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Did you know that scientific collaboration networks tend to exhibit more segregation and inequality as scientific fields mature?

February 2023

Science is increasingly organized in large teams of collaborators, and the success of scientists has become more and more linked to their publication output. While these trends are well-researched on the level of disciplines and national research communities, we know less about scientific fields evolving around a specific research topic. How does the social structure of a scientific field change once scholars start to investigate a novel phenomenon? How do the career prospects of junior researchers change over time? Does inequality in the distribution of social recognition increase or decrease as new researchers enter the field? 

ISS researcher Mark Wittek investigated these questions with Christoph Bartenhagen and Frank Berthold from the Department of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology of the University of Cologne. The authors proposed a novel application of network models to a large-scale dataset of scientific collaborations among neuroblastoma researchers from 1975 to 2016. The field under study is dedicated to understanding and treating neuroblastoma, the most common solid cancer in childhood. The study shows that neuroblastoma research was small at its outset and characterized by an egalitarian social structure. The field grew and developed an elite of researchers, who attracted disproportional shares of collaborators at its center. Also, while collaboration between scholars with high and low status was frequent at the field’s beginning, this tendency reversed as the field matured and segregated circles of high-status researchers evolved. The authors attribute these changes to the growing number of researchers participating in neuroblastoma research. They argue that more field participants indicate the influx of funding—usually allocated to already successful scholars—and that more field participants contribute to more inequality in scientists’ reputations. 

These results challenge the idea that inequality in scientific fields is a natural property and show that it takes time for scientific status hierarchies to evolve. Moreover, they suggest that contextual characteristics, such as the size and maturity of a field, play a crucial role for the social processes embedded within the field.