Young scientists lead the way on fresh ideas

Bad news, scientists: there is a good chance that your most cutting edge work is behind you.

Young researchers are much more likely than older scientists to study exciting innovative topics, according to a text analysis of more than 20million biomedical papers published over the past 70 years. More senior researchers are more likely to publish in hot areas when they are supervising a younger scientist.

Researchers are at their most creative when they are young, or so says conventional wisdom: Charles Darwin and Max Planck both argued that young scientists were more open than older colleagues to new ideas. But the topic is not just fodder for chats over post seminar beers. Funders such as the USNational Institutes of Health have implemented policies specifically to support early career scientists, based in part on the view that young researchers are more innovative than seasoned scientists. And in mathematics, the Fields Medal has been reserved for researchers under 40.

“It’s always just a claim the young are more innovative but there’s no proof,” says Mikko Packalen,replica handbags an economist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who led the study with economist Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University in California.

To determine which scientists used the most innovative ideas, Packalen and Bhattacharya turned to the leading index of biomedical research, MEDLINE (accessed through the website PubMed), which stores more than 21million articles published since 1946.

The duo developed a computer program that identifies every one , two or three word string in the title and abstract of each paper. It then logs when each string first appeared in the literature and counts how many times it has appeared subsequently, to determine its popularity. (The all time winning concept was ‘polymerase chain reaction’, the DNA copying technique, occurring in more than 176,000titles or abstracts see ‘Popularity charts’.)

Packalen and Bhattacharya then ranked the most innovative articles for each year, from 1946 to 2011, on the basis of whether they were an ‘early adopter’ of the hottest keywords.

The method could not measure researchers’ creativity, only their willingness to embrace new ideas, which might have been proposed by others. But it showed that except for the newest scientists, young researchers far outpaced older scientists in citing new ideas in their papers, Packalen and Bhattacharya found (see ‘Cooling down’). Because the two had no way of measuring the actual age of a researcher, they calculated ‘career ages’ the number of years after a scientist’s first publication.

“I really like the way they’re approaching things in terms of text analysis,” says Bruce Weinberg, an economist at Ohio State University in Columbus, who works with Packalen and Bhattacharya on other projects.

All is not lost for senior scientists, however. “One reading of the results is that we quantified something that a lot of people thought was true: that young guys are innovative but they also need some mentorship,” says Packalen.

And Weinberg previously found that the age at which scientists make Nobel prizewinning breakthroughs is increasing (B. F. Jones and B. A. Weinberg Proc. Natl Acad. Sci USA 108, 18910 18914; 2011). “I think we’re learning something about what these different measures are picking up,” Weinberg says. “In some areas of biomedical research it might take a couple of years to learn a new set of ideas and retool a lab,” he says. “Hence it wouldn’t be surprising if established researchers have trouble finding the time to do so.”

Ginsparg also wonders whether analysing the full text of papers might tell a different story. It could be that established researchers incorporate fresh ideas into an existing methodology and framework, and therefore mention them deeper in a paper.

Packalen, who published his first paper in 2010, knows that the findings could be tough for some older scientists to swallow. “I look at these findings and say, ‘No way is this going to happen to me’,” he says. “I’m going to stay innovative. I’m going to learn new ideas.”


2015 02 19 05:07 PM

2015 02 19 07:38 AM

Young scientists are certainly attracted from what is new and unexpected in science and their contribution to the development of knowledge is unvaluable. However most Nobel Prize winners are old and their achievements span a mature age. I remember these words from someone missed: when you are young mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers,when mature mountains may not be mountains and rivers may not be rivers ,when you are ld mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.