The rising star system for scientific achievement and collaboration

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.


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