Individual focus and knowledge contribution

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Mar 192010

This week, First Monday published a paper that I have been working on for over two years. Whether that shows a lot of focus, or lack thereof, I’m not sure. The basic question was the following: what kinds of knowledge contributors flourish: those who focus narrowly on a few subject areas, or the polymaths who contribute to many disparate areas? I think of my PhD advisor, Bernardo Huberman, who in addition to publishing in general venues such as Nature, Science and PNAS, has published in physics, computer science, sociology, economics, etc. Anyone who knows Bernardo knows that he is not typical. So my collaborators (Xiao Wei, Jiang Yang, Kevin Nam, Sean Gerrish, Gavin Clarkson) and I had to gather some data in order to pose the question across many, many knowledge contributors. The answer?

Across a wide range of knowledge contribution media (scholarly articles, patents, Wikipedia, online Q&A forums), the more focused individuals make contributions of higher quality measured in (normalized citations, normalized citations, persistence of new words introduced, percentage of answers selected as best) respectively. In the end our R2 was rather laughable, but one wouldn’t expect focus alone to explain someone’s success, would they? And of course causality remains elusive. Do individuals who focus contribute higher quality stuff because of their focus, or do they focus on the work that has already brought the success?

Still, I found it remarkable that the same pattern emerged whether one looked at “original” contributions such as articles and patents, or smaller, not-necessarily novel ones, such as Wikipedia edits and question answering.

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