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Moving On and Up?

Just rubbing elbows with other sharp scientific minds might not be enough to give your career a boost, a recent study from Albert-László Barabási at Northeastern University and his colleagues in Scientific Reports says.

Barabási and his team scoured more than 420,00 scientific papers to track the affiliations and careers of some 237,000 physicists.

Most researchers, they note, move only once or twice, usually toward the beginning of their careers, and most moves are fairly local. People at highly ranked institutions are more likely to move to other top spots, they report, and people at lower-ranked places tend to move to similarly ranked institutions.

Crossovers, though, do occur. But Barabási and his team found that moving from a lower-ranked institution to a higher-ranked one doesn't lead to any gains in scientific impact, as measured by citations the researchers' papers received within five years of publication. Moving from an elite institution to a lower-ranked one is, they add, associated with a slight decline in impact.

"The upshot is that elite universities do not, at least as far as physicists are concerned, add value to output," The Economist notes. "That surprising conclusion is one which the authorities in countries such as Britain, who are seeking to concentrate expensive subjects such as physics in fewer, more elite institutions — partly to save money, but also to create what are seen as centers of excellence — might wish to consider."