New Study Indicates That Scientists Are Just Not As Innovative and Impactful As They Age

Lightbulb Creativity Work

The study also found that less innovative researchers tend to drop out.

Scientists are most creative early in their careers.

A new study presents the most conclusive evidence yet that scientists are most creative and innovative early in their careers. According to the findings, the impact of biomedical scientists’ published work decreases by half to two-thirds throughout the course of their careers.

“That’s a huge decline in impact,” said Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at The Ohio State University. “We found that as they get older, the work of biomedical scientists was just not as innovative and impactful.”

However, Weinberg noted that the causes of this pattern of falling innovation make the findings more nuanced and highlight the need to continue supporting scientists into the latter stages of their careers.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Human Resources.

For almost 150 years, researchers have been examining the connection between age or experience and creativity, but no clear conclusion has been reached. In fact, according to Weinberg, the findings have been “all over the map.”

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

One advantage of this study is that the authors had access to a massive dataset – 5.6 million biomedical scientific publications published between 1980 and 2009 and compiled by MEDLINE. These data include detailed information about the authors.

This new study measured the innovativeness of the articles by biomedical scientists 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 thought to be.

With detailed information on the authors of each paper, 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.

As they analyzed the data, Weinberg and his colleagues made a discovery that was key to understanding how innovation changes over a career.

They found that scientists who were the least innovative early in their careers tended to drop out of the field and quit publishing new research. It was the most productive, the most important young scholars who were continuing to produce research 20 or 30 years later.

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

“So when you look at all biomedical scientists as a group, it doesn’t look like innovation is declining over time. But the fact that the least innovative researchers are dropping out when they are relatively young disguises the fact that, for any one person, innovativeness tends to decline over their career.”

Results showed that for the average researcher, a scientific article they published late in their career was cited one-half to two-thirds less often than an article published early in their careers.

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

“We constructed additional metrics that captured the breadth of an article’s impact based on the range of fields that cite it, whether the article is employing the best and latest ideas, citing the best and latest research, and whether the article is drawing from multiple disciplines,” said Huifeng Yu, a co-author, who worked on the study as a Ph.D. student at the University at Albany, SUNY.

“These other metrics also lead to the same conclusion about declining innovativeness.”

The findings showing selective attrition among less-innovative scientists can help explain why previous studies have had such conflicting results, Weinberg said.

Studies using Nobel Laureates and other eminent researchers, for whom attrition is relatively small, tend to find earlier peak ages for innovation. In contrast, studies using broader cross-sections of scientists don’t normally find an early peak in creativity, because they don’t account for the attrition.

Weinberg noted that attrition in the scientific community may not relate only to innovativeness. Scientists who are women or from underrepresented minorities may not have had the opportunities they needed to succeed, although this study can’t quantify that effect.

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

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

“Young scientists tend to be at their peak of creativity, but there is also a big mix with some being much more innovative than others. You may not be supporting the very best researchers,” said Gerald Marschke, a co-author of the study and associate professor of economics at the University at Albany, “With older, more experienced scientists, you are getting the ones who have stood the test of time, but who on average are not at their best anymore.”

Reference: “Publish or Perish: Selective Attrition as a Unifying Explanation for Patterns in Innovation over the Career” by Huifeng Yu, Gerald Marschke, Matthew B. Ross, Joseph Staudt and Bruce Weinberg, 7 October 2022, Journal of Human Resources.
DOI: 10.3368/jhr.59.2.1219-10630R1

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, the National Science Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

5 Comments on "New Study Indicates That Scientists Are Just Not As Innovative and Impactful As They Age"

  1. Yeah, tell that to two local biological scientists, both in their 90’s,who can sort, manage & diagnose a problem and get moving on their way… But this would be an “anomaly” according to the Blackeye State U… Please…

  2. “The more times a study is cited, the more important it is thought to be.”
    This is an unsupported assumption. Considering that other research has demonstrated that about half of all published medical research cannot be replicated, perhaps this study belongs in that group as well.

  3. In many cases, as a career progresses, administrative and managerial responsibilities take a growing fraction of time, thus leaving less for actively participating in scientific work. Unclear to me if and how the findings reported have been adjusted for this effect. Perhaps a more balanced and fair measure would assess the combination of original scientific contributions PLUS the creation of environment and context that produces original scientific contributions.

    • Dr. Jonas Salk was 41 when the vaccine for polio was released. He went on to found the Salk Institute at age 49. Not exactly a ‘young turk,’ but clearly his efforts shifted from doing research to using his wisdom and influence to provide resources for younger researchers.

      I think a career should be judged on accomplishments, not citations of publications.

  4. The title and leading paragraph imply *all* scientists, yet the rest of the article pertains only to biomedical scientists. So f***ing sick of misleading, sensationalist article titles.

    Cognitive decline while ageing occurs in the vast majority of humans, not just scientists. I don’t know why this is even newsworthy.

    There is already a stigma on the results of scientific studies these days, for three reasons:

    1) Scientists aren’t reporters, and it’s hard for them to lower the language to a level where non-scientists can understand.

    2) Mass cognitive bias in all directions.

    3) Those scientists who have worked with teams (which one doesn’t?) yet somehow get the credit for something significant suddenly get thrust into layers of bureaucracy outside of pure study and research.

    This article has done a disservice to the science community at large

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