Matthew Effect Essay

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The Matthew effect, an expression coined by Merton in overt reference to St. Matthew’s gospel, has become a milestone when referring to the cases of credit misallocation among scientists. The social mechanism that leads to this misallocation operates through the accruing of large increments of peer recognition to scientists of considerable repute for their past contributions, at the expense of less-known scientists of comparable performance. Indeed, having learned the value of attending to the work of certain scientists in the past, and faced with a literature of unmanageable proportions, scientists tend to notice the work of well-known scientists, take it more seriously, and ultimately use it more frequently. Thus, credit is conferred by the community on the basis of a scientist location within a highly stratified social system of science.

If cumulative advantage shapes the distribution of rewards in science and leads to increasing disparities among scientists over the course of their careers, the Matthew effect refers to a special case in which cumulative advantage gets reinforced as a result of a complex pattern of credit misallocation for scientific performance. The effect, therefore, enlarges differences in reputation and rewards over and above those merely attributable to differences in quality of scientific performance and to processes of accumulation of advantage. Because the social mechanism at work is based on personal attributes of individuals rather than on assessment of their role performance, the Matthew effect introduces its own variety of particularism into the social system of science.

Being an outcome of peer reviewing and communication processes in science, the effect was initially elaborated by looking at it in documented historical cases of multiple discovery and co-authorship. Further empirical and theoretical investigations have proposed that the effect takes place also over the entire communication system of science, as a generalized principle at work in society at large, and generating gender inequities.


  • Merton, R. K. (1968) The Matthew effect in science. Science 159: 56-63.

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