New study: Success can come at any age

What does age have to do with cre­ative break­throughs in sci­ence? Not much, according to new research led by North­eastern net­work sci­en­tist Albert-László Barabási. Rather, it is pro­duc­tivity and the will to keep trying that cor­re­sponds with great dis­cov­eries, whether the sci­en­tist is 20, 40, or even 70.

The research, pub­lished on Thursday in the journal Sci­ence, found that the timing of pro­ducing high-impact papers is com­pletely random, it means that sci­en­tists can achieve suc­cess at any point in their careers—and achieve it repeatedly—as long as they keep trying.

The find­ings fly in the face of con­ven­tional wisdom, which typ­i­cally holds that major con­tri­bu­tions diminish with age.

What stays stable throughout a scientist’s career, how­ever, is the mag­ni­tude of his or her impact, that is, how much influ­ence he or she has on sci­ence at large.

Sci­ence has an excep­tional set of tools and rep­u­ta­tion for pre­dicting nat­ural phe­nomena,” says Barabasi, Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor and Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics. “When we turn these tools to sci­en­tific careers, we observe the same degree of pre­dictability: an ability to quan­tify the evo­lu­tion of sci­en­tific careers. Under­standing the laws and the pat­terns that govern our careers could sig­nif­i­cantly enhance sci­en­tific output. It may also help iden­tify and nur­ture indi­vid­uals who are poised to make big dis­cov­eries and encourage the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity to offer them the resources and oppor­tu­nity to do so.”

Dis­en­tan­gling luck, pro­duc­tivity, impact

For their study, the researchers inspected the pub­li­ca­tions of more than 10,000 sci­en­tists in seven dif­ferent disciplines—from physics to chem­istry, eco­nomics to cog­ni­tive science—whose careers spanned at least 20 years. To quan­ti­ta­tively deter­mine what drove suc­cess, they set out to dis­en­tangle three con­tributing vari­ables: luck, pro­duc­tivity, and mag­ni­tude of sus­tain­able impact.

Luck, of course, came from per­sis­tence: trying again and again. “Think of buying lot­tery tickets or rolling a die,” says first author Roberta Sinatra, vis­iting research assis­tant pro­fessor at North­eastern and assis­tant pro­fessor at Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­sity, in Budapest. “The more times you try, the better your chances.”

Pro­duc­tivity was based on how many papers each sci­en­tist had pub­lished. Sus­tain­able impact, which the researchers called Q, reflected the number of times each paper had been cited in another study. In aca­d­emic research, the more often a paper is cited, the greater its per­ceived impact. Hence sci­en­tists with a high Q had not only been pro­duc­tive throughout their careers but also had pub­lished papers that had been cited many times. Con­versely, sci­en­tists with a low Q, while per­haps pro­duc­tive, had papers that had been cited infrequently.

The Q factor cap­tures a com­bi­na­tion of ability, edu­ca­tion, and knowl­edge,” says Barabasi, who directs Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “That is, how good is a sci­en­tist at picking an idea and turning it into a discovery.”

An aston­ishing finding

The researchers arranged every paper the sci­en­tists had pub­lished in chrono­log­ical order and cal­cu­lated at what point in each scientist’s career the highest-impact paper had appeared.

We were aston­ished at what we found,” says Sinatra. The biggest break­through was just as likely to be a scientist’s first paper as his or her last one, or any­where in between.

That’s good news for sci­ence. “What mat­ters is not the timing of dis­cov­eries that could affect future gen­er­a­tions but that they hap­pened,” says Barabasi. “Under­standing that good sci­en­tists, if they have the resources to stay pro­duc­tive, could gen­erate future big dis­cov­eries, inde­pen­dent of age, is essen­tial for us to move for­ward in thinking about how to boost sci­ence.” Kim Albrecht, visu­al­iza­tion researcher at North­eastern, cre­ated an exten­sive data visu­al­iza­tion of the full paper.

What was not random was the impact of the sci­en­tists’ bodies of work, that is, the con­sis­tency of how often their papers were cited by others. “A high Q com­bined with con­tinued efforts pro­vide a fore­cast of what’s to come,” says Sinatra. “We cannot pre­dict when a big hit will come, but by exam­ining Q—a stable factor—we can pre­dict that one will likely come in the future.”

The journal Nature cre­ated a video cap­turing the essence of the research.

The researchers are careful to point out that they are mea­suring suc­cess, not per­for­mance. “This is not a mea­sure of the quality of a sci­en­tist,” says Sinatra. “It is a math­e­mat­ical parameter—a mea­sure of how the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity per­ceives an individual’s output.” That para­meter, she explains, may reflect many things in addi­tion to the research itself, for example, the insti­tu­tions where the sci­en­tist worked and studied, his or her loca­tion, and even gender.

With this research we have sep­a­rated luck and sus­tain­able impact,” she says. “Now we need to better under­stand what causes Q so we can uncover any biases or inequal­i­ties in how sci­en­tists’ work is perceived.” This is a press release from Northeastern University.

1 COMMENT

  1. “Think of buying lot­tery tickets or rolling a die,” says first author Roberta Sinatra, vis­iting research assis­tant pro­fessor at North­eastern and assis­tant pro­fessor at Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­sity, in Budapest. “The more times you try, the better your chances.”

    Isn’t this an oddly unscientific comment?

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