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The Matthew Effect: Who Gets Rewards

Today I’ll talk about a classic article. Robert Merton’s “The Matthew Effect In Science”. This is an important and useful idea. You can tell it is has been successful as it has gained its own Wikipedia page, here.

The Matthew Effect

There are many things in life where perceptions drive success. This is often true in academia and Merton focuses on science. An academic is successful because their colleagues think they are successful. Of course, publications matter but these things are not completely separable. We have blind review processes, and I believe that these can help a bit. Still, those who are widely respected will find it easier to publish the same material as those that aren’t as renowned. Those successful in the past know the right people to get to review their work. Also, importantly, even if reviewers don’t guess who wrote a paper editors who see the famous names will feel more confident that the work is good. It has got to make some difference however careful the editor is to try and be fair.

The challenge this creates is The Matthew Effect. The parable of the talents, in the Christian New Testament, outlines this story. In this parable, the rich will gain more. (I have seen it argued that the parable isn’t quite as dubious from a moral/theological perspective as it at first seems but that is a different topic).

The Matthew Effect means that those who are perceived as being successful in the past will gain advantages going forward.

…scientists who receive recognition for research done early in their careers are more productive later on than those who do not.

Merton, 1968, page 56

Just Missing Out On Recognition Is Terrible

Part of the problem is the nature of rewards. When there are a large number of potential recipients, and a small fixed number of rewards, some who get the reward will not be very different from those who didn’t get rewarded. Yet getting the big reward creates a categorical difference. We know who got the reward but we don’t know who was pretty much as successful but just missed the reward. We then treat those who got the reward differently and give them things that make them more successful in future.

Getting the reward has a ratchet effect. The scholar with the reward gets elevated and they never go down because they always have the reward to point to. Once you have a Nobel prize you are always a Nobel prize winner. Those who just missed out are presumably also very good. I know marketing awards are a lot less prestigious but a similar logic applies.

The Matthew Effect: Try And Get Awards Early And Often

Going Forward You Will Gain More From The Same Achievements

When you have gained a reward this provides a halo on your future achievements. What you do in the future looks better because of the rewards you have gained in the past. All you do just looks better by your past success.

The lesson for marketing academics is simple to give but harder to follow:

It is a bit of a shame really as such a focus won’t necessarily make you a better scholar. That said, I think the advice, and the idea of the Matthew Effect, is probably very realistic.

For more commentary on success in academic marketing see here and here.

Read: Robert K. Merton, (1968) “The Matthew effect in science: The reward and communication systems of science are considered.” Science 159, 3810: 56-63.

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