Prestige drives epistemic inequality in the diffusion of scientific ideas

by   Allison C. Morgan, et al.

The spread of ideas in the scientific community is often viewed as a competition, in which good ideas spread further because of greater intrinsic fitness. As a result, it is commonly believed that publication venue and citation counts correlate with importance and impact. However, relatively little is known about how structural factors influence the spread of ideas, and specifically how where an idea originates can influence how it spreads. Here, we investigate the role of faculty hiring networks, which embody the set of researcher transitions from doctoral to faculty institutions, in shaping the spread of ideas in computer science, and the importance of where in the network an idea originates. We consider comprehensive data on the hiring events of 5,032 faculty at all 205 Ph.D.-granting departments of computer science in the U.S. and Canada, and on the timing and titles of 200,476 associated publications. Analyzing three popular research topics, we show empirically that faculty hiring plays a significant role in driving the spread of ideas across the community. We then use epidemic models to simulate the generic spread of research ideas and quantify the consequences of where an idea originates on its longterm diffusion across the network. We find that research from prestigious institutions spreads more quickly and completely than work of similar quality originating from less prestigious institutions. Our analyses establish the theoretical trade-offs between university prestige and the quality of ideas necessary for efficient circulation. These results suggest a lower bound for epistemic inequality, identify a mechanism for the persistent epistemic advantage observed for elite institutions, and highlight limitations for meritocratic ideals.


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