Social Dynamics and the Evolution of Disciplines

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Submission Summary
Why do scientific disciplines appear, disappear, merge together, or split apart? We might point to major events: the creation of new journals and departments, significant innovations, or new technologies. However, at the heart of things is a social process involving interactions among individual scientists, deciding who to collaborate with and on what topic. The nature of these interactions and their short-term consequences on scientific inquiry have been studied in some detail, as has the longer-term evolution of scientific disciplines throughout history. Yet this leaves unanswered questions about how the interactions among those scientists give rise to broad, long-term trends in the evolution of science.
To bring together these two areas of research, we provide a new model in which the dynamics of scientific collaboration affects the evolution of scientific fields. We build off of Sun et al. (2013)’s model, in which scientists choose collaborators based on whether they have collaborated in the past, while papers and scientists accumulate discipline associations based on these collaborations. Ultimately, new scientific fields emerge as sets of scientists cluster together, or merge as previously distinct disciplines start to blend together. While their model captures many features of how scientific fields have evolved, key aspects of the short-term interactions among scientists are not incorporated, leading to unexplored aspects of the evolution of disciplines. In particular, publications have different potential impacts depending on various factors, e.g. the reputation of the scientists. Incorporating this aspect of scientific work allows us to explore two broad historical trends in terms of the social interactions among scientists which underpin them.
First, new scientific fields are often spearheaded by a few prominent scientists. While we may explain this with reference to works of genius or larger-than-life personalities, it can also be explained with reference to the dynamics of collaboration and credit accumulation. If the impact of previous work (i.e. the credit accumulated for it) affects future productivity and number of collaborations, as well as the impact of future work (Peterson et al. 2014), new disciplines may emerge around key figures regardless of quality of work or personality. Further, social positioning may be a better predictor of ability to found new disciplines than a scientist’s personal characteristics.
Second, there seems to be a ‘contagion of disrespect’, whereby research in subfields associated with marginalized groups are increasingly dismissed as unimportant to the production of scientific knowledge (Schneider et al. forthcoming). While biased evaluation of work surely plays a role in this, collaboration dynamics are also likely part of the story. There is often unequal division of credit within collaborations, where members of marginalized groups receive less recognition for their contributions compared to members of a dominant group. This can affect both future credit accumulation and likelihood to collaborate across social identity lines (Rubin and O’Connor 2018). If collaborations become increasingly clustered according to social identity, while results from particular social identity groups generate less credit, this gives rise to a contagion of disrespect.
Petersen, A.M., Fortunato, S., Pan, R.K., Kaski, K., Penner, O., Rungi, A., Riccaboni, M., Stanley, H.E. and Pammolli, F. (2014). Reputation and Impact in Academic Careers.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(43), 15316-15321.
Rubin, H., & O’Connor, C. (2018). Discrimination and Collaboration in Science. Philosophy of Science, 85(3), 380-402.
Schneider, M.D., Rubin, H, & O’Connor, C. (forthcoming). Promoting Diverse Collaborations. The Dynamics of Science: Computational Frontiers in History and Philosophy of Science, eds. G. Ramsey & A. De Block
Sun, X., Kaur, J., Milojević, S., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2013). Social Dynamics of Science. Scientific Reports, 3(1), 1-6.
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University of Notre Dame
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University of Notre Dame

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