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Planck Was Right

MIT News reports that a new study is proving right what quantum physicist Max Planck once said about scientific progress.

Planck believed that new scientific concepts generally take hold after older scientists with entrenched ideas pass away. The forthcoming study by MIT economist Pierre Azoulay and his colleagues, which will be published in American Economic Review, finds that Planck was onto something. In many areas of the life sciences, the deaths of prominent researchers are often followed by a surge in highly cited research by newcomers to those fields, MIT News says.

Specifically, such deaths are followed by an average 8.6 percent increase of articles by researchers who have not previously collaborated with those star scientists, those papers are more likely to be authored by newcomers to the field, and they're much more likely to be influential and highly cited than other studies, the study finds. Further, there's a 20.7 percent decrease in papers by the smaller number of scientists who had previously co-authored papers with the star scientists who passed away.

"The conclusion of this paper is not that stars are bad," Azoulay tells MIT News. "It's just that, once safely ensconsed at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome."

It may not be the case that well-established scientists are intentionally blocking the work of their younger colleagues, Azoulay adds. But once they're well-established, they have more influence over what gets published in journals and who gets awards, making it harder for people outside their social and professional circles to get recognized.

"The fact that if you're successful, you get to set the intellectual agenda of your field, that is part of the incentive system of science, and people do extraordinary positive things in the hope of getting to that position," Azoulay tells MIT News. "It's just that, once they get there, over time, maybe they tend to discount 'foreign' ideas too quickly and for too long."

Azoulay and his colleagues are calling this discovery "Planck's Principle."