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Different personal propensities among scientists relate to deeper vs. broader knowledge contributions

Bateman, Thomas S., Hess, Andrew M.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 v.112 no.12 pp. 3653-3658
research projects, scientists, teams
Scientific journal publications, and their contributions to knowledge, can be described by their depth (specialized, domain-specific knowledge extensions) and breadth (topical scope, including spanning multiple knowledge domains). Toward generating hypotheses about how scientists’ personal dispositions would uniquely predict deeper vs. broader contributions to the literature, we assumed that conducting broader studies is generally viewed as less attractive (e.g., riskier) than conducting deeper studies. Study 1 then supported our assumptions: the scientists surveyed considered a hypothetical broader study, compared with an otherwise-comparable deeper study, to be riskier, a less-significant opportunity, and of lower potential importance; they further reported being less likely to pursue it and, in a forced choice, most chose to work on the deeper study. In Study 2, questionnaire measures of medical researchers’ personal dispositions and 10 y of PubMed data indicating their publications’ topical coverage revealed how dispositions differentially predict depth vs. breadth. Competitiveness predicted depth positively, whereas conscientiousness predicted breadth negatively. Performance goal orientation predicted depth but not breadth, and learning goal orientation contrastingly predicted breadth but not depth. Openness to experience positively predicted both depth and breadth. Exploratory work behavior (the converse of applying and exploiting one’s current knowledge) predicted breadth positively and depth negatively. Thus, this research distinguishes depth and breadth of published knowledge contributions, and provides new insights into how scientists’ personal dispositions influence research processes and products.