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How Ideas Go Viral in Academia

We like to believe that meritocracy determines if an idea is spread through a network, especially in an academic setting. However, in a study done at University of Colorado Boulder suggest this may not be the case.

Drawing on a 2015 dataset that described the hiring histories of more than 5,000 faculty members in computer science programs in the U.S. and Canada, the researchers turned the information into a network of connected universities. If a university had a Ph.D. student in a job at a different school, then the two schools were linked. These connections showed how the student (turned faculty) may carry and spread ideas from one university to the other. After running thousands of simulations with different levels of quality of ideas, the researchers found that where an idea is started is crucial for how it spreads. An idea of medium or low quality from a prestigious university goes much farther in the network and infect more nodes than an idea of the same quality from a less prestigious university. Even with randomness is added to the mix to allow for idea spreading through factors outside of hiring by allowing ideas to pop up from opposite ends of the network, this pattern still persisted.

Applying these results to our class, we can view prestigious universities as “strong social influencers”, as ideas that came from them are picked up faster and spread wider than other universities. Nodes that are connected to these “social influencers” are more eager and encouraged to adopt ideas that originated from these nodes. This can be problematic, as this means that the similar ideas and those who are looking at the world through similar lenses are getting hired. This lack of intellectual diversity might mean that one question may stump a large number of faculty members at once.

However, the study also notes that this idea diffusion pattern does not affect high quality ideas. The prestige level of universities mattered a lot less for high quality ideas. Thus, the good news that great thought will still “catch fire” and spread widely in the academia network regardless of where the idea originates from. Although being a part of a “social influencer” university will help the spread, this study shows that high quality ideas will not be compromised by this network effect.



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November 2018