Death of a Star Scientist Inflicts Long-Term Damage on Field

Big loss. When scientific big shots like Don Wiley die, the effects ripple throughout their fields.

John Chase/Harvard University News Office

When a superstar scientist dies, the loss has a dramatic effect on the researcher's field, a new study shows. The death significantly reduces the number of papers published by collaborators, even decades later.

To elucidate the impact collaborators have on each other, economist Pierre Azoulay of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and colleagues first compiled a list of nearly 9000 scientific superstars in the life sciences. Anyone who, over the past 30 years, was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, received top amounts of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), won major early-career fellowships, or met other related criteria, qualified. The team then chose a subset of 161 who died early. All were 67 years old or younger, and none of them had slowed their research output in the years before their death. The group of deceased superstars includes Don C. Wiley, the well-known Harvard crystallographer whose body was found in a river in December 2001, more than a month after his disappearance.

Next, using publication records and faculty rosters published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, Azoulay's team collected the names of the departed superstars' fellow faculty-level collaborators. The researchers found that after a death, co-authors' publication output decreased by 5% to 10%. The find was published last week as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research and has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

What's behind the effect? It can't just be the loss of a skill set, says Azoulay. Although others will crop up with similar skills over time, his team's findings indicate that the reduced productivity remains the same over many years. Azoulay also rules out the cynical notion that an elite researcher's death cuts collaborators' ties to journal editors or to the NIH funding apparatus. Instead, he thinks, collaborators are contributing ideas to a group of loosely connected scientists in a subfield. So when a superstar dies, the loss of knowledge and ideas is felt by all.

Economist Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, lauds the study's methodology but cautions against over-generalizing its conclusions. "One paper alone looking at superstar scientists in one field ... doesn't tell us everything," he says. "But this is exactly the kind of result we need to understand much better how science is working."

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