Study Examines Role of “Helpful” Scientists in the Success of Others

Researchers are typically judged by their ability to frequently publish papers in high-impact journals that are subsequently cited by other studies. This measure of productivity encapsulates an individual’s output that is personally beneficial.

Alexander Oettl
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A new study done by Alexander Oettl in Georgia Tech's Scheller College of Business highlights the role of "helpful" colleagues in improving the publication records of other scientists.

But a new study highlights the role of “helpful” colleagues – those who, for instance, provide feedback on the papers of other scientists and are willing to serve as a sounding board for new ideas.

Conducted by a Georgia Institute of Technology researcher, the new study reveals that individuals who co-authored papers with a highly helpful scientist experienced a decrease in the quality of papers they authored after the helpful scientist died. Conversely, the deaths of highly productive scientists who were not highly helpful did not influence the subsequent quality of their co-authors’ output.

“The study results suggest that individuals who may have fewer individual achievements but are a major source of support and feedback for the people around them can have a major impact on their colleagues’ careers and help improve the aggregate output of their academic departments,” said Alexander Oettl, an assistant professor in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech. “In addition, the study implies that helpful scientists may be undervalued and overlooked by a scientific enterprise that rewards individual achievement above all else.”

The research was published in the June 2012 issue of the journal Management Science and was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Martin Prosperity Institute Program on Innovation and Creative Industries. The findings were also the basis for a comment article in the Sept. 27, 2012 issue of the journal Nature.

Using a combination of academic paper publications and citations to capture scientist productivity and the receipt of academic paper acknowledgments to measure helpfulness, Oettl examined the change in the publishing output of co-authors of scientists who died.

Oettl examined more than 400,000 immunology articles and extracted the names of 149 immunologists who died mid-career. Then, he scoured more than 50,000 articles published in The Journal of Immunology between 1950 and 2007 for papers that thanked those scientists in their acknowledgements sections. He also examined papers published by those scientists to collect a list of their co-authors.

Of the 149 deceased scientists, Oettl classified 63 of them as very helpful because they emerged in the top 20 percent of people thanked in all acknowledgements for at least one year of their careers. He categorized 35 of the 63 helpful scientists as also being highly productive, which he defined as being in the top 5 percent for the number of annual citations and high impact factor immunology publications. Of the less helpful investigators, 17 were highly productive and 69 exhibited average productivity.

Oettl found that the deaths of the highly helpful and productive scientists were associated with a 20 percent decrease in the subsequent quality of their co-authors’ publications, whereas the deaths of individuals with high helpfulness but average productivity were associated with a 10 percent decrease in co-author performance. The deaths of scientists with average helpfulness and high productivity had a positive impact on the performance of their co-authors, and the deaths of individuals with both average helpfulness and productivity did not have a statistically significant impact on the performance of their co-authors.

“The results show that the quality of a co-author’s output is most heavily influenced by ties to scientists with high helpfulness and not by ties to scientists who are merely prolific,” noted Oettl. “The study may also indicate that the death of an individual with high productivity but average helpfulness may free resources, such as time, for co-authors, which allows them to be more productive in that scientist’s absence.”

The research also showed that the deaths of immunologists who provided conceptual help – comments, criticism or advice about experiments and manuscripts – had a larger impact on the performance of their co-authors than those who performed tests, provided technical help or shared materials.

This study has important implications for academic and research organizations, according to Oettl. Including helpfulness in the measure of what makes a “star” scientist may affect how organizations determine what types of individuals they should recruit and the ideal composition of personnel in the organization.

“Hiring committees should look beyond an applicant’s publication record and read the recommendations of peers and look for signs that the individual might influence departmental dynamics in a positive way,” added Oettl.

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Writer: Abby Robinson

CITATIONS: Oettl, Alexander, “Reconceptualizing Stars: Scientist Helpfulness and Peer Performance,” Management Science (2012): and Oettl, Alexander, “Sociology: Honour the helpful,” Nature (2012):