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

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Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 24, 2018

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.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post