groundwork for partnering with a colleague in writing scientific articles. The role of proximity is still very important, says an article published in January 2016 by researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Federal University of the ABC in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. According to the study, a distance of 100 kilometers (km) between two Brazilian researchers is sufficient to reduce the likelihood of collaboration by an average of 16.3%. But the effect is not linear. An increase of 300 km in distance lessens the probability of cooperation by 41.3%. It was also observed that the situation has a peculiar effect on collaborations in different fields of knowledge (see graph). For example: a distance of 400 km between two researchers reduces by 40% the chance that they will publish a paper collaboratively if they work in the fields of linguistics, literature, and arts, while the impact can be as high as 65% if they are involved in the agricultural, exact, or earth sciences.

According to economist Eduardo Haddad, one of the article’s authors, frequent personal contact among researchers facilitates interaction and increases the partners’ productivity. “Our article is instructive. It involved groups from different parts of USP who found it easy to meet because all they had to do was cross the street in order to talk to each other,” says Haddad, who is a professor in the USP School of Economics, Business Administration and Accounting (FEA) and a researcher at the Center for Regional and Urban Economics at USP. “Brazilian scientific production has grown in recent years, and that growth featured a remarkable increase in the number of collaborations,” the researcher stated.

“Understanding the dynamics of these collaborations, both in Brazil and elsewhere, and encouraging them is important if we are to heighten the visibility of Brazilian research,” says Samile Vanz, a professor at the School of Library Science at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, who dedicates her time to the study of scientific collaborations (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 169). “We know that articles written by several authors have a better chance of being cited than those written by individual authors. Expanding scientific production requires expanding the number of collaborations,” she says.

Colaborações_241-MAPAThe research that led to the article was done by economist Otávio Sidone during his master’s studies, with Haddad as his advisor, completed in 2013. He analyzed the distribution of scientific collaboration networks in Brazil from 1990 to 2010. “At first I was interested in studying how knowledge produced by the university overflows into the community and impacts regional development, but along the way I decided to concentrate on the flows of knowledge that occur among regions of Brazil,” Sidone says. His analysis of the effect of proximity on collaborations was made possible by the participation of computer science researcher Jesús Mena-Chalco, who at the time was doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics (IME) at USP. Mena-Chalco is now a professor at the Federal University of the ABC. He authored a study published in 2014 that examined the profiles of Brazilian scientific collaborations by cross-referencing the data from 1.1 million Lattes résumés (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 218).

“For the first paper, the focus was on the researcher. Now in this recent study we sought to understand how geolocalization influences collaboration. I had imagined that this influence would have become less important, but that is not what our analysis showed when it identified the cities of employment for the Brazilian researchers who had collaborated among themselves,” says Mena-Chalco, currently working on creating a platform that stores data on the genealogy of the researchers in Brazil in order to show how leaders from the past are influencing the training of the current generation. That project is being financed by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

Other factors also influence the chances for cooperation. In fields of knowledge where research requires heavy investments in infrastructure, such as big laboratories or university hospitals, proximity plays a bigger role. “Large research facilities are usually concentrated in major cites, so researchers need to travel to them in order to work together. It is harder to cooperate at a distance,” says Eduardo Haddad. “But in fields related to the humanities and social sciences, it is easier to engage in cooperative research without being physically present. In my own case, for example, I need only a good Internet connection and access to a database if I want to work with colleagues.”

Colaborações_241-PartenshipsThe study mapped out the pairs of Brazilian cities in which the highest indices of collaboration were recorded. Metropolises that are home to big universities appear in that ranking alongside neighboring cities that have a much less distinguished research tradition. On the most recent list, using data for 2007-2009, São Paulo emerges in the company of Santo André (home to the relatively new Federal University of the ABC), Rio de Janeiro appears accompanied by Niterói (where Universidade Federal Fluminense operates) and Seropédica (headquarters of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro). Porto Alegre is paired with the southern city of Santa Maria (also seat of a federal university). But some circumstances overcome the effect of proximity. Figures show that metropolises that have a heavy concentration of scientific production naturally attract more collaborations, from both within and outside their areas of influence.

The capital of São Paulo State is present in six of the nine partnerships among city pairs having the most frequent collaborations from 2007 to 2009. Home to the main campus of USP, which accounts for 25% of Brazilian scientific production, and institutions such as the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), the São Paulo capital heads the list alongside the city of Campinas (where we find the University of Campinas/Unicamp).  It ranks 3rd alongside Ribeirão Preto (where USP has another campus); 4th with Rio de Janeiro; 6th with Porto Alegre; 9th with Santo André; and 10th with Curitiba. Data obtained for earlier periods highlighted partnerships between the capital of São Paulo and São Paulo cities like São Carlos, home to a federal university and a USP campus, and Botucatu, where we find one of the campuses of São Paulo State University (Unesp). “Partnerships between municipalities follow a kind of gravity model; this explains why São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are natural leaders in collaborations with institutions in both nearby and distant cities,” says Haddad.

The spatial pattern of cooperation may vary among fields of knowledge. The article presents two examples, also used to illustrate this report (see maps, above): the flow of collaborations in health sciences and in agrarian sciences. In the case of research in health, the principal flow of collaboration occurs within the state of São Paulo around municipalities like the state capital, Ribeirão Preto, and Campinas. “The concentration in that corridor is impressive,” says Otávio Sidone. Moving away from the capital, there is a network of partnerships with cities in the South, Southeast, and Northeast regions of Brazil.

The profile is more decentralized in agricultural sciences. Two different networks were identified. The one that breeds the most collaborations starts in Viçosa, a Minas Gerais city that houses one of the most important of Brazil’s universities dedicated to agriculture, and branches out to different states in the Northeast and Central-West regions. A second network involves São Paulo cities where there are university campuses: São Paulo, Piracicaba, and Ribeirão Preto (USP), Campinas (Unicamp), and Jaboticabal and Botucatu (Unesp). “There is a network of collaborations that starts in Viçosa and connects with units of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) throughout Brazil, and another network of partnerships within São Paulo that have regional interests, such as biofuel production,” Eduardo Haddad says.

Colaborações_241-TIESHaddad observes that growth in scientific collaborations proceeds according to a pattern and follows a hierarchy. “The great majority of them are born of the relationships between researchers and their advisors and spread to other cities as the academic children and grandchildren of research leaders set out to work at different institutions and create links through ‘sandwich’ doctorates in other countries or postdoctoral fellowships,” he says. According to Haddad, partnerships feature several levels of interaction. The first of these involves major centers of excellence that succeed in collaborating with international institutions and can appropriate for themselves the knowledge produced outside Brazil. Those big centers go on to establish collaborations in Brazil, first with stronger groups and later with less developed regions—thanks, for example, to connections with their academic children and grandchildren, or partnerships that involve data collection.

Renato de Castro Garcia, an expert in the geography of innovation and a professor at the Unicamp Institute of Economics, observes that the results pertaining to collaborations in the academic environment coincide with what is known about interactions between researchers and companies. “In relations between universities and the private sector, frequent interactions and face-to-face contacts allow the sharing of the kind of knowledge not found in books and manuals to flow more easily, but it depends on the professional experience of the participants,” he says. But geographical proximity, says Garcia, is not the only factor involved in interactions that produce innovations. “Also playing a role is what is called cognitive proximity, which is a profound and shared familiarity among participants about the subject in question. Then there is temporal proximity, which is the possibility for interacting through meetings and technical visits with a certain frequency but not all the time, and social proximity, the connections of trust that are built up between two parties over time and permit a continuous exchange of information, even at a distance.” According to Garcia, those kinds of proximity are visible in the academic environment and often mixed together. “Advisors and their students may move farther apart geographically, but they preserve the cognitive, temporal, and social proximities,” he says. To Samile Vanz, although funding agencies may encourage collaborative research, more tools are needed to disseminate partnerships over a vast territory such as Brazil’s. “Participation on master’s and doctoral degree award panels and in public competitions are occasions that foster contacts among researchers and can represent the starting point for collaborative research projects. However, per diem allowances paid by post-graduate programs are out of date, which means that researchers have to pay some of their travel expenses themselves.”

SIDONE, O. J. G.; HADDAD, E. A.; MENA-CHALCO, J. P. Scholarly publication and collaboration in Brazil: The role of geography. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. Online, January 11, 2016.