The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Academic ideas are supposed to thrive on their merits. If only.

Scientists are reflected in a window in front of a genomic oncology analysis system. (Sanjit Das/Bloomberg News)

Allison C. Morgan, Dimitrios J. Economou, Samuel F. Way and Aaron Clauset are all scholars in the department of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They have just published an important new article about how ideas spread within the academy. I asked them a series of questions about their work.

People say that science is about the open spread of ideas. However, your research suggests that it really matters whether the scientist who has the idea is working at a highly prestigious university. How does prestige affect the flow of ideas inside the academic community?

Our paper examines a simple hypothesis: Ideas spread in academia by people carrying them from one university to another. This idea is reasonable because academic research is highly specialized, and most researchers spend much of their careers working on topics close to what they trained on during graduate school. So, if a researcher had started studying deep learning in graduate school, and was then hired by a university where no one else was working on it, then that person carried the idea of deep learning from one university to another. In this way, if a small set of universities train the majority of all the academics in a field, ideas that originate at those universities will be overrepresented in the field. And, it turns out that in some of our past research, we showed that prestigious universities dominate the hiring market, meaning ideas that are born at prestigious universities will tend to spread further than those born elsewhere, simply because they have enormous alumni networks. The hiring market dominance of universities like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, etc. means that the other 200+ research universities in the U.S. are likely working on ideas that originated from this tiny group of elite places. In this paper, we test the hypothesis that where an idea is born matters for how far it could spread in academia, showing that prestige can create systematic “epistemic inequality” as a result of the hiring imbalance.

You treat the spread of ideas as a contagious process, which spreads through the population a little like the flu. How exactly do ideas become infectious, spreading from scientist to scientist or university to university?

There’s a long history of thinking of ideas spreading through a population by some kind of transfer process. Memes are classic example of this way of thinking. We use a slightly more narrow definition in our study, in which we define an “idea” as academic scholarship on a well-defined topic, like deep learning or quantum computing. An idea can thus “spread” across universities if a researcher who studies that idea changes jobs from one university to another. In our analysis, we were most interested in the situation where a university “adopted” an idea by hiring a new researcher who had a track record of working on it. Of course, the range of ideas being studied in a university is much more dynamic than this simple model allows, since researchers can pick up ideas from professional meetings, reading the literature, collaborating with other researchers, or developing them from scratch. Our aim was to show that the process of hiring new researchers (typically young professors) is one mechanism by which ideas spread through the system. This way, we don’t need to account for all the different ways ideas circulate in academia. We only need to show that hiring does indeed influence who works on what ideas where.

Your results suggest that really good ideas are likely to spread, no matter who has them, but that mediocre ideas tend to spread further and stick around longer when they come from scientists at highly prestigious institutions. What implications does this have for the ways we should do science?

It’s heartening that we find that good ideas will spread well no matter where they are born. It’s a bit less encouraging that mediocre ideas can spread just as far as good ones if they originate at a prestigious university. If we want academia to act more like a meritocracy, then we should try harder to ensure that our evaluations of ideas are not biased by the prestige of their birthplace, but instead focus on their independent merits. In practice, this is much harder than it sounds, but some things do help. For instance, recent research shows that peer review based on a double-blind system mitigates prestige biases. Double-blind review works by removing the simple signals that tend to tilt evaluations in favor of prestigious universities. Working out other ways to mitigate prestige biases, for example, in faculty hiring itself, is less clear, but perhaps even more important. That said, our findings show that the advantage of prestige in terms of influencing the circulation of ideas in academia can be very large. This suggests that many good ideas may not be getting the attention they might deserve as a result of not having a prestigious university name associated with them. Another implication is that in a system that incentivizes researchers to produce a large quantity of incremental ideas, ideas produced by researchers at more prestigious universities will tend to be more visible than similarly good, or even slightly better ideas from less prestigious universities.

As you say, it’s easy to study the spread of ideas among scientists, since there is lots of good data. What possible implications does your research have for the spread of ideas in other contexts, such as politics, or among the general public?

We suspect that similar structural advantages may exist in other systems with strong prestige hierarchies. For example, the small number of universities represented among the educational backgrounds of Supreme Court justices and their clerks may be suggestive of less diverse approaches, and less creative judicial solutions. When differences in social prestige exist, then a high-quality idea originating from the bottom of the hierarchy in a business or government will have a harder time catching on than if it came from the top, not due to any conscious or unconscious bias by individuals but rather because of the structure of the system itself. If we want to solve hard problems, of which there are many in science, technology, and society, we need to find better ways to incentivize and recognize good ideas, regardless of where they originate from, rather than relying so heavily on characteristics like reputations or affiliations of the person suggesting it.

Allison C. Morgan, Dimitrios J. Economou, Samuel F. Way, and Aaron Clauset are at the department of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Aaron Clauset is also affiliated with the BioFrontiers Institute at University of Colorado at Boulder and the Santa Fe Institute.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.