I guess we have to kill all the superstar scientists now, too

A study of “star” scientists in biology discovers an unsurprising fact: their fields undergo a substantial change when they die.

In the first two years after a star’s death, publications in their subfields increased modestly. But as the years passed, breaking the numbers down by author showed a startling change: Papers by newcomers grew by 8.6 percent annually on average. At the same time, papers published by collaborators took a nosedive, decreasing by about 20 percent a year. After five years, growth from newcomers was so substantial, it made up for the deficit from the collaborators.

In other words, large swaths of these fields had essentially been turned over.

Strangely, the article doesn’t dwell much on the likely cause: funding. It doesn’t even have to be intentional, but reviewers and study sections at the funding agencies tend to be biased by the presence of those who have already been funded, and big labs will have an undue influence because they have so many former students cheerleading for their mentors. This stuff also affects hiring — if you come from a famous lab, you’re more likely to get interviews and jobs.

That’s always been my impression, nice to see the inertia of big-name biologists measured.


  1. says

    This is well known, Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at the time.

    And it makes sense. Science’s biggest problem has always been the human factor, so some dogma is inevitable.

  2. Ridana says

    large swaths of these fields had essentially been turned over.

    Wow, that’s beautiful! I’ve never seen “swath” used in such an evocative yet accurate and complete way that shows an understanding of what the word’s agricultural roots and what one does with a swath. It’s even got the “fields” pun in it! Usually these days it’s used to indicate a large number or anything long regardless of width (dictionary.com has examples of a “100 mile swath” and “a swath that he termed West Brooklyn.”).

    It’s the simple pleasures that keep me going…

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 Ridana
    Just to be picky, at least in my local dialect, one cannot have “swaths of these fields “. The useage would be a “swath of X” in a field. See
    1a: a row of cut grain or grass left by a scythe or mowing machine
    b: the sweep of a scythe or a machine in mowing or the path cut in one course from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/swath.

    And i am not really happy with “had essentially been turned over” speaking as someone who has turned over a lot of swaths. Well, actually i was raking the swaths into windrows.

    When one turns over a swath (in the agricultural sense) one simply rearranges the existing material. `

    I suspect I might find large swaths in these fields had essentially been plowed under. acceptable.

  4. chrislawson says

    I don’t doubt the conservatism of biomedical research, but there are a number of problems with the paper, the most important being that they don’t adequately address the obvious confounder: as star scientists die, it is likely that their colleagues are also getting older and retiring and newer researchers are coming through anyway. They do have a sub-appendix that looks at this, but it’s not very compelling, especially as the robust thing to do is compare to a control sample of of non-star scientists — and I’d not be at all surprised if a similar pattern emerged for non-‘star’ scientists.

    A few other problems with the paper: (a) they are reporting ridiculously loose p values as significant — p<0.1 is considered significant on subgroup analyses of a huge database (112 MB), (b) they have chosen cutoffs to make the data categorical rather than continuous, which is fine for some variables but not others, and the decisions about where to place those cutoffs are odd enough that I wonder if they were chosen in order to maximise significance; and (c) they make claims of data that they really shouldn’t — for instance, they comment on the effect of unexpected vs. expected deaths, which is a very reasonable hypothesis, but they could only find this data on less than 9% of their sample, which means they really shouldn’t be drawing inferences from it.

  5. brain says

    This stuff also affects hiring — if you come from a famous lab, you’re more likely to get interviews and jobs

    yes, this applies almost everything. If you degree in a famous university you get hired more; if you work for a famous company you’re more likely to get hired somewhere else; if you succeed in a project that is highly visible to top management you get more recognition than if you equally succeed in a less visible one; etc.

  6. Ridana says

    3) @ jrkrideau: I think you’re parsing the sentence differently than I was. It sounds like you took it to mean that “these fields” were what constituted the swaths, whereas to me it was the location of the swaths. And having also raked many a field in my youth, I think of turning over a swath as what you do to tidy things up to prepare for efficient processing thereafter. So it read like a very apt metaphor to me – reorganizing after a death leading to packing up the old crop cut down, opening the way for the new growth underneath the swath. Perhaps I extrapolated a bit too much. ;)
    But after usually seeing “swath” used to mean things that “swath” doesn’t really mean, like “he had a swath of friends come to his defense,” to indicate many and/or varied, I was delighted just to see something more in tune with its original meaning. I’ll take what I can get!

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