Does science advance one funeral at a time?

Christian Fons-Rosen, Pompeu Fabra University

The results of this study contribute evidence to the longstanding debate on how individuals, institutions, and incentives influence the evolution of science. The research was based on data on the lives and careers of elite scientists who died prematurely. These data permit calculation of how, following early death, the production of knowledge in their fields of specialisation changes.
Key points
  • 1
       When a person carrying out high-level research dies early, a proliferation of articles are produced in their field, written by people who had never collaborated with them.
  • 2
       This proliferation is not due to any reorganisation of leadership in the field, but to the entry of new scientists from outside of it. The data indicated that the increase in these new contributions is concentrated around essential questions, but they include more ideas from environments to which the deceased scientist had not contributed.
  • 3
       The new articles offer relevant contributions, judging by their long-term impact in terms of citations received.
  • 4
       The entry of new actors is of a lower impact when the legacy of a compact network of collaborators is capable of maintaining barriers to entry, whether through intellectual or social barriers.
  • 5
       Reticence towards considering and incorporating avant-garde ideas only declines when actors in a research field are willing to accept and back new ideas.
The death of a star scientist and publication activity
The death of a star scientist and publication activity

Five years after the death of star scientists, their collaborators publish around 40% less. During the same time period, the number of publications by non-collaborators increases by an average of 8%. Given that the number of non-collaborators is much higher than the number of collaborators, the activity of non-collaborators ends up compensating the lesser productivity of the collaborators, and the effect increases over the course of the years. We observe a similar behaviour if instead of scientific publications, we focus on the destination of scientific funding: following the death of an eminent researcher, scientists from outside the field in which the deceased scientists worked not only publish with more impetus, but also receive more funding.

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Christian Fons-Rosen, Pompeu Fabra University

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