Can Big Data Point Us Towards Faster, Higher-Impact Scientific Discoveries?

How can the process of science be better? How can we move faster towards groundbreaking scientific discoveries? In Science magazine, Fortunato et al. write about what large-scale data analysis tells us about the science of doing science. (They call it the Science of Science, or SciSci.)

There is more data available than ever before – “from research funding, productivity, and collaboration to paper citations and scientist mobility” – and that, combined with methods that emerge from collaborations among different kinds of scientists (including the social kind), allows the study of what drives science.

Here are a few findings that struck me:

  1. Lots of science, with more every year! The amount of scientific research has grown exponentially, and the number of new ideas in scientific research has also grown dramatically (but not exponentially).


Source: Fortunato et al. 2018

  1. Most scientists are conservative in their research. Scientists tend to do research on the areas of their expertise. “Although an innovative publication tends to result in higher impact than a conservative one, high-risk innovation strategies are rare, because the additional reward does not compensate for the risk of failure to publish at all.” But those conservative strategies “serve individual careers well but are less effective for science as a whole.”


  1. Interdisciplinarity yields big gains in impact, but not in funding. “The successful combination of previously disconnected ideas and resources that is fundamental to interdisciplinary research often violates expectations and leads to novel ideas with high impact.” But “truly novel or interdisciplinary” grant applications tend to earn lower scores from expert evaluators. The highest impact science is a mix of old and new, “primarily grounded in conventional combinations of prior work, yet it simultaneously features unusual combinations.”


  1. It’s the scientist that creates impact, not the university. “When examining changes in impact associated with each move [by scientists across institutions] as quantified by citations, no systematic increase or decrease was found, not even when scientists moved to an institution of considerably higher or lower rank.”


  1. Collaboration yields impact. “Nowadays, a team-authored paper in science and engineering is 6.3 times more likely to receive 1000 citations or more than a solo-authored paper, a difference that cannot be explained by self-citations.” One possible explanation is #3 above. As you can see in the figure below, the above-average cited papers (black line) are those with larger teams than average (red line).


Source: Fortunato et al. 2018

  1. Who gets credit for a multi-authored paper? “Most credit will go to the coauthors with the most consistent track record in the domain of the publication.”

There’s much more in the review article; I recommend it. But here’s a last word from the authors on how to think about the impact of scientific research: “Science often behaves like an economic system with a one-dimensional ‘currency’ of citation counts. This creates a hierarchical system, in which the ‘rich-get-richer’ dynamics suppress the spread of new ideas, particularly those from junior scientists and those who do not fit within the paradigms supported by specific fields. Science can be improved by broadening the number and range of performance indicators.”

Disclosure: One of the authors of Fortunato et al. is my brother James Evans.

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