Most people leap at the chance to work with somebody brilliant, hoping they’ll learn something or that some glory will rub off. That might be the wrong strategy, however.
If you work with a rock star, you not only need to be worried about them taking credit for your work, you need to worry about everyone assuming you’re the reason a project went wrong, according to new research.
A new working paper from the University of Maryland’s Ginger Zhe Jin finds that when an academic paper is retracted, meaning its findings have been drawn into question — a full-scale disaster for scientists — the consequences are badly skewed against less prominent authors. Consequences are measured by the number of citations on a scientist’s work. People are generally less willing to cite someone after they’ve had a paper retracted.
Less established authors see big drops in citations, but big-time co-authors see few or no consequences. And when a less established author works with a prominent one, it gets even worse for them. Prominent co-authors are even more protected when they work with a relative nobody, since blame gets heaped on the name that nobody knows.
People who work in just about any workplace will likely recognise this scenario. Someone with a track record of success is going to be trusted more. People are more likely to assume that the decorated scientist, 10-year company veteran, or rising company superstar isn’t at fault, regardless of the reality of the situation.
Below is the author’s chart of how citations move post-retraction. “Treated papers” refer to data from authors who had one article retracted and did not report the error themselves. “Control papers” are comparable sets of papers where there have been no retractions.
Control papers are represented by the solid blue line, and treated papers by the red dotted line. When the two lines differ and control papers are cited more than treated ones, it shows consequences for the earlier retraction. The top two charts look at absolute reputation, and show that the top 10% of prominent authors get far more leeway. The bottom two charts look at relative reputation, and show that the most prominent author of a paper sees basically no consequences, unlike the other authors on the team:
Your reputation is everything at work and in academia. While working with someone prominent and talented might mean a project is more likely to succeed, the personal upside is lower, and potential downside can be even higher. When you get the chance to choose, consider joining up with early-career people who have the drive and the talent, but still need to make a reputation for themselves.
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