Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?

Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, Joshua S. Graff Zivin

NBER Working Paper No. 21788
Issued in December 2015, Revised in June 2018
NBER Program(s):Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

We study the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their areas of scientific inquiry by examining entry rates into the subfields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away prematurely. Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist. In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8.6% on average. These additional contributions are disproportionately likely to be highly cited. They are also more likely to be authored by scientists who were not previously active in the deceased superstar's field. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas. Overall, our results suggest that once in control of the commanding heights of their fields, star scientists tend to hold on to their exalted position a bit too long.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21788

Published: Pierre Azoulay & Christian Fons-Rosen & Joshua S. Graff Zivin, 2019. "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?," American Economic Review, vol 109(8), pages 2889-2920. citation courtesy of

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