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Diversity and inclusion

Ethnic diversity boosts scientific impact

21 Mar 2018
Diverse crowd of people
Diverse crowd. (Courtesy: shutterstock/Natalia Sheinkin)

The impact of scientific work is boosted when it features co-authors who have a diverse range of ethnicities. That is according to an analysis of nine million scientific publications by six million authors carried out by researchers based at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The study looked at five types of diversity — ethnicity, gender, discipline, affiliation and academic age – finding that ethnic diversity is the strongest predictor of scientific impact.

The ethnicity of authors’ in the study was determined using a machine-learning technique that analysed author names. The researchers – Bedoor AlShebli, Talal Rahwan and Wei Lee Woon — looked at two types of ethnic diversity. One type, dubbed “group level”, is the variety among the author list of a paper. The other — “individual level” — is the variety in a researcher’s own set of collaborators.

The study found that group level has a greater effect on scientific impact than individual level. “This matters as it implies that an author’s open-mindedness and inclination to collaborate across ethnic lines is not as important as the mere presence of co-authors of different ethnicities on a paper,” the study says.

AlShebli, Rahwan and Woon say in their study that they were surprised by the findings because other forms of diversity, such as affiliation, are thought to be more related to technical competence. But it turns out that by bringing together people from different cultures and social perspectives could have more of a payoff than just an ethical one.

Missing the point

One limitation of the new study, however, is the method used to determine ethnicity. Although the researchers used a machine-learning technique with a large database of names to classify authors’ ethnicity, this could still result in mistakes creeping in. Another issue is that the study is restricted to papers whose authors are based in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, missing the literature published elsewhere in English and other languages.

[The] underlying message is an inclusive and uplifting one

“There are a number of problems in the study and essential information is missing,” says Ludo Waltman, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. For instance, he points out that the authors focus on the study’s statistical significance but do not consider the size of the effects. Although there are many benefits of using a large sample of papers, one downside, he notes, is that it is likely to almost always yield statistically significant results.

The authors declined to comment publicly about the study but note that the “underlying message is an inclusive and uplifting one”. “In an era of increasing polarization and identity politics, our findings may contribute positively to the societal conversation and reinforces the conviction that good things happen when people of different backgrounds, cultures, and yes, ethnicities, come together to work towards shared goals and the common good,” they write.

The work backs up another analysis published last year that found that researchers who migrate to other countries and work there are on average cited more than those who do not.

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