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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Winning Scholarly Awards Hurts Subsequent Productivity

George J. Borjas (Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government) & Kirk B. Doran (University of Notre Dame, Department of Economics), Prizes and Productivity: How Winning the Fields Medal Affects Scientific Output:

Knowledge generation is key to economic growth, and scientific prizes are designed to encourage it. But how does winning a prestigious prize affect future output? We compare the productivity of Fields medalists (winners of the top mathematics prize) to that of similarly brilliant contenders. The two groups have similar publication rates until the award year, after which the winners’ productivity declines. The medalists begin to “play the field,” studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers. It appears that tournaments can have large post-prize effects on the effort allocation of knowledge producers.


Slate:  How Winning Awards Changes People:

Prizes and rewards are designed to produce more effort, to give people something to strive towards. But what happens once they actually get it? According to a new study by Harvard's George Borjas and Notre Dame's Kirk Doran of recipients of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, winning big actually kills productivity. Mathematicians who win it publish far less in the years afterwards than similarly brilliant "contenders". ...

This is explained, in part, by the classic economic "wealth effect." The impact of the Fields medal is significant. It's more prestigious than any other prize, and though the financial reward is a meager $15,000, the career and research opportunities available to a winner expand massively. Because they've achieved so much "wealth" in terms of prestige, job security, and opportunity, winners are more likely to choose leisure activities over work, just as someone who suddenly comes into significant monetary rewards might. Not only do they produce fewer papers, but the ones they do write are relatively less important. And winners take fewer mentees, as well.

The authors did find one surprising positive effect. Though they publish less, winners also take more risks in the future. They've already reached the pinnacle of their fields, so they feel free to pursue moonshots, new areas of mathematics that they think are fascinating or vital. ...

It's important to reward achievement, but it may also have the unintended side effect of creating complacency. At the same time, there's something to be said for giving top performers the opportunity and safety net required to do really innovative work, even if it's less certain and takes longer.

(Hat Tip: Inside Higher Ed.)

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