A password will be emailed to you.

Over the years Planck’s Principle’s been popularized by scientists with respectable credentials who can’t get peer-reviewed, even if they put nudies of Jennifer Lawrence in their appendices. It’s cold comfort believing The Man’s keeping them down and stalling scientific progress, but is that the case?

Over at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a new paper suggests the answer is a resounding yes. But like all topics muddied up with human emotions and foibles, the conclusion is hardly cut-and-dried.

Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Joshua Graff Ziven chose to study the field of academic life sciences. Tons of discoveries have been made over past decades, opening up new frontiers, creating many specialists for those new fields, illustrating a microcosm representative of the whole of science. Drawing upon the vast PubMed database, Azoulay and company determined who were the superstars in a particular field based on their professional achievements and papers. Out of more than 12,000 star scientists, they identified 452 who died suddenly. Their former collaborators, left in a lurch, pretty much stopped publishing at the rate when they were riding their deceased guru’s coattails. After all former colleagues would be wary of anyone finding out they hardly did any of the heavy lifting, which is where outsiders come in.

With big shoes to fill, newcomers take the deaths as an opportunity to submit more papers to bridge the gap. Then things get kinda Orwellian:

Our results indicate that these additional contributions by non-collaborators are disproportionately likely to be highly cited and to represent their authors’ first foray into the extinct star’s subfield. They also are less likely to cite previous research in the field, and especially less likely to cite the deceased star’s work at all. Though not necessarily younger on average, these scientists are also less likely to be part of the scientific elite at the time of the star’s death.

One of the biggest hurdles outsiders face is being accepted socially and intellectually. In the former case colleagues only review each others manuscripts, collaborating within their own clique. In the latter there’s an echo chamber with peers agreeing upon approaches, methodologies, and questions pertinent to their line of inquiry, rather than entertaining new ideas. It’s basic schoolyard politics where kids won’t let anyone join their club unless they’re deemed smart or cool enough.

As for the specter of conspiracy, the paper’s authors discovered a mere handful of the 452 deceased researchers were in a position of power in regards to new research. Only three subjects sat on panels determining the merits of grant applications, and another three were journal editors before their death. It’s more likely they were murdered by frustrated peers, rather than actively suppressing fresh science.

This isn’t the last word on the subject, since this paper raises still more questions.

What is the fate of the fields that these new entrants departed? Do they decay, or instead “merge” with those whose star departed prematurely? Given a finite supply of scientists and the adjustment costs involved in switching scientific focus, one would expect some other field to contract on the margin in the wake of superstar extinction. Is this marginal field more novel, or already established?

You may also enjoy:

Thanks to David Pecotić and Grail-Seeker for sharing this paper!