Superstar Extinction

How important is collaboration in scientific laboratories? A new paper by Pierre Azoulay, Joshua Graff Zivin, and Jialan Wang* studied what happens to research productivity when an academic “superstar” dies while they’re still actively engaged in scientific research. A superstar is a brilliant scientist who teams up with others to collaboratively conduct research and who co-authors with other scientists.

The researchers analyzed the coauthors of 137 eminent life scientists. On average, each superstar had 73 coauthors. (That number alone is astonishing, and shows how collaborative modern science is.)

Following the death of the superstar, his or her colleagues suffer a quality-adjusted decline in productivity of 8% to 18%. The authors found that this decline was lasting. Furthermore, the closer you collaborated with the superstar, the more your productivity declined. Their conclusion:

These findings are surprisingly homogenous across a wide range of coauthor and coauthor/superstar dyad characteristics. Together, they suggest that part of the scientific field embodied in the “invisible college” of coauthors working in that area dies along with the star — that the extinction of a star represents a genuine and irreplaceable loss of human capital.

As Azoulay said:

Our interpretation is that superstars infuse their scientific field with fresh ideas. They replenish it periodically and when they die, the entire field contracts so it’s really about their ideas and the effects of losing them are fairly broad and diffused.

*In press, Quarterly Journal of Economics