The Impact Formula: New Evidence on the Factors that Lead to BreakthroughsNovember 16th, 2016 · 25 comments
Earlier this month, a group of researchers from Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s circle of network scientists published an important paper in the journal Science. Its nondescript title, “Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact,” obfuscates its exciting content: a massive big-data study that dissects the publication careers of over 2800 physicists to determine the combination of factors that best predicts their probability of publishing high impact papers.
As you might expect, this endeavor caught my attention.
A high-level summary of the researchers’ results highlights two major findings:
- The first is that “productivity” matters. The more results a physicist produced during a given period the more likely he or she was to stumble onto a high impact result. A common assumption in highly technical fields like physics is that only young people can make breakthroughs. While this research indicated that younger researchers are more likely to produce high impact papers, this was only because they tended to be in stages of their career where they can produce more total results. If you control for productivity, the role of age disappears. In other words, the force stopping a middle-aged theoretician from producing breakthroughs is less deteriorating neurons than it is strengthening university service demands.
- The second major finding is that “skill” also matters. The researchers identified a hard to pin down quantity, that they identified with the variable Q, as also playing a key role. If your Q level is sufficient and you are productive, you are likely to produce a high impact paper. If your Q level is high and you are not productive, or if you have a low Q level but still maintain high productivity, you are less likely to generate impact. The key element of Q is that is seems to remain constant throughout a scientist’s career. It’s possible, therefore, that Q captures some fixed natural intelligence that is hard to budge. It is also possible that it captures a lot of the positive impacts of elite level training early in your career.
There are a lot of interesting implications from this work.
For one thing, it hints that individuals in creative fields should bias toward completing and finishing as many skill-based projects as possible. Put simply: productivity yields impact. (One of my first widely read guest posts as a blogger made this exact point that top performers seem to obsess about finishing things.)
Another interesting implication is that the often criticized publish or perish culture in R1 academia might actually have a strong base in evidence: the more academics publish, the more likely they are to produce something impactful.
Of course, this is just a single study so we shouldn’t extrapolate with too much confidence. Its underlying theme, however, is one that seems to come up often (c.f., here and here and here): if you want to produce things that matter, aggressively hone your skill, then apply it to generate as much output as possible.
(Hat tip: Suzyn and the NYT)