Scientists reach their creative peak early in their careers

A new study provides the best evidence yet that scientists are generally most innovative and creative early in their careers.

The findings show that, on one important measure, the impact of biomedical scientists’ published work declines by between half and two-thirds over the course of their careers.

“It’s a huge drop in impact,” he said Bruce Weinbergco-author of the study and professor of in Economics at The Ohio State University.

“We’ve found that as we age, the work of biomedical scientists just isn’t as innovative and impactful.”

But the reasons behind this trend of declining innovation make the findings more nuanced and show why it’s still important to support scientists later in their careers, Weinberg said.

The study was published online on October 7, 2022 in Journal of Human Resources.

Researchers have studied the relationship between age or experience and innovativeness for almost 150 years, but no consensus has been reached. The findings were actually “all over the map,” Weinberg said.

“For a topic that so many people with so many approaches have studied for so long, it’s quite remarkable that we still don’t have a definitive answer.”

One advantage of this study is that the authors have a huge data set to work with – 5.6 million biomedical scientific articles published over a 30-year period, from 1980 to 2009, and collected from MEDLINE. This data includes detailed information about the authors.

This new study measures the innovativeness of biomedical scientists’ papers using a standard method—the number of times other scientists mention (or “cite”) a study in their own work. The more times a study is cited, the more important it is considered to be.

With detailed information about the authors of each article, the researchers in this study were able to compare how often scientists’ work was cited early in their careers compared to later in their careers.

While analyzing the data, Weinberg and his colleagues made a discovery that was key to understanding how innovation changes careers.

They found that scientists who were the least innovative early in their careers tended to leave the field and refrain from publishing new research. These were the most productive, the most important young scientists who were still doing research 20 or 30 years later.

“Early in their careers, scientists show a wide range of innovations. But over time, we see a selective attrition of people who are less innovative,” Weinberg said.

“So when you look at all biomedical scientists as a group, it doesn’t appear that innovation is declining over time. But the fact that the least innovative researchers drop out when they are relatively young masks the fact that for any individual, innovativeness tends to decline over the course of their careers.

The results show that for the average researcher, a research paper published late in their career is cited one-half to two-thirds less often than a paper published early in their career.

But it’s not just citation counts that suggest researchers were less innovative later in their careers.

“We created additional metrics that captured the breadth of impact of an article based on the range of fields that cite it, whether the article uses the best and latest ideas, cites the best and latest research, and whether the article draws on multiple disciplines,” said co-author Huifeng Yu, who worked on the study as a doctoral student at the University at Albany, SUNY.

“These other indicators also lead to the same conclusion about declining innovation.”

Findings showing selective attrition among less innovative scientists may help explain why previous studies have had such conflicting results, Weinberg said.

Studies involving Nobel laureates and other prominent researchers, for whom attrition is relatively small, tend to find earlier peak ages for innovation. In contrast, studies using broader cross-sections of scientists typically do not find an early peak in creativity because they do not account for attrition.

Weinberg noted that attrition in the scientific community may not be just about innovation. Scholars who are women or from underrepresented minorities may not have had the necessary opportunities to succeed, although this study could not quantify this effect.

“Those scientists who have succeeded probably did so through a combination of talent, luck, personal experience and prior training,” he said.

The findings suggest that organizations that fund scientists must maintain a delicate balance between supporting youth and experience.

“Young scientists are usually at the peak of their creativity, but there is also a big mix, with some being much more innovative than others. You may not be supporting the best researchers,” said Gerald Marschke, study co-author and associate professor of economics at the University at Albany.

“With the older, more experienced scientists, you get those who have stood the test of time, but on average are no longer at their best.”

Other co-authors of the study are Matthew Ross of New York University and Joseph Staudt of the US Census Bureau.

The research was supported by National Institute on Agingon Office of Behavioral and Social Science Researchon National Science Foundationon Ewing Marion Kaufman and Alfred P. Sloan foundations and National Bureau of Economic Research.

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