What makes some scientists’ careers take off whereas others’ stagnate? There are personal factors, of course: Some run clever experiments, have good collaborating skills, and are eloquent in communicating their work. But there’s also just dumb luck. Sometimes doing the right experiment at the right time makes all the difference in publishing a paper that wins lots of attention.
Indeed, randomness appears to play the predominant role in determining which of a scientist’s papers get cited the most, concludes a study out today in Science. But there’s also something else—the authors call it Q—that appears to predict just how much more successful one scientist will be compared with another, at least in terms of citations to their work.
In 2013, a group led by statistical physicist Albert-László Barabási of Northeastern University in Boston found that they could predict the future citation rate of any given paper by calculating the trajectory of its existing citations. That made them wonder: Could they predict the citation fate of every paper a scientist will ever publish, thus forecasting his or her personal success?