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These five scientific fields win the most Nobel Prizes

Scientists in neglected research areas at risk of being considered "second-class citizens."

4 August 2020

Gemma Conroy

Kyodo News / Contributor / Getty

Akira Yoshino (C, L) accepts the Nobel Prize in chemistry from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf during a ceremony at Stockholm Concert Hall in the Swedish capital on 10 December 2019.

Just five research fields have picked up more than half of all Nobel Prizes in science awarded since 1995.

Such “uneven prestige” could be influencing major funding decisions, with a small number of Nobel-friendly fields gaining an advantage, a new study suggests.

“Scientists working in the privileged domains may consider this inequality-in-honors highly appropriate, while other ‘excluded’ scientists may consider it grossly unfair,’ the authors, led by John Ioannidis from Stanford University in California, write.

“There is a risk that this inequality creates a culture of exclusivity, with some scientists considered second-class citizens simply because of the field in which they work.”

The prestigious five

The study identified the key Nobel Prize-winning paper of each of the 151 laureates that were honoured between 1995 and 2017.

The prize-winning papers were then plotted on a map of 63 million articles that were indexed by the Scopus database over the same time period.

Of the 114 scientific fields identified in the map, just 36 had been honoured with at least one Nobel Prize.

The fields of particle physics, atomic physics, cell biology, neuroscience, and molecular chemistry collectively accounted for more than half (52.4%) of all Nobel Prizes awarded in the two-decade timeframe, even though they account for just 10% of all papers included in the analysis.

Highly cited but not rewarded

Not only are many scientific fields excluded from the Nobel Prize winners pool, but so are hundreds of heavily cited papers, the analysis found.

Ioannidis and his team calculate that, for each prize-winning paper, an average of 435 papers published within a year of it would go on to be more heavily cited.

The only exception was a 2004 Science paper that presented the first description of graphene. Its authors, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010.

The paper has attracted more than 37,500 citations to date, according to the Dimensions database.

Ioannidis and his team acknowledge that citations are just one way to measure the impact of research, and a high citations count does not necessarily mean that a paper has been more transformative than one with fewer citations.

The winner’s corner

The narrow spread of Nobel Prize-winning research across all scientific fields is visualized in the map below.

The prize-winning papers (B) and the papers that cite them (C) are compared with the more highly cited papers published in the same year (D), which encompass a far greater spread of research fields.

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Ioannidis et al.

Ioannidis and his team say that acknowledging the uneven distribution of Nobel Prizes among scientific fields is important, as it could have long-term effects on the fields that have been left out.

“Nobel-awarded work may … influence future research, including allocation of funds and preferences of the most influential multidisciplinary journals regarding what to publish,” they write.

“This may reinforce a circle where privileged fields become even more privileged and achieve even more power and funds, relative to other scientific fields that remain more neglected.”

The authors propose that including additional Nobel Prize categories could broaden the fields that are recognized.

“One solution to achieve more evenness might be to create additional awards that are equally prestigious and that cover other fields besides those already primarily honoured.”

The paper was published in PLOS One.

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