Leaders, successors and toilers: how scientists reveal their worth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 1:59pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 1:59pm

Psychologists and economists study human behaviour to describe personality types. This can be useful, for example, to predict consumer behaviour based on personality types.

But it does not happen as often that scientists classify their own kind. However, this could help public officials and others in charge of research funding to make more informed decisions (“Why Hong Kong should celebrate the breakthrough in science funding from the mainland”, June 2).

Two mathematicians from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology have devised a new typology of successful researchers, exploring how scientist types vary depending on discipline and what this says about the relationship between maths, physics and psychology.

With citation statistics still the key metric for judging the impact of a researcher, Pavel Chebotarev and Ilya Vasilyev used eight citation indexes to study the careers of some 1,800 researchers listed on Google Scholar, using a statistical procedure called cluster analysis.

The authors identified three clusters. “Leaders” are experienced scientists widely recognised in their fields for research which secured an annual citation count increase for them, while “successors” are young scientists with more citations than “toilers,” who earn their high citation metrics by years of hard work but lack grand scientific achievements.

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The distribution for top physicists was similar to that of mathematicians, but with more successful young scientists at the expense of leaders and toilers, perhaps a confirmation of the comparatively solitary nature of mathematics. Among the top 500 researchers with mathematics as their field of interest, 52 per cent were toilers, with successors and leaders at 25.8 and 22.2 per cent respectively, while for physicists, nearly 32 per cent were successors. For psychologists, toilers still made up the majority (as it did for mathematicians and physicists), but this was followed by leaders at 34 per cent, and successors a distant third, at just over 18 per cent.

Interpreting that and other researcher clusters, the authors drew tentative conclusions about discipline-specific publication practices. For example, the borders between clusters may be more blurred in the case of humanities. More may be revealed when the team expands its research to some 20 disciplines, including economics and literature.

Nikolai Posunko, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology