The Matthew Effect in Science

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Science  05 Jan 1968:
Vol. 159, Issue 3810, pp. 56-63
DOI: 10.1126/science.159.3810.56


This account of the Matthew effect is another small exercise in the psychosociological analysis of the workings of science as a social institution. The initial problem is transformed by a shift in theoretical perspective. As originally identified, the Matthew effect was construed in terms of enhancement of the position of already eminent scientists who are given disproportionate credit in cases of collaboration or of independent multiple discoveries. Its significance was thus confined to its implications for the reward system of science. By shifting the angle of vision, we note other possible kinds of consequences, this time for the communication system of science. The Matthew effect may serve to heighten the visibility of contributions to science by scientists of acknowledged standing and to reduce the visibility of contributions by authors who are less well known. We examine the psychosocial conditions and mechanisms underlying this effect and find a correlation between the redundancy function of multiple discoveries and the focalizing function of eminent men of science—a function which is reinforced by the great value these men place upon finding basic problems and by their self-assurance. This self-assurance, which is partly inherent, partly the result of experiences and associations in creative scientific environments, and partly a result of later social validation of their position, encourages them to search out risky but important problems and to highlight the results of their inquiry. A macrosocial version of the Matthew principle is apparently involved in those processes of social selection that currently lead to the concentration of scientific resources and talent (50).

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