Scientists reach their creative peak early in their careers
Summary: Overall, scientists and researchers are the most innovative and creative early in their careers, according to a new study.
Source: Ohio State University
A new study provides the strongest evidence yet that scientists overall are the most innovative and creative early in their careers.
The results showed that, on a significant measure, the impact of biomedical scientists’ published work declines by half to two-thirds over the course of their careers.
“That’s a huge drop in impact,” said Bruce Weinberg, study co-author and professor of economics at Ohio State University.
“We found that as we got older, the work of biomedical scientists just wasn’t as innovative and impactful.”
But the reasons for this downward trend in innovation make the results more nuanced and show why it’s still important to support scientists later in their careers, Weinberg said.
The study was published online on October 7, 2022 in the HR Journal.
Researchers have studied the relationship between age or experience and innovation for nearly 150 years, but no consensus has emerged. The results, in fact, were “all over the map,” Weinberg said.
“For a topic that so many people with so many approaches have studied for so long, it’s quite remarkable that we still don’t have a conclusive answer.”
One of the benefits of this study is that the authors had a huge data set to work with – 5.6 million biomedical science papers published over a 30-year period, from 1980 to 2009, and compiled by MEDLINE. This data includes detailed information about the authors.
This new study measured the innovativeness of papers written by biomedical scientists using a standard method – the number of times other scientists mention (or “cite”) a study in their own work. The more a study is cited, the more important it is considered.
With detailed information about the authors of each paper, the researchers in this study were able to compare the frequency with which scientists’ work was cited early in their careers versus late in their careers.
By analyzing the data, Weinberg and his colleagues made a discovery that was key to understanding how innovation changes over the course of a career.
They found that scientists who were the least innovative early in their careers tended to drop out of the field and stop publishing new research. They were the most productive, the most important young researchers who were still producing research 20 or 30 years later.
“At the beginning of their career, scientists demonstrate a wide range of innovations. But over time, we see selective attrition of less innovative people,” Weinberg said.
“So when you look at all biomedical scientists as a group, it doesn’t seem like innovation is declining over time. But the fact that the least innovative researchers drop out when they are relatively young masks the fact that, for a person, innovation tends to decline over the course of their career.
The results showed that for the average researcher, a scientific article that he published at the end of his career was cited half to two thirds less often than an article published at the beginning of his career.
But it’s not just the number of citations that suggests the researchers were less innovative later in their careers.
“We built additional metrics that captured the extent of an article’s impact based on the range of domains citing it, whether the article uses the best and latest ideas, citing the best and latest research, and whether the article draws from multiple disciplines,” said co-author Huifeng Yu, who worked on the study as a doctoral student at the University of Albany, SUNY.
“These other measures also lead to the same conclusion about declining innovation.”
Findings showing selective attrition among less innovative scientists may help explain why previous studies have had such conflicting results, Weinberg said.
Studies using Nobel laureates and other prominent researchers, for whom attrition is relatively low, tend to find earlier peak ages for innovation. In contrast, studies using larger samples of scientists do not normally find an early peak in creativity, because they do not take attrition into account.
Weinberg noted that attrition in the scientific community may not be solely related to innovation. Scientists who are women or from underrepresented minorities may not have had the opportunities they needed to succeed, although this study could not quantify this effect.
“These successful scientists likely did so through a combination of talent, luck, personal experience and prior training,” he said.
The findings suggest that organizations that fund scientists need to maintain a delicate balance between supporting young people and experience.
“Young scientists tend to be at the peak of their creativity, but there is also a great mix, with some being much more innovative than others. You may not be supporting the best researchers,” said Gerald Marschke, study co-author and associate professor of economics at the University of Albany,
“With older, more experienced scientists, you get the ones that have stood the test of time, but are, on average, no longer at their best.”
Other co-authors on the study were Matthew Ross of New York University and Joseph Staudt of the US Census Bureau.
Funding: The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, the National Science Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, and the National Bureau of Economic Research.
About this neuroscience research news
Author: Jeff Grabmeier
Source: Ohio State University
Contact: Jeff Grabmeier – Ohio State University
Image: Image is in public domain
Original research: Access closed.
“Publish or Perish: Selective Attrition as a Unifying Explanation for Patterns in Innovation over the Career” by Bruce Weinberg et al. HR Journal
Publish or perish: Selective attrition as a unifying explanation for career-long innovation patterns
By studying 5.6 million biomedical science papers published over three decades, we reconcile conflicts in a long-standing interdisciplinary literature on the life cycle productivity of scientists by controlling for selective attrition and distinguishing the quantity and research quality.
While research quality declines monotonously over the course of a career, this decline is easily overlooked because authors with higher “ability” have longer publishing careers.
Our findings have implications for broader issues of career-long human capital accumulation and federal research policies that shift funding to early-career researchers – while funding the most creative researchers, these policies must be undertaken with caution because young researchers are less “capable” on average.