How do travel costs shape collaboration?

Christian Catalini, Christian Fons-Rosen, Patrick Gaulé

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


We develop a simple theoretical framework for thinking about how geographic frictions, and in particular travel costs, shape scientists' collaboration decisions and the types of projects that are developed locally versus over distance. We then take advantage of a quasi-experiment-the introduction of new routes by a low-cost airline-to test the predictions of the theory. Results show that travel costs constitute an important friction to collaboration: after a low-cost airline enters, the number of collaborations increases between 0.3 and 1.1 times, a result that is robust to multiple falsification tests and causal in nature. The reduction in geographic frictions is particularly beneficial for high-quality scientists that are otherwise embedded in worse local environments. Consistent with the theory, lower travel costs also endogenously change the types of projects scientists engage in at different levels of distance. After the shock, we observe an increase in higher-quality and novel projects, as well as projects that take advantage of complementary knowledge and skills between subfields, and that rely on specialized equipment. We test the generalizability of our findings from chemistry to a broader data set of scientific publications and to a different field where specialized equipment is less likely to be relevant, mathematics. Last, we discuss implications for the formation of collaborative research and development teams over distance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3340-3360
Number of pages21
JournalManagement Science
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Data on Scientists. Our focus is on collaborations between faculty members (and therefore effectively across labs) in the discipline of chemistry,6 in part because of data availability and in part because of the short publications cycles in this discipline. For biographical information on scientists, our data source is the directory of graduate research published by the American Chemical Society (ACS). Intended as a source of information for prospective graduate students, this directory provides comprehensive listings of faculty affiliated with U.S. departments granting PhDs in chemistry, chemical engineering, and biochemistry. Besides faculty names and departmental affiliations, the directory provides information on year of birth, gender, and education. The directory is published biannually in print and since 1999 on the web.7 We combine the directories from 1991 to 2013 to build a longitudinal panel of more than 20,000 scientists. We complement this information with department-level R&D expenditures from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges.

Funding Information:
This research contributes to the agenda Strategie AV21. C. Fons-Rosen acknowledges financial support from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness [ECO2014-55555-P]. C. Catalini acknowledges the support of the Junior Faculty Research Assistance Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The authors appreciate helpful comments from Alberto Galasso, Ina Ganguli, Avi Goldfarb, Xavier Giroud, Jeff Furman, Stepan Jurajda, Mara Lederman, Nikolas Mittag, Alex Oettl, Erin Scott, Paula Stephan, Scott Stern, Toby Stuart, Jane Wu, an anonymous associate editor and team of reviewers at Management Science; and seminar participants at Charles University, the ?cole Polytechnique F?d?rale de Lausanne, Harvard Business School, Imperial College London, the London School of Economics, the Stockholm School of Economics, the Academy of Management, Universidad Carlos III, the National University of Singapore, and Warwick Business School. All errors are the authors' own.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s)

Structured keywords

  • ECON Applied Economics


  • Face-to-face meetings
  • Geographic frictions
  • Recombinations of ideas
  • Scientific collaboration
  • Temporary colocation
  • Travel costs


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