Here’s what you can tell from the names at the top of a research paper

Creating the right mix.
Creating the right mix.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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Over the past two decades, the proportion of foreign-born science and engineering PhDs in the US has roughly doubled. And that’s potentially a good thing for science.

When people of different ethnicities work together, there is typically a greater breadth of knowledge, which leads to higher quality papers according to new research from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The authors looked at 1.5 million papers published in the US from 1985-2008. The biggest change they found was in the frequency of Chinese names among authors, which jumped from 4.79% in 1985 to 14.45% in 2006. English names dropped from 56.6% in 1985 to 45.56% in 2008. European names dropped from 13.47% to 11.18% over the same period.

But even as diversity increased, the authors found a significant degree of homophily or a tendency to associate with similar people in scientific research. US scientists of the same ethnicity end up co-authoring papers with each other at a significantly higher rate. Yet, publishing with other authors of the same ethnicity was associated with papers that appeared in lower impact journals and fewer citations.

Most of that effect comes from the fact that researchers with weak publication histories are more likely to co-author papers with colleagues of the same ethnicity, the authors write.

They found that papers with authors in multiple geographic areas and those with longer lists of references were published in better journals and were more highly cited.

There’s an argument that homophily can be a benefit if the authors communicate better due to similar accents or the ability to revert to a common language. If that’s the motivating factor, productivity could increase.

The paper points out that it’s also possible, and perhaps common, that people have a preference for others like themselves at the expense of complementary research skills and different knowledge. Seeking out research partners of the same ethnic and educational background could reduce diversity of perspective, and result in less groundbreaking research.

The best teams aren’t created by circumstance or bias, but instead when the people with the best and most complementary skills are put together, regardless of background.

In all, the research is a pretty good argument for the US to keep recruiting scientists from different backgrounds.