Conventional wisdom has long claimed that scientists publish their most important work early in their careers.
Now, a study suggests that might be solely because younger scientists publish more. The research found that almost any paper could become a scientist’s most successful, no matter when it was published during that person’s career (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5239).
“In some ways, this is bad news for scientists who believe the next paper they write is the best—because that is probably false,” says University of Waterloo economist Mikko Packalen, who studies science but was not involved in this research.
The paper’s authors wanted to look at what drives scientific success. “How does impact evolve in a career, and can we predict who will make a big discovery?” asks physicist Roberta Sinatra from Northeastern University and the Central European University. She and her colleagues used number of citations, a common but incomplete way to measure a paper’s impact, as a proxy.
At first, they found that scientists are most productive in early and midcareer. But when they dug deeper into their data on thousands of scientists, they saw that early success is because early and midcareer scientists publish more often.
In fact, whether any particular paper got a high number of citations was random throughout scientists’ careers. “Any paper published by a scientist could be the best one,” Sinatra says, pointing out that scientists have made Nobel Prize-winning discoveries in grad school and after retirement. That was true across disciplines and across various types of research.
There were a small percentage of scientists who stood out for having higher citations overall. Their analysis found that success was partially luck and partially an unidentified factor they call Q. The researchers’ next step is figure out what factors drive Q, such as their institution or their gender, Sinatra says.
The paper is a valuable contribution to understanding scientific success, Packalen says, but he doesn’t think it should guide funding just yet. “You don’t want to make science policy based on impact alone.”
Take a look at this interactive visualization of the study’s data, including specific chemistry citations.