Death and Science

January 4, 2016

The deaths of leading academic scientists may contribute in an unexpected way to the advancement of their fields, according to a study released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study (abstract available here) looked at the impact of the deaths of 452 academic life scientists who died while still "at the peak of their scientific abilities." As expected, the flow of articles by their collaborators declined. But their fields actually thrived as a result of a significant increase in publication of articles in the field by people not previously active and many of these papers went on to be influential. The paper speculates that "outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone."

The authors of the paper are Pierre Azoulay of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Joshua Graff Zivin of the University of California at San Diego, and Christian Fons-Rosen of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Spain.

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