Science of emerging science

The famed quantum physicist Max Planck once wrote "A great scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

Now a recent study co-authored by MIT economist Pierre Azoulay, found that Planck was right. In fact, the deaths of prominent researchers are often followed by a surge in highly cited research by newcomers to those fields.

Indeed, when famous scientists die, their areas of research see a subsequent 8.6 percent increase in the number of articles published by researchers who have not previously collaborated with those deceased scientists. Moreover, the papers recently published by the new scientists are more likely to be influential and highly cited than other pieces of research.

"The conclusion of this paper is not that stars are bad," says Azoulay, who has co-authored a new paper detailing the study's findings. "It's just that, once safely ensconsed at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome."

The paper, "Does Science Advance one Funeral at a Time?" is co-authored by Azoulay, the International Programs Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management; Christian Fons-Rosen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Merced; and Joshua Graff Zivin, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego and faculty member in the university's School of Global Policy and Strategy. It is forthcoming in the American Economic Review.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a database of life scientists that Azoulay and Graff Zivin have been building for well over a decade. In it, the researchers chart the careers of life scientists, looking at accomplishments that include funding awards, published papers and the citations of those papers, and patent statistics.

Thus what the researchers call "Planck's Principle" serves as an unexpected - and tragic - mechanism for diversifying bioscience research.

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