RESEARCH COLLABORATIONS AND THE QUALITY OF WHAT THEY PRODUCE: Evidence from specialisation and field distance in economics

High quality interdisciplinary research that is created by the collaboration of authors with completely separate expertise only exists in the dreams of grant committees and faculty administrators, but not in the real world. What’s more, high quality research is more likely to emerge as a result of an interaction between specialists and generalists.

These are among the findings of a new study by Ali Sina Önder, Sascha Schweitzer and Hakan Yilmazkuday, which analyses peer-reviewed economics journal articles between 1990 and 2014 of economists that graduated from US or Canadian economics departments.

The authors note that collaboration has become the dominant mode of research production in many disciplines in recent decades. But how do co-authors’ specialisations and research expertise affect the quality of their collaborative work? Three stylised facts emerge from this study:

  • Co-authors have become geographically more distant but much closer in terms of their research fields over the last couple of decades.
  • Co-authors whose collaboration reveals better quality have a significantly smaller field distance (measured as 1-’percentage overlap of research areas’).
  • Co-authors' specialisation levels are little or not related to the overall quality of the collaboration.


Field distance between co-authors is negatively and significantly related to the quality of their collaborative output. This relation is robust whether taking the journal where the co-authored paper lands or the number of citations it receives, also whether focusing on co-authors' first time collaboration and their subsequent collaborations.

Specialisation is certainly an important aspect of authors' portfolios and specialisation works through two channels:

First, high specialisation has an indirect positive effect on the quality of collaboration output, which works through co-authors' matching such that highly specialised authors team up with those that are close in field, and such closeness is related to a high quality of collaboration output.

Second, high specialisation has a direct negative effect on the quality of collaboration output. The total effect of specialisation is the sum of the direct and indirect effects and this turns out negative in most specifications.

High quality research is more likely to emerge as a result of an interaction between specialists and generalists. Although high specialisation provides deep understanding of and strength in a topic, it does not seem to be sufficient for publishing in top journals or guarantee a high number of citations, because highly specialised research teams may lack the overall intuition.

Concerning interdisciplinarity within economics, there is not much interdisciplinary work in the form of collaboration between two specialists and the authors do not find very often that two very well established economists in distinct fields join forces.

These findings suggest that interdisciplinarity achieves success only if each author's research expertise is already interdisciplinary. 



Ali Sina Önder (University of Portsmouth)

Sascha Schweitzer (University of Bayreuth)

Hakan Yilmazkuday (Florida International University)

Twitter: @asonder79