Science Success, Like All Other Kinds, Is Random

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Among all the papers publish(ed) over the course of (a) scientific career, which ones will have the highest impact seems to be essentially random.…randomness appears to play the predominant role in determining which of a scientist’s papers get cited the most, concludes a study out today in Science…

The first surprise to pop out was the randomness of success. You might guess that, over time, a scientist matures and produces better work, with later papers earning more citations. But no such trend emerged. Instead, a scientific paper looks more like a lottery ticket, Sinatra says, with the number of citations a paper receives mostly due to luck. “So publishing more papers is like buying more tickets,” she says. “And that’s why you have a bigger impact during your more productive years” as a scientist.

But not all scientific careers are alike. Some people who publish the same number of papers—even in the very same journals—get more citations than chance alone can explain. All of those nonrandom differences between people—eloquence, team-building skills, and creativity—boiled down to a parameter in the model called Q. The authors found that calculating a scientist’s Q-factor requires at least 20 papers and 10 years of citations. With that in hand, however, they found that they could accurately predict the number of citations earned by that scientist’s 40th paper with 80% accuracy.

The finding that luck plays a big role in citations makes sense to Lucas Carey, a systems biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, who was not involved with the study. “To get a hit [paper], you have to publish often, even for high Q(uality) authors,”

We find that the highest-impact work in a scientist’s career is randomly distributed within her body of work. That is, the highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist—it could be the first publication, could appear mid-career, or could be a scientist’s last publication. This random-impact rule holds for scientists in different disciplines, with different career lengths, working in different decades, and publishing solo or with teams and whether credit is assigned uniformly or unevenly among collaborators.

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