For scientists, failure can pay dividends down the road

A new study suggests the old adage "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" is based on truth -- that failure, for those who persevere, can lead to success.

By Brooks Hays
For scientists, failure can pay dividends down the road
New research suggests that for scientists, early career failure can fuel successes later on. File Photo by Anawat Sudchanham/Shutterstock

Oct. 1 (UPI) -- The value of failure, and learning from failure, is regularly preached by parents, coaches and mentors, but it is rarely studied.

Researchers at Northwestern University decided to take a closer look at the relationship between professional failure and success for young scientists. Their data analysis showed failure can have long-term benefits for career scientists.


When asked why he decided to study the topic, Dashun Wang, corresponding author and an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, told UPI: "Partly because I fail often in what I do in a daily basis."

Science is difficult, and getting a scientific paper published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal is even harder. But the latest research, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, suggests those who fail but try again benefit from persevering.

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Wang and his colleagues analyzed publication histories of scientists who early in their careers applied for R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health between 1990 and 2005. The researchers divided the principle investigators into two groups: near-misses, individuals who just missed receiving funding, or near-wins, individuals who narrowly succeeded in getting funding for their research.


Wang and his colleagues, Northwestern researchers Yang Wang and Benjamin Jones, next looked at the number of papers scientists from the two groups published in the following decade, as well as how successful those papers were. The scientists measured success by the number of times the paper was cited in other studies.

The data showed scientists from the near-miss group published 6 percent more hit papers than scientists from the near-win group.

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Researchers made sure to account for the "weed-out" factor, whereby early-career failure forces the weakest members of the near-miss group to retire early, leaving only the most-determined scientists.

"The study design ensures both groups are similar in both observable and unobservable ways," Wang said. "In other words, they have the same amount of grit or perseverance."

"The conservative removal procedure is meant to rule out the effect," Wang said. "We artificially removed weak performers from the narrow-win group so that they have the same attrition rate as the near-miss group, but have an artificial boost in their performance."

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Despite the artificial boost in performance, the near-miss group still outperformed the near-win group in the long-run.

The findings don't deny the reality of scientific funding and publication success -- that more often than not, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.


"In some ways, our study also confirms the rich get richer dynamics, which is consistent with prior studies," Wang said. "For example, narrow wins got more funding than near misses in the next ten years. But what we're also showing here is that failure can also be beneficial -- for those who stayed in, they outperformed narrow-wins."

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