Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office
January 27, 2014
scientific papers written by well-known scholars get more attention
than they otherwise would receive because of their authors’ high
A new study co-authored by an MIT economist reports that high-status
authorship does increase how frequently papers are cited in the life
sciences — but finds some subtle twists in how this happens.
“We found that there was an effect of status,” says Pierre Azoulay,
an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and
co-author of a paper on the subject, published this month in the journal
Management Science. But that effect, he adds, is not “overwhelming.”
The study reports that citations of papers increase by 12 percent,
above the expected level, when their authors are awarded prestigious
investigator status at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a
major private research organization. However, certain kinds of research
papers are boosted more than others by the increased prestige that
accompanies the HHMI award, Azoulay notes.
“We find much more of an effect on recent papers, published in a
short window before the prize,” Azoulay says. Moreover, he adds, the
greatest gains come for papers in new areas of research, and for papers
published in lower-profile journals. Younger researchers who had lower
profiles previously were more likely to see a change as well.
“The effect was much more pronounced when there was more reason to be
uncertain about the quality of the science or the scientist before the
prize,” Azoulay observes.
Identifying the ‘Matthew Effect’
The paper, titled, “Matthew: Effect or Fable?” was co-authored by
Azoulay, Toby Stuart of the University of California at Berkeley, and
Yanbo Wang of Boston University. The title references the “Matthew
Effect,” a term coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton to describe the
possibility that the work of those with high status receives greater
attention than equivalent work by those who are not as well known.
Positively identifying this phenomenon in scientific paper citations
is difficult, however, because it is hard to separate the status of the
author from the quality of the paper. It is possible, after all, that
better-known researchers are simply producing higher-quality papers,
which get more attention as a result.
But Azoulay, Stuart, and Wang have a way to address this issue: They
look at papers first published before the authors became HHMI
investigators, then examine the citation rates for those papers after
the HHMI appointments occurred, compared to a baseline of similar papers
whose authors did not receive HHMI appointments.
More specifically, each paper in the study is paired with what
Azoulay calls a “fraternal twin,” that is, another paper published in
the exact same journal, at the same time, with the same initial citation
pattern. For good measure, the authors of the papers in this comparison
group were all scientists who had received other early-career awards.
In all, from 1984 through 2003, 443 scientists were named HHMI
investigators. The current study examines 3,636 papers written by 424 of
those scientists, comparing them to 3,636 papers in the control group.
“You couldn’t tell them [the pairs of papers] apart in terms of
citation trajectories, up until the time of the prize,” Azoulay says.
Beyond the overall 12 percent increase in citations, the effect was
nearly twice as great for papers published in lower-profile journals.
Alternately, Azoulay points out, “If your paper was published in Cell or Nature or Science, the HHMI [award] doesn’t add a lot.”
Toward the scientific study of scientists
Other researchers think the study adds value to the burgeoning
data-based literature on the work of scientists. Benjamin Jones, a
professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who
has read the paper, says the study contains “compelling empirical
evidence” and “strongly suggests that eminence itself matters” when it
comes to recognition of published papers.
Moreover, Jones adds, it is conceivable that the careers of
scientists “might diverge substantially on account of the Matthew
Effect, rather than due to the quality of the work itself. This
possibility, among others, are interesting avenues for further research,
motivated by Azoulay, Stuart, and Wang’s findings.”
As Azoulay acknowledges, scientists themselves are not always
entirely comfortable with studies of the citations given papers, since
some scientists may feel the quality of some papers may not be
represented by citation data in the first place; worthy research can
escape wide notice for extended periods of time.
Still, Azoulay and other scholars have used citation data to glean
new insights and quantify observations about the scientific enterprise.
For instance, drawing on his own proprietary database of more than
12,000 life scientists, Azoulay has found that bioscience advances are
encouraged by longer-term grants with more freedom for researchers, and
that physical proximity among scientists increases citation rates, among
The study behind this month’s paper was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.
How the ‘Matthew Effect’ helps some scientific papers gain popularity | MIT News