Scientists receive fewer citations as they get older. Matt Clancy explains:
Pick any author at random, and on average the papers they publish earlier in their career, whether as first author or last author, will be more highly cited and cited by a more diverse group of fields, than a paper they publish later in their career.
And the magnitudes involved here are quite large. In Yu et al. (2022), the papers published when you begin a career earn 50-65% more citations than those published at the end of a career. The effects are even larger for the citations received by patentees.
Does the spark of youthful genius burn out quickly, explaining the mediocrity of researchers in their later years? Interestingly, the answer is no:
The results of the previous section suggest [the chance of producing your most-cited paper] should fall pretty rapidly. At each career stage, your average citations are lower, and it would be natural to assume the best work you can produce will also tend to be lower impact, on average, than it was in earlier career stages.
But this is not what Liu and coauthors find! Instead, they find that any paper written, at any stage in your career, has about an equal probability of being your top cited paper!
This is not a new research finding. Nearly two centuries ago, the Belgian sociologist Adolphe Quetelet observed the impressively tight link between personal productivity and creative success.
More recently, Dean Simonton has analyzed the creative output of individuals across many domains and suggests an “equal-odds” rule best describes it: once a creative individual starts publishing in a field, each piece of work they produce has roughly equal odds of world-breaking impact.
The Surprising Equipotential of Creative Success
When I first encountered this research literature, it surprised me! Consider, for a moment, what this theory rejects:
- Accumulating expertise. We might expect steadily improving skills through deliberate practice and a widening knowledge base would lead to increased creative success. Except, this is not what we see outside of the initial preparatory training to enter a career.
- Youthful genius. Alternatively, we might expect creativity to decline as thinkers become burdened by old ways of doing things. Were this true, we would predict a reduced rate of creative success over time. But this wasn’t observed in Simonton’s research.
Instead, it looks like the most important determinant of creative success is simply how much work you produce.
Creative Success as Randomness
A simple model might capture the essential details of this trend:
- Be at a knowledge frontier. You can’t contribute anything new if you’re not at the boundary of knowledge for a discipline. In academia, this usually prevents undergraduates from publishing many papers; in technology, this prevents unskilled inventors from obtaining new patents. Other work suggests painters and composers have similar ramp-up periods where their work is initially unremarkable. Getting to this threshold is non-trivial and takes considerable time and training.
- Idea generation and public reception are stochastic processes. Once you reach the threshold, further advances have a significant random component. This might be due to the trial-and-error process of finding new advances. Or it might come from the unpredictability of public taste as to what work receives acclaim.
The randomness of creative success favors those who are the most prolific. Price’s Law captures this relationship in scientific output, estimating that half of the research of a given discipline will be produced by the square root of the number of researchers.1 So in a field with 100 contributors, ten will produce half of the published output. If every paper in the field has a roughly equal probability of being cited, these ten highly prolific authors will capture approximately half of all citations in their field.
To Produce Better Work, Increase Your Output
Intuitively, it feels like there ought to be a strong quality-quantity tradeoff in one’s work. You can make a few excellent things, or you can produce a lot of mediocre work. Certainly there are lots of things that increase productivity at the expense of quality. Typing random words on a page and hitting publish would increase my essay count at the cost of my writing quality dropping to zero. However, it’s interesting to note that my most-viewed articles have tended to come from my more prolific writing periods.
We prefer to attach creative success to a combination of innate talent, acquired ability and passionate commitment. Placing such significance on chance appears to cheapen the achievements of great artists, inventors and scientists.
Yet perhaps it’s because we’re so uncomfortable likening creativity to a lottery that this perspective is undervalued. Over a surprisingly wide range of pursuits, creativity is productivity, and we will have more hits if we take more swings.
- Other research suggests the data is better approximated by a slightly different mathematical function, but the overall shape of the curve is similar.