By Rob Mitchum // October 15, 2015
To build a sustainable career, many scientists have to balance safe research that will likely be published with ambitious, riskier experiments. A new paper from CI Senior Fellows James Evansand Andrey Rzhetsky, with UCLA assistant professor of sociology Jacob Foster, finds that these cultural pressures handicap scientific innovation, encouraging incremental research to the detriment of bolder discoveries.
The paper, published in American Sociological Review, presents work from the CI’s Knowledge Lab and their Metaknowledge Research Network. Nearly 6.5 million articles from the biomedical archive PubMed were organized into a research network based on the chemicals used in each paper, then researchers measured how often scientists examined already-proven links or searched for undiscovered chemical relationships. The analysis found higher accolades, such as increased citations and Nobel prizes, for those who established novel chemical links, but a strong preference for “traditional” research that build on already-existing knowledge.
“Published papers that make a novel connection are rare but more highly rewarded,” Foster told UCLA’s Phil Hampton. “So what accounts for scientists’ disposition to pursue tradition over innovation? Our evidence points to a simple explanation: Innovative research is a gamble whose payoff, on average, does not justify the risk. It’s not a reliable way to accumulate scientific reward.”
For more on the study, read UCLA’s article.