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Why Scientific Papers Are Like Pop Music

You're more likely to have a hit if you're famous already.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

via Joe Seer / Shutterstock

When a person gets some type of official acclaim for their efforts in any field, their work often gains more traction simply because they did it. Think of pop music: a track by, say, Lady Gaga is probably likely to get more attention than a track by your buddy's random indie band. That could be because Lady Gaga’s a great artist—a fact I wouldn't dare dispute—but it could also be partly because people just think she must be good, since she’s won five Grammys and a whole slew of other accolades.

Basically, people who are already famous in their circle tend to get more credit, and their work tends to be more popular. In a new study published in the journal Management Science, a team of US researchers have looked at the phenomenon in relation to scientific papers, to explore the question of whether papers written by well-known scientists get more attention simply because of their authors’ high status.

It’s an important factor to consider, because for every high-profile scholar whose work might get a boost from their status, there are other less-known researchers whose work might be overlooked as a result. This can also form a self-perpetuating circle, whereby the status of better known scientists increases all the time, and their less famous colleagues get more and more forgotten. It’s called the “Matthew effect,” inspired by a biblical quotation from the Gospel of Matthew, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.”

In this new study, the researchers found that the popularity of scientific papers were affected by the Matthew effect, but their findings made some more interesting specific observations.

To test for the impact of an author’s status, they looked at the number of times a paper had been cited. Their study examined 3,636 papers from the life sciences that were written by people who had become a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator—a prestigious position within the community—and found that they received an average of 12 percent more citations as a result of the status boost.

Of course, the first point to consider is whether it is in fact the author’s name that garners such attention, or do they have a bigger name because they write better papers? As the researchers wrote, “Does status itself affect outcomes, or is status simply a byproduct of quality?” It seems logical that the people who write the better papers will win the awards, so distinguishing between the two is difficult.

To do this, the researchers restricted their investigation to papers that were published before the author won the HHMI award, and paired each one with what they called a “fraternal twin”: a paper published in the same year, in the same journal, with the same number of authors, and a similar number of citations as the other paper before the year the author received the HHMI appointment. They then compared citations of both papers after the one author’s HHMI acclaim.

As well as finding a general increase in citations from papers written by future HHMI investigators, the authors found some interesting trends. They reported that the effect was twice as noticeable for papers published in less prestigious journals (as opposed to those published in major players like Nature or Science), and concluded that in these cases the author’s renown was a more important factor for readers considering a paper’s quality. “Therefore, the findings support the idea that status is a social cue that conveys the greatest information to audiences when there is uncertainty about product quality,” they concluded.

Papers published just before the authors received a status jump, and those with the lowest previous profiles, got the biggest boost. Like if your buddy's band suddenly got nominated for a Grammy out of nowhere, the popularity of their latest record would shoot up.

While it’s interesting to note the Matthew effect in this context, addressing it is a separate issue. It’s important to consider the impact of this kind of unofficial hierarchical system within scientific publications, because paper citations can affect scientists’ careers in many ways. They’re often taken as a judgment of a scientists’ work, and so can affect not only the individuals’ renown, but the funding and facilities available to them—that’s one reason why the researchers didn’t look at papers written after authors had been recognised by HHMI, as the appointment comes with substantial private funding.

A circle starts whereby those scientists then have the means to do better work, so they get more acclaim, and more means, and so on—perhaps to the detriment of their colleagues, who are competing for opportunities like funding and jobs. That can also contribute to discrimination; previous studies have shown, for instance, that women scientists’ papers are cited less than those of their male colleagues, and that they receive less funding. 

For now, high-profile scientists have a clear advantage, which while it may be deserved, may also be a limiting factor to other people’s work. Taking into account the privileged access well-known scholars may get to resources, the authors of this study concluded that “[their] analysis may significantly understate the full consequence of gains in status.” Even in science, it seems, fame matters.