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Why you should move country

Researchers who are mobile get more citations and build broader teams of collaborators than those who aren’t, study finds.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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Moving to another country can help scientists to form new collaborations and cut ties with stagnant ones.Credit: Getty

Researchers who move around the world have greater scientific impact than their non-mobile counterparts, a study reports.

Mobile researchers gain up to 17% more citations compared to non-mobile scientists, according to an analysis of 26,170 physicists over the period 1980 to 2009, which is published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Those who move country are also more likely to study a range of topics and to have a broader collaboration network, the study found. It also reports that roughly one-third of mobile scientists move to a country where they have no existing collaborators and are more likely than non-mobile researchers to form new working partnerships.

Exposure to a diversity of places, people and ideas is “oxygen for the creative mind”, says author of the research, Alexander Petersen, who studies the management of complex systems for innovation at the University of California, Merced. And the mobility of some researchers also has a positive effect on those who don’t move, he found. Local scientists gain new perspectives and ideas as they are exposed to the diverse views of researchers who have relocated to that country. “A lot of circulation is good for everybody,” says Petersen.

Petersen also found that nearly one-quarter, or 23%, of the 884 researchers who had won a Nobel prize between 1901 and 2016 had received the award for work that they had done outside their country of origin. Petersen notes that the citation impact of mobility is strongest, however, for those who are not affiliated with elite institutions.

Mobility also offers researchers a fresh start, says Petersen. In 11% of cross-border moves, researchers ended partnerships with collaborators from their home countries. “To some degree, mobility offers a way to cut stagnant collaborations,” he adds.

To compare the career impacts of mobility over time, Petersen examined researcher profiles extracted from 355,808 articles published in 7 prominent journals in the American Physical Society’s database. He first compared the citation records of physicists who had moved country to those who had never moved. To confirm the data were robust, he also made comparisons to those who moved to another country early in their career and stayed there. The study found the greatest difference in citations between researchers who had moved and those who had never moved. Although the study focused on physicists, Petersen suggests that the results are applicable to any scientific discipline.

Visa and immigration policies that restrict the flow of scientists in and out of different nations could harm the scientific enterprise, Petersen says. He adds that scientists who do not plan to move country can still benefit from different perspectives by connecting with researchers in other departments at their institution.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07499-3
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