"Impact of Network Structure on Collective Learning: An Experimental Study in a Data Science Competition." PLOS ONE, 2020.

Devon Brackbill and Damon Centola

Do efficient communication networks accelerate solution discovery? The most prominent theory of organizational design for collective learning maintains that informationally efficient collaboration networks increase a group’s ability to find innovative solutions to complex problems. We test this idea against a competing theory that argues that communication networks that are less efficient for information transfer will increase the discovery of novel solutions to complex problems. We conducted a series of experimentally designed Data Science Competitions, in which we manipulated the efficiency of the communication networks among distributed groups of data scientists attempting to find better solutions for complex statistical modeling problems. We present findings from 16 independent competitions, where individuals conduct greedy search and only adopt better solutions. We show that groups with inefficient communication networks consistently discovered better solutions. In every experimental trial, groups with inefficient networks outperformed groups with efficient networks, as measured by both the group’s average solution quality and the best solution found by a group member.