The rising star system for scientific achievement and collaboration

by on December 6, 2013 at 4:36 am in Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

This is taken from an NBER paper by Ajay AgrawalJohn McHale, and Alexander Oettl.  Here is the Inside Higher Ed summary:

A study (abstract available here) being released today suggests that it may be coming from a broader range of academic departments, but from a smaller number of elite scientists…

The analysis is based on a look at the top-ranked departments and the top scientists (as judged by output of citation-weighted papers) in evolutionary biology from 1980 through 2000. The research found two apparently contradictory trends:

  • The share of citation-weighted publications produced by the top 20 percent of departments fell from approximately 75 percent to 60 percent.
  • The share of papers produced by the top 20 percent of individual scientists increased from 70 percent to 80 percent.

In other words, the role of the individual star became more important at a time that the role of the star department (while still significant) fell.

There is not only more collaboration, but collaborations are taking place across a wider range of “quality” of institutions:

And the average distance in rank of institutional departments increased as well. In 1980, it was about 30 (meaning someone at an institution ranked 20th, say, was collaborating with someone at an institution ranked 50th). By 2005, the average rank gap was 55.

I see a common trend at mid-tier universities to care less about the research quality of the average faculty member, and care more about the quality and reputation of the stars, while “marketing” those stars more intensely than before.  And there are many more good researchers at lower-tier institutions, but they may not command much of a premium in terms of pay or working conditions.  Their specialized knowledge can make them very valuable as co-authors on the right project and so they end up in some high quality collaborations.

david December 6, 2013 at 4:54 am

Why do you disagree with the Agrawal et al’s own hypothesis of falling communication costs amplifying the influence of individual stars and of niche departments (for their pricey equipment – not their researchers!)?

alex December 6, 2013 at 5:18 am

I’m from Portugal so that actually is a good thing for our universities. We have good researchers (I’m in Med School) but they have no money what so ever to do research (just as an example, my microbiology teacher had to buy containers from “all at 1,50€” store and adapt them to do research) but we do have world class researchers (just in my faculty in areas that range from thyroid to gastric cancer, incontinence, dementia, pain, alcohol effects…). Now that geographical distance is not that important (I remember a team doing a collaboration with australia because it was possible to send the pathology slides digitalized so they could be analyzed from Portugal) collaborations are possible and therefore their expertise can make the state of the art in that subject increase. Without collaborations and the help from “stars” it would be almost impossible. True, our departments ranking is not going up but I don’t think that would happen anyway… In fact I’m pretty sure… Just the other day I was listening on TV our Economy Minister talking about the importance of our medical expertise as a possible way to increase our exportations. One of the plan for the future of Portugal is having the patients from the UK, Germany and so forth to come to Portugal instead of third world countries to do their surgeries. They called it “wealth tourism”. The major barrier? To make people from those countries believe that we know what we are doing as doctors. Our credibility it’s probably close to zero but we actually have strict education and educate good doctors. It’s mostly a problem of perception.

dearieme December 6, 2013 at 5:42 am

I wonder whether those results would also be true of a science that had gone nowhere over those twenty years (e.g. particle physics) or one that’s largely bogus (e.g. climate science).

david December 6, 2013 at 8:04 am

Climate science is likely similar, both evo-bio in the 1980s-2000s and climate science were under similar stresses – lots of external politics, internal siege mentality, bitter personality politics between ambitious leading researchers, divides between popular science thinkers and purer researchers.

Oh, yes, and lots of dubious simulations and abstracted conceptual modelling being the tendentious subject of debate between said schools of researchers (cough multi-level selection cough). Expensive and tedious field work requiring numerous graduate students, making the stakes over claiming the fruits of this work very, very high. Expensive lab equipment making PIs dominant in lab politics and in relationships to the public and the university.

dearieme December 6, 2013 at 6:40 am

Come to think of it: has the state of Particle Physics yet assuaged economists’ physics envy?

A Definite Beta Guy December 6, 2013 at 10:36 am

Of course not. Physics gets to deal with interesting things like Black Hole firewalls and the information paradox, not to mention the joys of 12-dimensional math!

drpgq December 6, 2013 at 9:33 am

I guess someone like Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba would be a good example of a star at a mid-tier university.

Steko December 6, 2013 at 6:41 pm

How many positions at “top” departments come up every year in any field? The answer is not enough to keep pace with qualified researchers. Which is how lower tier universities get world class researchers. And those world class researchers learn they can still do world class research despite not being in a world class department and often end up putting down roots.

Świat chemii sprawdziany do pobrania gimnazjum December 30, 2013 at 10:02 am

Świat chemii sprawdziany pobierz

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