Inequality and Cumulative Advantage in Science Careers: A Case Study of High-Impact Journals
EPJ Data Science 3, 24 (2014), DOI:10.1140/epjds/s13688-014-0024-y
29 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2014
Date Written: October 22, 2014
Analyzing a large data set of publications drawn from the most competitive journals in the natural and social sciences we show that research careers exhibit the broad distributions of individual achievement characteristic of systems in which cumulative advantage plays a key role. While most researchers are personally aware of the competition implicit in the publication process, little is known about the levels of inequality at the level of individual researchers. Here we analyzed both productivity and impact measures for a large set of researchers publishing in high-impact journals, accounting for censoring biases in the publication data by using distinct researcher cohorts defined over non-overlapping time periods. For each researcher cohort we calculated Gini inequality coefficients, with average Gini values around 0.48 for total publications and 0.73 for total citations. For perspective, these observed values are well in excess of the inequality levels observed for personal income in developing countries. Investigating possible sources of this inequality, we identify two potential mechanisms that act at the level of the individual that may play defining roles in the emergence of the broad productivity and impact distributions found in science. First, we show that the average time interval between a researcher’s successive publications in top journals decreases with each subsequent publication. Second, after controlling for the time dependent features of citation distributions, we compare the citation impact of subsequent publications within a researcher’s publication record. We find that as researchers continue to publish in top journals, there is more likely to be a decreasing trend in the relative citation impact with each subsequent publication. This pattern highlights the difficulty of repeatedly producing research findings in the highest citation-impact echelon, as well as the role played by finite career and knowledge life-cycles, and the intriguing possibility that confirmation bias plays a role in the evaluation of scientific careers.
Keywords: science of science, computational sociology, Matthew effect, career growth, citation analysis, reputation, success premium
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