New research, out in Nature Communications, shows that working with a prestigious scientist can give junior researchers a competitive advantage throughout their careers.
By examining the publication data from over 20,000 scientists in the fields of cell biology, chemistry, physics, and neuroscience, this study found that early co-authorship predicts a higher probability of repeatedly coauthoring work with top-cited scientists. This then leads to a higher likelihood of becoming a top scientist twenty years later. Here, the researchers defined a "top" scientist as an individual belonging to the top 5% of cited authors in their discipline for that same year.
In addition, junior researchers affiliated with less prestigious institutions reap the most benefits from co-authorship with a top scientist.
The authors admit that they can’t completely control for whether these students who co-author with top scientists are likely to excel in their career regardless. It may just be that top scientists attract top students, the authors say. Additionally, as the researchers only studied scientists who began their careers between 1980 and 1998, it could be that science today is more meritocratic.
Furthermore, although working with a top scientist was a strong predictor, their early career citations, productivity, and institutional prestige were still very important.
However, the research may indicate that prestige bias from working with top scientists is unfairly and systematically benefiting some students over others, leading to inequality in career outcomes which does not reflect scientific ability.
On Twitter, Giacomo Livan, one of the study's co-authors, says that “coauthorship with a top scientist truly has potential career-altering consequences.”
But other researchers have a different perspective on the work, with some calling different aspects of the paper's methodology into question.
It may be that the research has wide implications for university hiring policies, paper co-authorship practices, and for students’ individual careers, but that remains to be seen.