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Southwest Airlines Is Revolutionizing Scientific Research

Academics love cheap flights.
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Photo: Southwest

Caveat: The following tidbit comes via the blog of Jonah Lehrer, whose career as a superstar pop-science writer fell apart when he was found to have made up quotes and plagiarized other sources in his work.

But he’s just summarizing the findings of a paper from earlier this year that examined one possible explanation for why scientific collaboration — as measured by the growing prevalence of research papers authored by more than one person — has increased in recent years. And his post gibes with the paper’s abstract, so I’m going to let him take it from here:

While it seems likely that both of these explanations are true—the trend is probably being driven by multiple factors—a new paper emphasizes the changes that have reduced the costs of academic collaboration. To do this, the economists Christian Catalini, Christian Fons-Rosen and Patrick Gaule looked at what happens to scientific teams after Southwest Airlines enters a metropolitan market. (On average, the entrance of Southwest leads to a roughly 20 percent reduction in fares and a 44 percent increase in passengers.) If these research partnerships are held back by practical obstacles—money, time, distance, etc.—then the arrival of Southwest should lead to a spike in teamwork.

That’s exactly what they found. According to the researchers, after Southwest begins a new route collaborations among scientists increase across every scientific discipline. (Physicists increase their collaborations by 26 percent, while biologists seem to really love cheap airfare: their collaborations increase by 85 percent.) To better understand these trends, and to rule out some possible confounds, Catalini et al. zoomed in on collaborations among chemists. They tracked the research produced by 819 pairs of chemists between 1993 and 2012. Once again, they found that the entry of Southwest into a new market leads to an approximately 30 percent spike in collaboration among chemists living near the new routes. What’s more, this trend towards teamwork showed no signs of existing before the arrival of the low-cost airline.

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