Almost everyone who aspires to any sort of greatness in their field has asked, at one point or another, is it too late? Has success passed me by?
If that sounds familiar, a new interactive site by master data visualizer Kim Albrecht might give you hope when it comes to your career aspirations. Success, it seems, can come at any age; it’s no more likely to happen when you’re 20 than when you’re 70–at least when it comes to a career in science. But those wishing to extrapolate these results to other fields might want to read the fine print.
For the data viz, which accompanies a new study in Science called Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact, Albrecht used a database full of every paper published by the Physical Review journal family from 1893 to 2000, Google Scholar (Google’s search engine for scientific articles), and Web of Science, a comprehensive data site that allows academics to find and explore citations. From this data, Albrecht was able to find how many times every scientist in these databases had been cited by his or her peers. By finding which paper of each scientist had been cited the most, Albrecht could identify the precise moment in which they had their big break–at least comparatively.
The authors set out to discover whether or not there was a pattern for scientific success. But it turns out there is no pattern: No matter what field of science you’re in, the likelihood of one of your papers becoming widely cited is totally random. It could happen at the beginning of your career, the middle of your career, or the end of your career. There’s just no way to predict where on that timeline success is going to fall.
For designers, musicians, writers, performers, and other creatives who have been plugging away for years, waiting for their big break, this is probably heartening. Still, it’s worth reading the fine print, which is that scientific “success” is probably not what most of us would consider success. Let’s put it this way: Half of all academic papers are never read by anyone besides their authors and their editors. So if half of your scientific papers are never read, and then one is cited three or four times? Sure, that’s a big step up–but it’s not the scientific equivalent of winning an Oscar. It’s a Webby at best.