"Understanding Team Knowledge Production: The Interrelated Roles of Technology and Expertise and Specialists"
2017, Management Science


Teamwork is an increasingly important aspect of knowledge production. In particular, factors influencing team formation relative to the composition of expertise are crucial for both organizational performance and for informing policy. In this paper, I draw attention to technology access as a highly influential factor impacting expertise in team formation. I examine the hack of Microsoft Kinect as an exogenous event that suddenly reduced motionsensing technology costs to find that great reductions in technology costs substitute for ex-ante optimal involvement of area specialists and facilitate involvement of outside area specialists through collaboration with researchers with broader knowledge – generalists. In other words, technology costs influence the composition of expertise in teamwork, with suficiently large reductions leading to knowledge creation that combines more broadly across knowledge areas. These findings suggest implications for organizations and policy makers in crafting incentives for more diverse knowledge creation through strategic investments that lower technology costs and influence team formation.

Keywords: Knowledge Production, Collaboration, Diversification, Specialization, Research Technology

JEL Classification:O31, O32, O33

"Understanding the Changing Structure of Scientific Inquiry" with Agrawal, A., Goldfarb, A.
2016, American Economic Jurnal: Applied Economics 8(1): 100-128


The fall of the Iron Curtain led to an influx of new mathematical ideas into western science. We show that research teams grew disproportionately in size in subfields of mathematics in which the Soviets were strongest. This is consistent with the knowledge burden hypothesis that an outward shift in the knowledge frontier increases the returns to collaboration. We also report additional evidence consistent with this interpretation: (i) The effect is present in countries outside the United States and is not correlated with the local population of Soviet scholars, (ii) Researchers in Soviet-rich subfields disproportionately increased their level of specialization.

Keywords: Knowledge Production, Collaboration, Team Size, Knowledge Burden

JEL Classification: I23, J24, L23, O31, O33, P36

Working Papers

"When Collaboration Bridges Institutions: The Impact of Industry Collaboration on Academic Productivity" with Bikard, M., Vakili, K.


Prior research suggests that academic scientists who collaborate with firms may experience lower publication rates in their collaborative lines of work due to industry's insistence on IP protection through patenting or secrecy. The main empirical challenge of examining the effect of industry collaboration on scientific productivity is that research projects that involve industry collaborators may be qualitatively different from those that do not. Hence, any difference in subsequent output of academic scientists who collaborate with industry may be driven by differences in the nature of research projects that attract industry collaborators. To address this issue, we exploit the occurrence of simultaneous discoveries where multiple scientists make roughly the same discovery around the same time. Following a simultaneous discovery, we compare the follow-on research output of academic scientists who collaborated with industry on the discovery with that of academic scientists who did not. We find that academic scientists who collaborated with industry produce more follow-on publications and fewer follow-on patents on their collaborative research lines than their academic peers who did not collaborate with industry. Our results suggest that research lines with both scientific and commercial potential provide an opportunity for a productive division of tasks between academic scientists and their industry counterparts, where the former focus on exploiting the scientific opportunities and the latter focus on the commercial ones. We also show that these effects are particularly salient when the industry partner is an established company rather than a startup.

Keywords: Collaboration, Academia, Industry, Cross-Institutional Collaboration, Paper Twins, Division of Labor

JEL Classification: I23, O31, O33, P36

"Jack of All Trades and Master of Knowledge: The Role of Generalists in Novel Knowledge Integration" with Nagle, F.


We consider the role of the individual researcher in absorptive capacity and examine the impact of individual-level knowledge diversification on identifying and integrating novel knowledge in innovation. Our study is motivated by a paradox where impactful discoveries are the result of diversified knowledge input, yet achieving diversification is increasingly difficult as knowledge accumulation leads to division into narrower knowledge areas and increased specialization. We build on recent findings suggesting an important role for diversified researchers as coordinators in increasingly large teams of specialists, to consider their role in identifying and integrating novel knowledge in innovation. Using a natural experiment, we find evidence that diversified researchers have a higher propensity to engage with novel knowledge, and do so in a manner that produces more highly cited output. The effect is more pronounced when the novel knowledge is distant from the researcher’s past experience and requires exploration rather than exploitation.

Keywords: Knowledge Creation, Diversification, Absorptive Capacity, Distant Search

"The Pace of Change and Creative Performance: Specialist and Generalist Mathematicians at the Fall of the Soviet Union" with Vakili, K. and Bikard, M.


Past research is divided on whether specialists or generalists have superior creative performance. While many have highlighted generalists’ advantage due to access to a wider set of knowledge components, others have underlined the benefits that specialists can derive from their deep expertise. We argue that this disagreement might be partly driven by the fact that the pace of change in a knowledge domain shapes the relative return from being a specialist or a generalist. Using the impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse on the performance of theoretical mathematicians as a natural experiment, we show that generalist scientists performed best when the pace of change was slow, but that specialists had an advantage when the pace of change increased. We discuss and test the roles of cognitive mechanisms and of competition for scarce resources. Overall, our results highlight important trade-offs associated with the choice of becoming a specialist or a generalist.

Keywords: Specialization, Diversification, Creativity, Knowledge Creation, Collaboration

"The Cost of Research Tools And The Direction of Inovation: Evidence From Computer Science and Electrical Engineering" with Furman, J.


Assessing and shaping the factors that affect the rate and direction of technical change has been among the central aims of research in the study of science and innovation for more than a half-century (Nelson, 1962). Although substantial evidence exists concerning the policies and institutions that affect the rate of knowledge accumulation, substantially less known about the factors that affect the direction of inventive activity (Acemoglu, 2012; Lerner and Stern, 2012). We examine how a change in the cost of access to knowledge influences the direction of inventive activity by exploiting the hack of Microsoft Kinect as an exogenous event resulting in a sudden, unexpected, and substantial reduction in the cost of motion-sensing research technology. To estimate changes in research trajectories, we employ traditional measures based on bibliometric indicators of knowledge accumulation as well as novel measures based on machine learning (topic modeling) techniques. Our analysis demonstrates that the Kinect shock increases the diversity of both incumbents in and entrants into motion-sensing research. The effect is greater for entrants than for incumbents and is evident even in the non-motion sensing research portfolios of entrants into motion-sensing research. We interpret this as evidence that reducing the cost of research tools can induce greater breadth in researcher trajectories in the directly affected field and nearby areas of ideas space.

Keywords: Direction of Innovation, Research Costs

JEL Classification: I23, O31, O33, O34

"Startup Commercialization Strategies of Disruptive Technologies: Implications for the Rate of Scientific Discovery"


Startups rushing to market with potentially disruptive technologies have the potential to reduce the documented negative effect of private return incentives for scientific discovery (basic research). While it is optimal for startups of disruptive technologies to enter the market to validate their technology in order to enable options for other market transactions, this entry strategy influences industry’s innovation incentives as the revealed technology threatens the incumbents’ trajectory. Furthermore, given the uncertainty of such technologies - ambiguity regarding technology’s robust scientific likelihood to improve to reach its disruptive potential - innovations efforts unfold predominantly in the realm of scientific discovery, leading to an increase in the rate of basic research in the knowledge area of the technology. I provide evidence from efforts to develop and commercialize quantum computing.

Keywords: Disruptive innovation, Technology commercialization strategy, Innovation incentives, Startup entry strategies, Rate of scientific discovery