Scientific elite revisited: Patterns of productivity, collaboration, authorship and impact

Jichao Li, Yian Yin, Santo Fortunato, Dashun Wang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Throughout history, a relatively small number of individuals have made a profound and lasting impact on science and society. Despite long-standing, multi-disciplinary interests in understanding careers of elite scientists, there have been limited attempts for a quantitative, career-level analysis. Here, we leverage a comprehensive dataset we assembled, allowing us to trace the entire career histories of nearly all Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine over the past century. We find that, although Nobel laureates were energetic producers from the outset, producing works that garner unusually high impact, their careers before winning the prize follow relatively similar patterns to those of ordinary scientists, being characterized by hot streaks and increasing reliance on collaborations. We also uncovered notable variations along their careers, often associated with the Nobel Prize, including shifting coauthorship structure in the prize-winning work, and a significant but temporary dip in the impact of work they produce after winning the Nobel Prize. Together, these results document quantitative patterns governing the careers of scientific elites, offering an empirical basis for a deeper understanding of the hallmarks of exceptional careers in science.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200135
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number165
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020


  • Big data
  • Nobel Prize
  • Science of science
  • Scientific careers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Biotechnology
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biomaterials


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