How Ideas Spread Through the Academy

A new study questions the place of meritocracy in higher education.
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A student walks in front of Dallas Hall on the Southern Methodist University campus January 23, 2007 in Dallas, Texas.

The popularity and spread of knowledge may depend less on an idea's intrinsic quality than the reputation of the institution that generated it.

It's long been known that ideas emerging from elite universities dominate the field. One might reasonably argue that more prestigious schools hire smarter people who churn out better ideas that are, due to their brilliance, more influential. It's also quite possible that elite schools offer access to more resources to undertake cutting-edge scholarship, which in turn makes a larger mark on the academic landscape.

But what if you could show that an idea is dead on arrival when forged at a non-elite school, but goes viral when it comes from the elite school? Or that an objectively bad idea spreads further when it's born at an elite institution? University of Colorado–Boulder graduate student Allison Morgan did just that. Drawing on epidemiological methods, and exploring topics drawn from over 200,000 computer science publications, she and her team designed a model to put such questions to the test.

What they found is alarming. It turns out the popularity and spread of knowledge may depend less on an idea's intrinsic quality than the reputation of the institution that generated it. This disparity derives from skewed patterns of job placement more than any other factor. "Research ideas," the authors write, "spread throughout academia by way of faculty hiring." Analyzing over 5,200 hiring decisions at Ph.D.-granting computer science programs, they confirm that a small number of prestigious schools account for the vast majority of new hires.

The outsized hiring impact of elite schools effects the transmission of ideas. Whether it's through "the direct transfer of researchers working on a particular topic or by the lines of communication created between placing and hiring institutions," these channels ensure that a relatively small number of advisers send a relatively large number of students into jobs throughout the academic spectrum.

Once hired, junior faculty reap professional rewards by perpetuating pre-approved research assumptions adopted back in graduate school, under the tutelage of like-minded advisers, all of whom will continue to offer peer review, recommendation letters, and other forms of academic support. Very few graduate students switch research gears once hired as an assistant professor. Academic careers thrive on continuity.

It's tempting to think that such a tight network of communication might seem yet another case of greatness being great. But, as the authors surmise, it's equally possible that newly hired professors with degrees minted at elite institutions grow blind to their own imperfections. With more and more new faculty coming from the same institutions, the benefits of more diverse perspectives, and the correctives they bring, are lost on those who are, based on the shine of their degree, overly convinced by their own arguments. The naval-gazing network becomes increasingly dense when young faculty members eventually send their own acolytes into the field.

This network offers a new vantage point to think about how ideas move through the academy. The hypothesis—that scholarship enjoys a halo effect—was addressed with models that measured the same idea's "effective transmission probability" through nine "prestige deciles." The higher the prestige decile, the farther the same idea spread. The upshot, according to the researchers, is that "ideas starting in the network periphery (i.e., at least prestigious universities) must be higher in quality to have similar success as lower quality ideas originating in the core (more prestigious universities.)."

In other words, not fair. (Although one ray of hope in all this was that great ideas, no matter where they originate, thrive.)

"These findings," the study concludes, "suggest that idea dissemination within academia is not meritocratic, even when the assessment of the idea's quality ... is totally objective." And, of course, at the other end of this stacked system of idea transmission are students, innocent minds who absorb these coddled ideas in labs, seminar rooms, and lecture halls, developing their intellect according to an undemocratic hiring network rather than the best ideas out there.