The Invisible College of Ideas

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Science  30 Apr 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5978, pp. 548
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5978.548-a

Leena Peltonen-Palotie, 1952–2010.


It is no longer uncommon to see multi-authored original research papers, and in many instances, these studies represent the fruits of collaborations between multiple laboratories, especially in the biomedical sciences. How important are the lead researchers in these social and scientific networks?

Answering this question empirically appears at first glance to be intractable, but Azoulay et al. have compiled a data set that enables them to take advantage of natural events—when still-active superstar researchers are subtracted from collaborations via death. Of the roughly 230,000 U.S. medical school faculty members, 10,000 were classified as elite according to seven objective professional criteria; during the last two decades of the 20th century, 112 of these scientists died suddenly. The effect on the productivity of the surviving faculty-level collaborators in these superstar-coauthor dyads was unambiguous and persistent: They suffered decrements of almost 10% in publications and funding. The authors' analyses of these consequences favor a causal explanation in which the critical factor in these downward trends was being deprived of the intellectual input from these superstars, as opposed to a loss of collective experimental expertise or of privileged channels of communication to funding panels and journal editors.

Q. J. Econ. 125, 549 (2010).

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